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By now, the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DCI) in the workplace is well established. To date, gender, race and ethnicity have been centered and, to a lesser extent, sexual orientation, disability, parenthood and age have been included. But one identity factor has been largely overlooked: socio-economic class.
Existing research has shown that it is increasingly difficult to move up the socio-economic ranks, and class bias has been shown to impact lifelong income. Studies of first-generation students also suggest that disparities may follow them in their post-graduate careers.
Few studies have looked at the professional experience of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Do differences in wealth influence the paths people enter and progress in their professional careers? Are there any models of barriers and privileges, and if so, what do they look like?
To address this knowledge gap, we conducted a study of First Generation Professionals (PGFs). Also known as “class migrants,” FGP are those who move from working class roots to white-collar careers. We conducted an online survey of 290 professionals in the utilities and finance industries in California, followed by 18 in-depth phone interviews, each lasting one hour. We included both FGP and non-FGP in the study to generate comparative data. Here’s what we learned about FGPs and what business leaders can do to support them.
Structured programs are an essential springboard for FGP
FGPs were more likely than others to report that structured programs were beneficial to their careers. For example, we asked each survey respondent how they got their first professional job and found that 23.7% of FGP got their job through a work-study program at college, compared to only 7.6% of non-FGP.
Likewise, FGPs were almost twice as likely as non-FGPs to report that they found Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) useful during their first job (23% and 12%, respectively). As one FGP participant described it: “Latin American organizations, Hispanic organizations… you [have to] network and join these organizations, because at the time, I didn’t know anyone professionally. And there really wasn’t anyone in my family who had that kind of experience that we could share issues with.
In contrast, non-MFGs indicated that they were more likely to rely on family and friends for support and advice. A non-FGP in the finance industry shared, “Both of my parents have supported me a lot. But my dad was more supportive, because he had experience in the industry… so he could report back to me on the personalities and behaviors that I had seen in the office. And sort of helped me with that and helped me with some industry terms.
FGPs were also much more likely to report that professional development and leadership training was useful for their careers, contributed to promotions and improved their skills.
Professional communication styles in the workplace can alienate FGP
“Code change” means adapting one’s communication, appearance, and manners to fit. It is widely documented that people of color feel pressured to act differently at work in order to be accepted. We have found that people from the working class often feel the same way.
During the interviews, we asked: “Looking back, what would you like to know when you entered the professional world? Forty-three percent of FGPs said they wished they had learned professional people or communication skills, compared to 9% of non-FGPs. A participant in the interview with FGP shared: “For people like me, who come from where I come from, who have had a difficult life, they really haven’t had these interactions with customers… How to deal with it ? [customer service] situations [should be taught]. “
Many FGPs also said they were shocked and disappointed that their hard work and results were significantly less important to their careers than knowing how to communicate in a certain way and network. One of them explained, “At first I thought, oh… as long as I’m a good worker, right? You know, I do what I have to do, I will be promoted quickly. This is not the case. What is that really is, is your contacts. Build that network.
FGPs may feel less included at work
Some of the biggest differences between FGP and non-FGP in our survey were revealed when participants were asked directly about how they felt in the workplace. They were asked to rate several statements on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. The results show that PGFs rated almost all statements lower than non-FGP, including: “My personality type is valued”, “I have access to decision makers”, “I feel comfortable speaking of my family and personal life ”and“ My unique skills are valued and used. This tells us that the overall feelings of inclusion and belonging are likely lower for FGP.
There are three steps that business leaders can take to support FGPs and include them in their company’s overall DCI efforts.
Be transparent about available programs and resources
Most leaders understand the benefits of programs that help prepare employees for greater success in the workplace, such as ERGs and development and co-op programs. But make sure that the employees know about programs are the key.
Use formal and informal channels of communication and incorporate employee feedback or success stories to stimulate interest and participation. Likewise, keep programming accessible by managing workloads so employees can meaningfully participate without using up their free time.
If these types of programs do not already exist in your organization, consider creating one or more. ERMs can help stimulate engagement and strengthen feelings of belonging. In our research, a number of participants said they wanted their company to have a ‘first generation’ ERG because they did not match any existing ERGs and would have been given a safe space to talk about their experiences. as FGP. Partnering with external educational institutions can enhance the development of current and new talent, and work-study programs can help attract FGP talent.
Make inclusive communication a key skill for all
Minimizing corporate jargon and speaking in a way that allows everyone, regardless of background, to contribute is an essential skill that will help reduce pressure on FGPs and others to change code. Leaders need to model inclusive communication and adopt behaviors that allow diverse perspectives and personalities to be heard. When speaking in groups, use examples, stories and analogies that are not specific to a certain socio-economic class. For example, references to sports like golf or skiing or asking people to remember their childhood vacations as a family make those unfamiliar with these experiences feel excluded and confused about the meaning of the message. In some cases, managers may need one-on-one coaching and targeted feedback, as using language in the classroom can be a difficult habit to break.
Training new employees can also help level the playing field. If your business or industry uses nuanced language or specialized vocabulary, create an internal wiki or glossary of terms with definitions, examples and visuals to ensure a common understanding of language and terms. If acronyms and idioms are used frequently in communications, make sure they are stated, defined and relevant to the work situation to ensure that individuals understand and can contribute.
Assess current workplace culture and standards
Many companies focus their talent management strategies on “fit with the culture”. This can exclude high potential talent who does not know or understand the norms or preferred behaviors in your workplace.
Take the time to take a close look at your organization’s “unwritten rules” and ask yourself if they are understood and included by employees from various walks of life. This may include the methods used to recruit and hire; preferences for how employees should speak, act and look; or the criteria used to select individuals for promotion opportunities.
This exercise can be performed on its own or as part of a larger DCI audit. It also pairs well with a refresh of the organization’s mission and vision, as it requires critical reflection on the values that are Actually prioritized in the organization, which can be very different from the declared values.
If your employee base is large enough to analyze demographics while protecting privacy, consider adding FGP status to your data collection and analysis to determine if disparities in talent management may emerge.
Perhaps more importantly, explore what you can learn from your FGP employees and how you can continually make your workplace more inclusive. As you follow these steps, be careful not to make assumptions about their experience or knowledge. Instead, turn the script around and find out how your organization can integrate and value different lived experiences.
Author’s note: We will be conducting a second phase of research on FGP in 2022, which will focus on career development. People or organizations interested in participating can contact the researchers.