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Rasha Rehman headshot

How Companies, and Employees, Can Break Class Bias in The Workplace

By Rasha Rehman

A majority of employees experience some form of workplace bias, and the results can include negative impacts on their productivity, happiness and wellbeing. Though business leaders say they are prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, it is clear that corporate leadership is often falling short in creating an inclusive work environment. 

Part of the reason is that many DEI and accessibility initiatives are missing an important component: class bias, says Christopher Gross, founder of the DEI consulting firm Ascension Worldwide and author of What’s Your Zipcode Story?. In his book, Gross analyzes class bias as a workplace challenge, especially for “class migrants,” as they often confront hurdles to their career advancement. To that end, Gross calls for a rethink of how companies approach their workplace diversity and inclusion strategies. 

Who are ‘class migrants?’

In his book, Gross defines class migrants as individuals from the working class who seek social mobility to a higher socioeconomic class. He writes that such mobility doesn't only include educational and occupational change of status, but also cultural and social learning. And just as many individuals feel the effects of their occupation, residence and income, they face the consequences of limited exposure to other socioeconomic classes.

"Hard skills are one thing,” Gross writes in his book. “Soft skills, or business-culture etiquette, for most class migrants are particularly challenging. Soft-skill challenges are so because not only are the rules unspoken, but mind-sets, styles, and mannerisms have been primarily shaped by the rules.” The reality for many class migrants and blue-collar employees is that they are more likely to be viewed as less capable than other candidates with more prestigious credentials. This false perception can hinder career advancement. 

Although it is based on false pretenses, class bias is deeply rooted in society and people’s ways of thinking, Gross told TriplePundit. It touches people of all races, genders and sexual orientations — so much so that it can have an impact on day-to-day decisions. As a result, corporate leaders must practice consistency and empathy to create a more inclusive work environment as they break down their own unconscious biases, he said. As diversity training in its current form isn’t reducing or altering bias enough in the workplace, leaders will have to rely on other tools. 

Tools to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives 

"This is what I hear consistently from leaders who are at a C-suite level of an organization: They'll say, ‘We have people who are diverse at the lower levels of the company or middle management, but we can't find anyone who can be elevated to the C-suite,’” Gross said. “The first thing I say is, ‘Tell me about your succession plan, your process, how do you bring people to that next level?’ And they usually don't have a good system.”

In particular, Gross advocates for mentorship as a means of improving diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives. He explained to 3p that mentorship offers mentees an opportunity to understand everyone's role, access resources and additional information. Such opportunities — paired with training and the freedom to fail and grow— can result in greater equity within the workplace.

From Gross’ perspective, mentorship is crucial for many employees’ career development. In fact, studies show employees with mentors are five times more likely to be promoted. For companies that are not offering mentorship opportunities, they can adopt other strategies so that they can include social class within their diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives to support class migrants.

Conversations about DEI should include the tricky subject of class, too

To this point, in his book Gross recommends business leaders to have “candid, cross-racial conversations.” Conversations about multiculturalism and race are already sensitive topics for many individuals. When one’s class is added to the mix, Gross urges business leaders to improve their communication skills and lean on their own social and emotional intelligence. Further, Gross suggests that companies undertake regularly scheduled assessments, examine their recruiting processes, measure diversity and inclusion initiatives, and integrate inclusion into their performance evaluations — all of which can improve how companies assess their employees’ engagement and satisfaction.

Career advancement is a responsibility that managers should shoulder, though class migrants can do their part, too. In conversations about class, Gross encourages mentorship programs to help employees gain different cultural perspectives, which can help with their character development. More specifically, in his book, Gross recommends personal development strategies such as finding ways to generate new professional relationships, obtaining higher formal and informal education, introducing employees to new cultural activities, and offering empathy for everyone within a company’s workforce.

Understanding and breaking class bias is integral for advancing inclusive and equitable initiatives in the workplace and career advancement. And, as time has proven, high levels of diversity and inclusion increased innovation and performance.

Image credit: Christina Morillo via Pexels

Rasha Rehman headshot

Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.

Read more stories by Rasha Rehman