Class inequalities in the workplace

 Author: Georgie Williams

An active and practical approach to dismantling classist internal systems and challenging individual biases that persist in many workplaces can negate much of the damage caused by the experience of living in a classist society, says Georgie Williams.

Class inequality is one of the least openly addressed social taboos in the modern workplace and one of the most overlooked in the development of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies. Its power is derived from the silence around it. As always, a workplace is a microcosm of the wider world and its values but one that workers have far greater control over. The benefits of weeding out workplace class inequalities impacts all workers and a levelled playing field is, undeniably, a prosperous one.

What do we mean by social class?

Social class refers to the division of society based on the perceived social and economic status of individuals. It is complex and comprises more factors than just the wealth of an individual. Generally, we think of class as being separated into three categories: upper class, middle class and working class. However, the characteristics of social groups, the changes to the division of labour and availability of different jobs at the turn of the century have encouraged social and political scientists to revise these class categories. In 2013, the BBC's Great British Class Survey revealed seven distinct class categories. These class categories were described as:

  • elite;
  • middle class (broken down into established and technical middle class);
  • new affluent workers;
  • traditional working class;
  • emergent service sector; and
  • precariat.

The latter four vary in terms of both the perceived value of their "social contacts" and their acquired capital/ financial income, but all would fall under the broader, more traditional definition of "working class", predominantly as labourers or low-income workers. The fracturing of social classes into sub-categories can make it difficult to anticipate or assume who among our colleagues and peers is or isn't at risk of class inequality or restricted social mobility.

Class inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly and reinforce specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons. Class inequality ensures only particular families have access to higher education for their children, access to particular schools or housing, access to high- or low-quality healthcare and even transportation or financial services. These inequalities can reinforce negative class-based stereotypes and reinforce harmful beliefs about the agency or control socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals have over their own quality of life. Furthermore, those negative stereotypes can even reinforce internalised beliefs about rights and privileges in lower class communities. If an individual from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background has lived with lower standards of living (including healthcare or employment rights), they may not feel as justified in advocating for equitable resources and opportunities.

There are ways to resist or reverse the impact of class inequality through organisational support and conscientious behaviour as an individual and, crucially, as an influential voice in your place of work (see How do we create class-inclusion in the workplace).

How do class inequalities manifest in the workplace?

Class inequalities can manifest in the workplace through interpersonal interactions and structural inequality. With structural inequality, systems may exist within an organisation that, without being necessarily supported or reinforced by the workers, cause individuals of lower social classes to be disadvantaged. Individuals from higher classes may have access to better working conditions, flexible working and benefits such as private healthcare and paid sick leave, while individuals from lower social classes may not have these benefits. A lack of access to adequate healthcare can cause greater issues with disability among working class individuals, who may then face adversity and ostracism in the workplace because of their disability. Class inequality is often an "intersectional" issue, ie it interacts with other forms of inequality.

When class inequality manifests through interpersonal interactions, it usually takes the form of prejudicial attitudes or discriminatory behaviour caused by individual unconscious biases, for example, an employer deciding against hiring a prospective employee based on their accent or linguistic style - and how this is associated with social class and educational background. Individuals with working class associated accents, linguistic styles, styles of dress or other aesthetics are often considered unprofessional based on a middle-to-upper class definition of professionalism. Other aesthetics may include hairstyles, styles of makeup or jewellery, to name a few. Class inequalities, like inequalities pertaining to race, gender, sexuality or disability, can be built into a company's practices and policies and separately propagated by the personal opinions and prejudices of workers. As a result, individuals from lower social classes may experience biases, stereotyping and discriminatory behaviour that provide an obstacle to career growth and limit their access to better job opportunities.

Class inequality can also lead to wage disparity and impact career advancement. People from higher social classes may have access to networks and connections that provide them with opportunities or insights into job opportunities to advance. This may also result in occupational segregation as some jobs may attract people from different social classes. Often, individuals from lower social classes may lack the resources to access education, training and role models within their networks and this may have a negative impact on accessing better job opportunities and career prospects. In addition, some high-paying professions, such as law, finance or entertainment, often require individuals to start with unpaid internships or low-paying entry-level positions. Those from privileged backgrounds may have the financial support necessary to accept such positions while others may not.

On a day-to-day basis, class inequality may manifest itself in more run of the mill workplace activities. For example, regular lunches that aren't subsidised in any way, or regular birthday/gift collections that people are expected to contribute to may disadvantage lower earning individuals, and not participating may be viewed negatively.

Addressing these disparities often requires policies and initiatives aimed at providing equal access to education, reducing implicit bias in hiring, promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and ensuring that economic activities are more evenly distributed across society (see How do we create class-inclusion in the workplace).

Classism and "professionalism": challenging unconscious bias

Addressing unconscious biases regarding social class means challenging pre-existing social norms that reinforce classism. Classism is present in so much of the world surrounding us, but often takes root strongly in the workplace because of preconceived notions about the socioeconomic and societal value of different classes of workers. A strong example of unconscious bias pertaining to social class is in the previously mentioned definition of professionalism, and how it is propagated through workplace dress codes.

Undeniably, the argument can be made that workplace dress codes serve to unify a workforce and that, much like school uniforms, they can minimise class differences that could make someone "stand out" as being from a lower income background. However, this unifying, assimilationist approach to workplace attire still hinges on class bias and can even reinforce that inequality. Firstly, it is almost unheard of for rigid and specific work-wear policies to be formulated around working class aesthetics. It is almost always the case, instead, that workers are expected to assimilate to the middle class norm, and that this norm is something to aspire to.

Secondly, in expecting working class individuals to dress in the particular aesthetics of their middle class colleagues, it will likely require many to purchase brand new (potentially costly) wardrobes. I recall a very brilliant chemistry student in my all-female sixth form college being required to work all through the summer holidays to purchase new clothes when the dress code was changed by the headmaster to "office attire". The adverse impact was that she simply couldn't apply the same time and effort to her studies because of the cost of avoiding reprimands for her clothing. I will add that it was also her chemistry teacher who protested about how impractical and at times fashion-driven this policy was, and how no self-respecting lab worker would be expected to wear anything less than closed boots for the sake of their own safety. This policy, likely implemented to prepare students for the working world, singled out adolescents from working class homes. It was also grounded in misconceptions about professional aesthetics that also conveyed a narrow-mindedness regarding the breadth of careers young women should pursue, and how best to dress for them.

Class inequality is, as mentioned, intersectional in nature. This means that middle class aesthetics are predominantly white and Eurocentric. When we talk about working class aesthetics we are also talking about the cultural diversity of the working class, and how under the guise of professionalism, many classist definitions of an "unprofessional" appearance are also racist. Rules about clothing and about hair feed into the narrowed stereotype of the professional worker, and there is a distinct intersection between which facets are classist and which are racist.

The above example is designed to demonstrate how unconscious biases around class often manifest in our ideas about who does or does not look respectable or professional. Challenging these biases requires us to investigate how and where we learned to define these terms. Unprofessional appearance is often associated with perceived ineptitude at one's job, but many workplace dress codes are grounded in a pageantry that merely upholds and reinforces a particular aesthetic as respectable. Challenging our unconscious bias around class means challenging what we define as a "good" or "bad" worker, if those definitions are not actually contingent on their efficiency and efficacy regarding their workplace responsibilities. 

How do we create class-inclusion in the workplace?

Class-inclusion can be actively addressed in the workplace on several levels:

  • It should be commonplace to allow employees to voluntarily include their social class in their personal details so that reports produced on pay disparities can highlight any class-based trends of disparity.
  • Hiring practices are crucial - a limit on referral hiring means avoiding a class-homogenous (and often racially homogenous) workforce.
  • Internal DEI training should include addressing classist slurs and biases regarding language and appearance to ensure that even on an individual level, class inequality is recognised as a matter of workplace diversity.
  • Ensuring that work-based social events and team building trips are inclusive - keeping class-exclusionary, expensive sports such as skiing and golf off the roster helps immensely in ensuring working class employees aren't singled out for a lack of experience.
  • Leadership commitment should be visible, and leaders should publicly and consistently communicate their commitment to DEI.
  • Establishing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to cater for different groups within the organisation to provide a platform for employees to connect, share experiences and feed back insights to the leadership team. For example, a DEI lead may facilitate a monthly meeting with representatives from different departments who wish to discuss and report back about class-focused workplace matters. These groups may provide insight and feedback that DEI leads can action through changes to workplace policy and practices and may also provide interpersonal support for group members.
  • Review and update workplace policies to ensure that they are fair and inclusive. For example, a hiring policy that limits employee referrals will reduce the likelihood of creating a class-homogenous workforce.
  • Create open communication channels to encourage open dialogue about diversity and inclusion where employees can voice their concerns and share experiences. Communication channels can include anonymous feedback forms, "town halls" where employees can set the agenda, and monthly DEI meetings open to all employees.
  • Implement mentoring and sponsorship programmes that connect employees from underrepresented backgrounds with experienced leaders, which aids in building connections, networks and career advancement.

Further reading on class-inclusive workplaces

Why Companies Should Add Class to Their Diversity Discussions

Building Working Class Power