Actually, Companies CAN Ask If Your Parents Went to Uni

interview questions

It’s come to light recently that many employers are asking applicants to internships if their parents went to university or not. The reasoning behind it is that it’s the easiest way to judge the socio-economic status of the applicant, to determine if the employer is showing bias while hiring.

I happened to pick up a Sunday Telegraph this week and read with interest an article from Sherelle Jacobs, exclaiming that it this practice isn’t fair.

“Privacy is ever harder to achieve when to refuse to reveal what your parents do, or whether they went to university, risks are being taken as evidence that you have something to hide”.

She finishes with the spectacular “But there is hope. Leftists are being revealed for who they truly are: people who merely seek to rewrite the rules of entitlement, not eliminate them”.

Rational thinking rarely sells newspapers, but I just wanted to break down this issue a little and examine whether this practice is fair or not.

The first thing to point out is that these 45% of intern employers don’t say how the data is collected, or how it’s used. Anyone joining a large company will know that you’re given a survey asking about your sexuality, disabilities and ethnicity. It is illegal for them to make hiring decisions based on these things.

So why do they ask?

Simply, for statistics. And I would think it is likely that the employers asking about parental education are looking for statistics as well. If they have a low number of students who are the first in their family to go to university, then their outreach team knows to do more activity in targeted schools.

What’s more, usually these kinds of questions are not asked in the interview; they’re usually discretely collated during the process by someone in HR.

However, even if they were to ask in an interview, since socio-economic status isn’t a protected status, they would be able to ask you.

Once, a long time ago, I went for an account manager role at a travel company. I was very unhappy where I was, and this would at least be nearer to where I was living at the time. I was interviewed for a long long time by the two guys, in an interview lasting way over 2 and a half hours. It included a role play phone conversation, feedback based on said role play and then a second one just to see how I took instruction.

Towards the end, they asked me what my parents do, what’s more, they probed deeply into my family life. This is a bit of a touchy subject as I am not in contact with my mum and my sole parent is my step dad, who, since you’re asking, is a retired fireman.

I was kind of OK with it being a ridiculously long interview. I was even slightly OK with the weird role play. But when they asked so many questions into my family life, that’s when I decided it wasn’t for me. When I got out of the interview I googled to see why they would have asked such questions and it turns out that children of working-class parents tend to be much harder workers in sales roles.

I emailed them that night to say that I removed myself from the application process but thank you for your time. I didn’t hear back from them.

So let’s imagine for these interns, they really are being asked openly if their parents went to university and that decisions were made on this basis.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to consider because positive discrimination has many downsides, along it hoping to promote those who need it the most.

Every day people discriminate, whether we mean to or not. The odds are stacked against the students I work with, simply because of where they’re from, how they’ve grown up and what opportunities they’ve been exposed to. This can be narrowed down to postcode (we target students at my job by postcode), and it’s not even just social mobility that’s affected; in some parts of Cambridge even your life expectancy is different based on where you live.

I don’t think that positive discrimination is the answer. Pushing John Williams-Smith to the side to allow Luke from the council estate in isn’t how we’re going to work peacefully together. Instead, as always, I encourage companies to engage with schools. Not just those “outstanding” schools that give you the state school students you like to hire, but also the struggling ones with students who deserve a chance to see what success might look like.

Students cannot be what they cannot see.

If people share their career stories more, mentor students, and be more present in our schools then there will naturally be more diversity of people applying to roles.

Got ideas on how to encourage social diversity through the hiring process? Let me know in the comments!


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