Social Class At Work

Social Class At Work

July 12, 20213 min read

Social class has a significant role to play in career success in the United States. A growing body of research is shedding disquieting light on the extent to which working class Americans face discrimination in recruitment, pay and promotion – despite having a college degree. This demographic is up to four times less likely to get hired, 34% less likely to accede to leadership roles, and earns around 17% less on average than counterparts from middle or upper-class backgrounds.

But while research is starting to document how class can impede or accelerate professional success, it remains unclear why these discrepancies exist. What are the mechanisms or dynamics at play that make it so much tougher for working class people to succeed than others?

Goizueta Business School Assistant Professor of Organization & Management Andrea Dittmann has an interesting hypothesis. She believes that employees from different backgrounds can bring inherently different strengths and weaknesses to the workplace; advantages and disadvantages that speak to certain norms governing how we think about work and leadership. And it boils down, she says, to the way we work with others.

“People from working-class backgrounds—those with blue-collar parents, who might be the first in their family to get a college degree—typically relate a certain way to other people. They are better connected to others, more team-like in their approach, than their middle-class counterparts who see themselves as more independent or unique,” says Dittmann.

This team spirit could be working against lower-class employees, she says, in the sense that they see themselves or are perceived by bosses as being less adept at working autonomously or as individuals within organizations; and are therefore viewed by others as less poised to advance into roles of greater responsibility.

On the flip side, this very capacity to work well with other people could actually give working class employees an advantage in team-based activities or cultures; an advantage that might translate into concrete benefits for organizations.

To put this to the test, Dittmann conducted a series of studies aimed at unpacking how individuals perceive themselves within the context of work, and at the interactions that occur between employees and the workplace. Among these studies were qualitative interviews with MBA students from different social class backgrounds about their experiences navigating white-collar workplaces after graduating from college. She also ran a number of experiments to assess how well working-class people performed in teams and individually, and how environments that prioritize collaborative dynamics or interdependence might produce better experiences and outcomes for employees than environments geared to working individually or independently.

A full article detailing Dittmann’s work is attached here and offers very compelling research showing how social class plays out in the workplace. It covers important aspects such as:

The Catch-22 of Working Well with Others
“It’s a kind of catch-22. Working class kids don’t make it into the gateway settings of school or college as much as middle-class kids in the U.S. They are significantly underrepresented in leading business schools like Goizueta, at roughly 15% of the student population,” she notes. “So, the higher-educational context—the talent pool for corporate America—is very much geared to a different social demographic and dynamic; one that inherently favors independent work ethics and approaches and sees them as the norm. Other ways of working, collaborating, and contributing risk are being undervalued as much as they are underrepresented.”

When Considering Diversity, Companies Stand to Benefit

“We know that companies that are more diverse perform better than others, and diversity needs to extend to social class. What my research and others are showing is that people from a working-class background tend towards behaviors that are more relational, that they are better at working together. If they fail to make it into the workforce in a more representative fashion, companies are basically missing out on opportunities to form better teams.”

Faculty research like Dittmann’s is a critical element in Goizueta Business School’s drive to develop principled leaders who are better prepared to engage in the business of tomorrow.

If you are interested in learning more, then let us help.

Andrea G. Dittmann is an Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at the Goizueta Business School. She is an expert in the areas of diversity and inequality, particularly employees' social class backgrounds, aiming to promote equity and inclusion at work. Dr. Dittmann is available to speak with media about this research – simply click on her icon now to arrange an interview today.

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  • Andrea Dittmann
    Andrea Dittmann Assistant Professor of Organization & Management

    Dittmann studies diversity and inequality, particularly employees' social class backgrounds, aiming to promote equity and inclusion at work.

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