Every month, Kepler hosts a voluntary, company-wide meeting to discuss important topics affecting diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. These conversations help us examine what we can do to ensure an ever more diverse and equitable culture at Kepler, and we believe the advertising industry as whole would benefit from considering these challenges to true equity at work.
It’s rude to talk about money—or so many of us were taught. But avoiding conversations about the impact a person’s financial background can have on their career has left unspoken a key element of true workplace diversity: class.
“While ethnic and gender diversity has become more widely accepted as important within the workplace in recent years, there hasn't been the same progress made when it comes to discussing class diversity,” says Justin Roberts, Director of Kepler’s DEI Center of Excellence. “There's a real taboo about discussing personal finances within our society that undoubtedly extends into the workplace.”
Recent research by the Harvard Business Review showed that U.S. workers who self-identify as being from lower or working class backgrounds are 32% less likely to be promoted to managerial positions than their colleagues from middle to upper class backgrounds, revealing a wide gulf in career opportunities available to workers from different classes.
This disparity in advancement is even greater than that between women and men, with women 27% less likely to be made a manager, and between black and white workers, where black workers are 25% less likely to land a managerial position.
Meanwhile, 75% of U.S. workers identify as being part of the lower or working classes. That means the vast majority of workers in the United States face lower chances of career advancement. We asked ourselves how Kepler could help team members from lower economic backgrounds succeed at work. Ensuring employees from a diverse set of socioeconomic backgrounds have the same chance at leadership positions is one way. But workers from lower economic classes face a number of hurdles when it comes to thriving in white-collar jobs, and these challenges must be addressed to encourage class diversity in the workplace.
Class affects workers more than we think
Workers who make the leap from a lower economic class to a white collar job can feel like tourists in a foreign country. The social norms and even language of the office can be unfamiliar and challenging to interpret for employees who have had less exposure to business environments, and they may feel like they must play by a set of rules they don’t understand in order to get ahead.
“Pretending our employees don't come from uniquely different socioeconomic backgrounds doesn't change the fact that they do,” Roberts says. “It also doesn't address the unique issues that class transitioners face in corporate environments, namely how exhausting, isolating and challenging that experience can be.”
“Class differences present themselves in nearly every encounter we have within the workplace, now more than ever. The Zoom backgrounds we share, the lunch orders we make, the happy hour locations we pick, the team bonding activities we choose, the Internet connections we have access to—those are a handful of instances where class differences can present themselves but there are countless others...The impact of class differences can be profound. A team member may not be as productive in their day-to-day life because their mind is consumed by a bill they know they can't afford that’s due tomorrow. Another may have family members they live with and no private working space to access for an important client meeting. If we fail to understand the unique situations our team members exist within then we'll assuredly fail to extend understanding to those situations.”
What class transitioners bring to the table
While adjusting to a white collar environment may be a challenge for some workers from lower economic classes, the flexibility they demonstrate can be an asset. Forbes points out that these workers, which some call “class transitioners” or “class migrants,” can be highly adaptable and especially good at working in groups, since they’ve learned to relate to people of many different backgrounds.
Roberts also references a recent study from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business which found that "people who transition between classes can learn to relate to people in a more skilled way."
“The authors of this study consistently note the unique social skill sets people develop when they move across classes, but that this transition is also more taxing and difficult to navigate effectively without support from leadership,” Roberts says. “If a person feels isolated or unsupported, they're less likely to tap into those superpowers. This puts the onus on leaders to make sure the systems we create for our teams are built in a way that both acknowledges and works to understand the class differences of our employees.”
How employers can address class diversity
So what can employers do to make sure they’re developing a truly diverse workforce that includes people of all classes and allows class transitioners to thrive? Kepler is incorporating a number of these best practices as a start:
- Avoid hiring only from top-tier universities
Recruiting only from top-tier schools can leave out qualified candidates who attended less prestigious schools, sometimes for financial reasons. Eliminating the requirement for a college degree altogether for some roles could go even further to open up opportunities to people across class backgrounds.
- Reconsider how you define culture fit
If your definition of culture fit requires workers to easily fit in socially to a corporate environment, you may be valuing upper class social norms above more important elements of culture fit, such as shared values or work ethic.
- Don’t depend too heavily on referrals
It can be tempting to depend on employee referrals to find job applicants who are likely to succeed, but this could make it more difficult for talented applicants without extensive professional connections to break through.
- Communicate expectations for behavior and dress
Setting and communicating clear expectations for things like dress codes or office etiquette can help put new hires at ease by letting them know what’s expected of them.
- Accept people as they are
Make it clear that, outside of specific expectations for employee behavior, employees should feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work and shouldn’t worry about being judged for the ways they may differ from their colleagues.
- Use less jargon
Unnecessary jargon or “corporate speak” can be a challenge for employees who have had less opportunity to pick up this kind of language. Avoid using jargon more than is necessary, and consider creating a reference document to define commonly-used terms and acronyms.
- Evaluate your performance evaluations
Make sure performance evaluations aren’t biased towards people who project the most confidence or are the best at self-promotion, since class transitioners may be uncomfortable talking themselves up as much as some of their colleagues.
- Create opportunities for people of different backgrounds to meet
Employee Resource Groups, company sport teams, or other informal interest groups can give employees a chance to meet and bond over the things they have in common, rather than focusing on their differences.
- And finally: be open about the impact class can have at work
In our September DEI meeting, Roberts invited participants to share their experiences with class and financial hardship in their careers, and freely shared his own. For Roberts, financial stability was his top priority early in his career, which impacted the types of roles he took, including jobs that took a toll on his mental and physical health. Even now, he continues to feel pressure to always be working toward a promotion or a raise, which he describes as a “Pavlovian” response after years of financial striving and growing up feeling that he never had enough. Many of his colleagues could relate.
“Discussing class diversity in the workplace helps us better understand how to create an environment where people feel comfortable being their authentic selves; financial past and present included,” Roberts says. “If we allow ourselves to be more open to these kinds of conversations, it gives us an opportunity to present more effective solutions.”
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Kepler is also addressing the barriers of awareness, access, opportunity and hands-on experience in its Kepler Academy program, designed to help diverse candidates land and thrive in digital marketing roles.