How social class affects the career ladder

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Sean martin lived his own research.

Martin, Don and Lauren Morel associate professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, has spent years studying the effects of social class in the workplace, a topic that touches on his personal trajectory from a typical lower middle class. child in public school to an academic who received his doctorate from Cornell University, an Ivy League institution.

“I found myself in a lot of situations on an upward path where I didn’t know how to behave,” he recalls. “I found myself in a gastronomic institution or attending an educational briefing for a prestigious university and realized that I was very clearly the strange man. I didn’t have the cultural knowledge of what to do and what to be. But I learned it.

His story seems familiar to Thalie Smith, a partner of Deloitte and leader of MADE (Making Accounting Diverse and Equitable), the company’s most recent initiative to cultivate racial and ethnic diversity in the accounting profession. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father worked for the sanitation service. Inspired from an early age by the accounting homework she found scribbled in her older sister’s notebook, she was the first in her family to go to college.

“I remember coming home from college and getting that initial offer to join Deloitte. And when I looked at my starting salary, it was actually higher than the salaries of both of my parents, ”she said.

Smith and Martin joined Wharton’s professor of management Stéphanie Creary for her Leading diversity at work podcast series to discuss how social class and upward mobility shape careers, especially for people of color. (Listen to the podcast above. You can find more episodes here.)

“Unfortunately, one of the things we see all the time is that people from the lower to lower middle social classes are often selected in the workplace.” –Sean Martin

The subject is important because social class is a source of prejudice and discrimination at all stages of work: development, recruitment, retention and promotion.

“Unfortunately, one of the things we continually see is that people from the lower to lower middle social classes are often selected in the workplace,” Martin said. “Often they are not part of prestigious organizations for reasons that have very little to do with performance. They have to do with these cultural associations that we have with the social class around who is qualified to be here.

Martin has written several articles on “people in social class transitions,” defined as people who move from one social class to another during their life and career. It can be difficult for upward mobility employees to navigate new spaces where they don’t fit. A working-class minority woman who lands a job at a large corporation, for example, may be uncomfortable socializing on the golf course with her white male colleagues. Or an accomplished Hispanic employee may be dismissed from a promotion because his white managers didn’t grow up listening to the same music or eating the same foods as him.

Martin said businesses have a responsibility to recognize and eliminate such discrimination. In terms of recruitment, they must put in place mechanisms to overcome the implicit biases of decision-makers. At the retention level, they need to create fair and equitable workplaces where employees from under-represented groups do not feel ostracized.

“You can really burn yourself out if you’re the only person transitioning from class to an elite group because you constantly have to do work that isn’t actually part of your job description, where you help people figure out how someone else could think and feel, ”Martin said. “You have to constantly do this navigation and this code change. It’s tiring, so getting more people who can share this work is incredibly beneficial and helpful. “

After 20 years at Deloitte, Smith said she realized how lucky she was to change her lifestyle through college education and great work. But she doesn’t want other people of color to rely on luck. This is why the program DONE she leads at Deloitte is expanding the pipeline for people of color to enter the field. Less than 5% of certified public accountants in the United States are black or Hispanic, she said.

“It’s about our commitment to generate more career opportunities and leadership paths, so it’s not just about attracting people, it’s also about moving people into leadership for our black, Hispanic and Latin people, ”she said. “We believe we can create this next generation of accountants who are diverse and who demonstrate fairness and parity within the accounting profession. “

Deloitte is funding $ 30 million in scholarships for master’s degree programs in accounting, partnering with higher education institutions serving blacks and Hispanics, and developing a high school curriculum to attract minority students to the field.

“We have a saying within the firm that one of my close friend-associates says all the time: Relationships are like money. –Thalia Smith

Smith, who graduated on a full scholarship, is excited about the program because she knows firsthand what financial aid can do for college students. She also wants to broaden the vision of accounting as a promising career option for social mobility. She wants young people to think beyond becoming a doctor, lawyer, professional athlete or artist in the pursuit of success.

“We know that teams of diverse and inclusive professionals are more powerful. And accountants are able to influence important business decisions, ”Smith said. “They can generate real, positive results in all organizations, in all economies and in all of society as a whole. “

Building bridges, building relationships

Martin and Smith agreed that hard work is a given – success can’t happen without it. But they also offered key career advice for people in social transition who may feel inclined to sit alone for lunch or decline the invitation to the company picnic. Although it can be difficult, it is essential to build relationships at work.

“This is essential not only because it helps combat some of the social isolation that we talked about, but most of the data suggests that you are in fact particularly adept at doing it,” Martin said, explaining that people from lower social classes are generally more “interdependent”.

“That is, they tend to care about ‘us’ more than ‘me’,” he said. “They tend to think of things in terms of how it affects us and not just my own career, my own progress. So there is already a willingness to focus on others.

Smith said she learned that she had to shut down the laptop every now and then and join her colleagues in whatever activities they were doing. If golf or boating just isn’t realistic, then find something else to participate in, she advised.

“We have a saying within the firm that one of my close friend-associates says all the time: relationships are like money,” she said.

As people in social transition move through the office, they shouldn’t leave their authentic selves behind, added Smith and Martin.

“Don’t feel pressured to wholesale extremely important parts of who you are because I don’t think you do,” Martin said. “I would recommend that you keep these things on hand, because it is motivating to wake up every morning, to put your feet on the ground, knowing that today you are going to make yourself instead of trying to be that. that others think you should be. “


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