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Why companies should add class to their diversity discussions

We know it’s awkward, talking about class. Especially in the United States, talking about class is considered taboo. When the subject comes up, otherwise articulate and extroverted people suddenly clam up and be struck dumb by the social awkwardness that is a customary partner of conversations about class.

But class background matters in the workplace. Just ask professionals who grew up in blue-collar households — people scholars call “class migrants.” Class migrants are finding their voice: J.D. Vance has received huge attention for his book Hillbilly Elegy, chronicling his time as a venture capitalist who grew up in rural Ohio, and the difficulties his background presented. J.D.’s story isn’t unique: 97% of individuals from working-class backgrounds reported that their social class background affected their work experience, according to research conducted by Andrea G. Dittmann, Nicole M. Stephens, Sarah S. M. Townsend, and Lauren A. Rivera. We can no longer afford to refuse to acknowledge the role that class plays in the workplace.

Class migrants have unique skills that people who grew up economically privileged may lack. Studies have shown class migrants who are CEOs have increased risk-taking sensibilities to propel them further up the corporate ladder, and class migrant U.S. Army leaders have been shown to be more effective leaders (because having wealthy parents as a child is correlated with increased narcissism as an adult — and, you guessed it, narcissistic leaders perform worse). Anecdotally, we’ve heard from a former Big Law hiring partner that in her experience, class migrants are “willing to put in the hours required with less complaining, they remain at the firm longer and they are far less ‘entitled.’…And they often bring a more common sense approach to client service and problem solving.”

Despite all this, class migrants report negative workplace experiences due to their background. Class migrants report lower levels of belonging in the workplace, feel disadvantaged by lack of knowledge about the “rules of the game” in a corporate office, and are less often seen as a “good fit” due to arbitrary measures like not knowing what windsurfing is or whether brown shoes are taboo in the city.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives should factor in multiple aspects of diversity, such as class and disability, as well as gender and race. Employers who exclude class from discussions about diversity and inclusion risk losing or alienating talented employees. This applies both to class migrant white men who may be excluded from diversity or inclusion initiatives, despite lacking the advantages that their elite counterparts have, and to employees of color, as people of color are more likely than white people to be class migrants.

Class-based bias, just like gender- and racial-based biases, can seep into workplace systems and artificially hinder the career success of those groups. Here are some examples of common workplace systems and processes that can get tainted by class-based bias:

Hiring, Onboarding, and Culture FitA common way that class-based bias plays out is in hiring. Many companies use some sort of “culture fit” criteria to judge whether a candidate would fit in. A study of investment banks and law firms found that culture fit is very important to the hiring process: consistently mentioned in the top three hiring criteria and more than half of the people interviewed rated culture fit as more important than analytical or communication skills.

What is culture fit? Notoriously ambiguous, one respondent described culture fit as, “I need to be comfortable working everyday with you, then getting stuck in an airport with you, and then going for a beer afterwards.” Other people describe culture fit as “The Lunch Test” — who do you most want to have lunch with? Some people are very specific in their idea of culture fit. As a banker asked to evaluate a series of resumes said, “Anyone who plays squash I love.”

The problem with culture fit is that can add value to seemingly innocuous things but that are actually class differences. Class is expressed through cultural differences, not just how much money is in your bank account. For example, what are elite sports? Polo, tennis, windsurfing, squash. What are working-class sports? Bowling, basketball, NASCAR, skateboarding. Is playing squash a requirement for the job you’re hiring for? If it’s not, you’re unconsciously rewarding candidates with elite backgrounds over candidates with working-class background based on criteria that don’t relate to future job performance.

One compelling study of this bias was by Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik. They sent fictitious resumes to 316 offices of the top 147 law firms in 14 cities, from fake law students looking for a prestigious summer associate position. The resumes were identical in terms of education and work experience. Elite-class candidate resumes listed “traditionally upper-class hobbies and sports,” such as sailing, polo, and classical music. Lower-class candidate resumes listed pick-up soccer, track and field, and country music.

Employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man: over 16% of his resumes resulted in a callback versus only about 1% of the lower-class man’s resumes. Again, both candidates had identical — and impressive — work and education credentials.

Even when class migrant candidates are able to be hired, they often find themselves left out of workplace bonding activities and having to work extra hard to fit in.

Sports isn’t the only culture difference that class is expressed through. Everything from the way we dress, to the food we eat, to the way we raise families, to what we do on the weekends is influenced by class. In elite workplaces, class migrants find themselves constantly “covering” any indication of their background to fit in. Covering means changing your appearance, behavior, and attitudes to fit into the mainstream. It means avoiding any behaviors that are stereotypical of working-class people and not standing up to the casual classism of higher-class coworkers — a colleague unthinkingly describing a reality star as “white trash,” or a certain restaurant chain as “redneck.” Covering is taxing, tiring, and isolating. It takes an especially acute toll on class migrants of color, who have to cover more about themselves to fit into the mainstream.

While this is a complex issue, there are a few ways organizations can start to practice more inclusive hiring practices:

  1. Don’t hire just from Ivy League schools. Over half of Harvard students came from families in the top 10% of household incomes. If you only consider Ivy League candidates, you’ll be inadvertently dismissing qualified and brilliant candidates, just because of their family background. Take Google for an example: they used to hire only from top universities. Then they started realizing that the best people didn’t always go to the best schools. Studies showed that new hires from schools were more likely to want to leave their jobs soon after starting. “We now prefer to take a bright, hardworking student who graduated at the top of her class from a state school over an average or even above-average Ivy League grad.” Indeed, studies show that students from lower ranked schools are often similarly successful as students from the top schools.
  2. If culture fit is going to be a hiring criteria, make sure you define it. Google again: They define googleyness as enjoying fun, a certain dose of intellectual humility, the ability to admit when you’re wrong, comfort with ambiguity, and having taken some courageous or interesting paths.
  3. Limit referral hiring. If your team is homogenous, and you only hire friends of friends of your team, you’ll just reproduce the homogeneity of your existing team. Referral hiring gives an advantage to white, elite men and doesn’t necessarily yield the best possible candidate for the role.

Promotions, Raises, and Performance Evaluations Class migrants tend to be viewed as less competent, less ambitious, and less committed to their jobs than higher-class people, research shows. These assumptions can negatively affect how their companies value them, both abstractly and literally through performance evaluations, raises, and promotions.

In a study of how different groups are viewed in terms of competence and warmth, blue-collar workers were viewed as less competent than rich and professional-class people. In the Rivera and Tilcsik study, the higher-class male candidate was seen as more competent and a better fit.

In addition to being viewed as less competent, class migrants may be more reluctant to brag about themselves given the strong working-class norm of modesty and non-boasting. Said one class migrant, “admitting to ability or intelligence was a great sin and indicated that you were ‘stuck on yourself.’” Successful self-promotion is an important ingredient to career success in professional workplaces. Being an adept advocator for yourself can affect your performance evaluations, your promotions, and your compensation. Class migrants may be artificially dinged in these processes due to their discomfort with self-promotion.

Class migrants may be viewed as less ambitious and less committed to their jobs due to their strong family ties. In professional workplaces, people are often expected to “demonstrate commitment [to their jobs] by making work the central focus of their lives…unencumbered by family responsibilities,” to quote Mary Blair-Loy. Upper-class children get this message from their earliest days, and it’s reinforced in elite schools. That’s why, as adults, elite men “attach great importance to success-related traits such as ambition and a strong work ethic… these traits are double sacred… as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity,” to quote sociologist Michele Lamont. As such, they consistently demonstrate their devotion to work through displays of their extreme schedule: “I’m slammed,” “I worked straight through that whole week,” “Holidays are a nuisance.” People who work less — even if they work full time — are seen as unambitious, uncommitted, or even lazy.