Social class plays a role in both career success and team performance. As organizations look to build a more equitable workplace, Goizueta Professor Andrea Dittmann joins to examine varying values in different social class contexts, intersectional identities, and how to remove barriers faced by people of working-class backgrounds.
Andrea Dittmann, Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, joined The Goizueta Effect Podcast to discuss the role that social class plays in both career success and team performance, and how to build a more equitable workplace. Her work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Politico, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Defining Social Class and Its Impact on Business
Defining Social Class and Its Impact on Business
Social class depends on the context that people grew up in: blue-collar environment or white-collar environment, especially in the United States. In blue-collar environments, people tend to have less than a college degree, lower incomes, and blue-collar type jobs – this is the bottom half of the social class. Whereas in middle and upper-class contexts, people tend to be college-educated, have higher incomes, and white-collar jobs.
In recent years, employers have started to incorporate gender, race, and other identities into their diversity strategies. However, the social class context that people are raised has largely been ignored. Social class contexts shape an individual’s values and outlook on life and these differences persist enduringly across the lifespan, from college to the workplace. While this is not as visible as race or gender, that doesn't mean that it's any less important.
Different Values are Socialized in Different Social Class Contexts
According to cultural and social psychology research, working-class contexts foster interdependent norms and values. Parents convey to children that they should recognize their place in the hierarchy, follow rules and norms, and be responsive to others' needs. In contrast, middle-class contexts foster independent norms and values, through which parents convey messages to children about a sense of self-importance and individual entitlement, emphasizing that their voice matters. Repeated exposure to these different messages fosters different norms that shape people's outlook on life.
These abstract concepts manifest in a number of ways in the workplace. When compared to middle-class individuals, people from working-class contexts tend to be more empathetic and more attentive to others in social conversations. They are better able to integrate different perspectives in conversation. This makes sense considering their understanding of themselves as connected to others. This differs from the classic American focus on individualism, which is characteristic of middle-class individuals who are agentic, have strong personal preferences, make their voices heard, and prefer to be unique from others. Thus, these values affect people's behaviors and approaches to interactions.
Due to their relational nature, people from working-class contexts engage in more behaviors that make teams work together effectively. These behaviors include attending to others, integrating people's opinions, and engaging in turn-taking more often. The result is more balance and information-sharing amongst group members, while working together. Thus, organizations that work collaboratively can benefit by bringing in more people from working-class backgrounds.
Barriers Faced By Employees from Working-Class Backgrounds
Many people from working-class backgrounds do attend college, but this does not necessarily level playing field. Even with the same college credentials, people from working-class backgrounds are less likely to receive a callback for an elite job, less likely to advance to a leadership position once they're in a job, and on average are earning about 17% less than their counterparts from middle-class backgrounds.
Employees face barriers in the workplace at several different levels, starting with hiring. According to sociologist Lauren Rivera’s work, hiring managers tend to unconsciously discriminate against applicants from working-class backgrounds because they hire based on cultural fit, or employees that they feel they would enjoy spending time with and who would fit into the company’s culture. While this does not sound harmful, this means hiring managers select people who are similar to themselves, often from higher class backgrounds. Potential employees from higher class backgrounds who grew up with similar travel, sports, and leisure experiences can therefore relate to hiring managers. Meanwhile, people from working-class backgrounds are less likely to have had those same experiences. This disparity in “cultural fit” produces discrimination in hiring.
In addition, the culture of many modern workplaces is not set up to enable differing relational strengths to shine. Research that Dittmann is conducting along with colleagues Nicole Stephens and Sara Townsend reveals that the vast majority of white-collar work environments undermine these collaborative strengths. Even though many modern organizations require collaboration and teamwork, they fail to promote teamwork as part of their broader organizational values. An inclusive work environment for employees from working-class contexts can only be created when the values and practices regarding teamwork are aligned with the company culture.
According to Peter Belmi, professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the promotion process in modern organizations often values the independent values of people from higher class context. People from working-class contexts are less comfortable engaging in the types of behaviors required to rise through the ranks than middle-class individuals.
Intersectional Identities and Social Class
Professor Erika Hall of Goizueta studies intersectional stereotypes. She finds that certain social identities, like race and social class, are often associated. For example, although many black Americans are not actually impoverished, people correlate African-Americans with lower social classes, which perpetuates an intersectional stereotype that black Americans are less well-off than white Americans. Research on gender and social class indicate that women from working-class backgrounds have to contend with the compounded difficulty of lack of resources and pervasive gender stereotypes, having to work harder to prove their commitment to work.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Public Perception of Working Class and Equity in Society
Through a longitudinal survey starting in May 2020, Dittmann found that people who had experienced personal harm and adverse experiences early in the pandemic, regardless of their own social class, shifted their attitudes and actions to advocate for equality over time. They had more positive attitudes towards redistribution and indicated a preference for policies that would make American society more equitable. While the pandemic was tragic, this silver lining hints at the possibility that this could be a great moment for change and to implement policies that could help bolster the experiences of people from working-class contexts.
The driving factor behind these shifting attitudes is that when people experience harm coming from an external force beyond their control, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that makes them more empathetic and understanding of how broader forces in society might shape people's lives outside of the pandemic. The individualistic narrative typical in the United States suggests that a person’s life circumstances are the result of their own agentic choices and behavior, so people who are poor would be portrayed as just lazy. However, externally imposed adversity makes people recognize that perhaps people in the lower social classes in the United States were subjected to broader forces in society that hindered their ability move to higher social classes.
Removing Barriers for Working-Class Employees
Dittmann advocates for the importance of adding the identity of social class to every company’s definition of diversity because it impacts people across their lifespan. While this is more difficult to observe, it can be objectively assessed. People from working-class contexts tend to be more comfortable with interdependent approaches and teamwork, so it is essential to remove barriers for them in the workplace.
The first step is to implement more inclusive hiring practices. Creating more structured interviews with standardized questions and activities enables an organization’s more diverse candidates to rise through the ranks by avoiding the bias of cultural fit. While this hasn’t been tested with social class yet, it is true of both gender and race. Once employees from working-class contexts are in the organization, evaluations for promotions should include both individual and team-based assessments. While individual measures of success are important, a more balanced approach that assesses collaboration is critical.
Resources Addressing Social Class Inequality and Workplace Diversity
Many organizations combat social class inequality and promote more business diversity. One is FutureMap, a nonprofit that helps smooth the college to career transition for first-generation college graduates. Management Leadership for Tomorrow is another program that helps to increase diversity in race, gender, and social class through every step in a person's career.
Through her work, Dittmann hopes to shed light on the different abilities that working-class people bring to the workplace and ensure equal opportunity for people from working-class context to succeed. A more equitable society supports people from working-class backgrounds past college degree attainment and supports upward mobility throughout their lifespans. Organizations have the power to create this type of stability and upward mobility. By harnessing the skills and strengths of employees from working-class backgrounds in a more meaningful and authentic way, organizations stand to gain.