We know that diversity is good for business. Organizations that rank high in diversity have better risk management, stronger profits and stock returns, and higher customer satisfaction. In fact, according to HRDrive, all Fortune 100 companies today have outlined some sort of DEI initiative.

With the positive rise of bringing in more heterogeneous individuals from different race, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, there's also been an unintended uptick of classicism. In corporate workplaces that are still largely dominated by people from privileged backgrounds, social factors like wealth, education, and prestige can leave people outside of a certain class feeling isolated and othered.

Classism, or the belief that a person’s social or economic status determines their value, can impact one’s ability to form meaningful bonds with their coworkers, eroding their sense of belonging within an organization, and thereby chipping away at a healthy workplace culture.

“Classism is most often revealed during informal workplace interactions, like coffee breaks and company lunches,” says Sharon Ehrlich, Global Sales Enablement Director at Webhelp and executive coach for medical professionals.

During this time, employees often trade stories about their upbringing, schools they attended, clubs or societies they belong to, and even where they vacation. “These revelations immediately result in friendships or bonds which can benefit anyone involved,” says Ehrlich.

The challenge arises when employees feel excluded from these conversations, hindering connection and communication. They may choose not to contribute because they can’t “speak the language” or rely on code-switching to better blend in with the crowd.

How to Recognize and Mitigate Classism

While there are ways in which an individual who feels othered can mitigate the feeling by working harder, longer, or making “allies” within the organization to better fit in, the onus shouldn’t be on employees to close the gap. Leaders can suss out if classism is lurking in their workplace and find meaningful ways to minimize and even eliminate it at every level.

Executives can start by assessing core business functions like human resources to identify potential class biases. A recent survey by KPMG found that class is the biggest barrier to career mobility in its organization — even more than gender and race.

“Advancement processes rely on input from informal networks, which are generally homogenous with people connecting based on their shared interests or pedigree,” says Venus Rekow, Behavioral Practitioner at Neural Shifts, a consulting firm focused on helping companies drive cultural change using a diversity and equity lens. “It makes it very hard for an ‘outsider’ to enter these groups.”

Because addressing classism requires a top-down approach, leaders must also check their own biases to ensure everyone feels heard and included, regardless of their social-class background.

“Fundamentally, the leader has to see the value each person brings to genuinely engage and show respect,” Rekow says. She recommends that leaders always ask for everyone’s perspective to provide opportunities for people’s voices to be heard. And more importantly, hold others accountable. “Sometimes inclusion is not about what you say, but what you don’t say when someone excludes others,” she continues.

The next step is evaluating your existing diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and optimizing them to specifically address classism. Here are a few tips to guide your evaluation:

Call It By Its Name: Classism is invisible and only makes itself known in fleeting conversations. Providing employees with continuous education on the value of inclusion and the impact classism has on peer relationships can empower them to better identify it.

Account for Intersectionality: Many employees who experience classism are also members of other marginalized groups. “All forms of discrimination, including race, gender, and class, compound to form a hard barrier to overcome for those excluded,” Rekow says. Your organization’s DEI practices should account for this intersectionality to ensure all employees feel included, safe, and accepted among their peers.

Strengthen Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): These built-in communities often provide individuals with additional support and a sense of safety they may not experience as part of the broader organization. Invest adequate resources that enable the groups to create meaningful impact for their members.

Facilitate Mentorship and Sponsorship: Build structured programs that connect employees to people inside the organization who can “show them the ropes” and nominate them for advancement opportunities. This can help minimize informal sponsorship that allows people from privileged backgrounds to promote others based on cultural or social similarities.

Measure Your Efforts: Ehrlich warns against making diversity training a tick-the-box exercise. While it may be hard to regulate the excluding conversations, leaders can be accountable for improvements in other areas like recruiting, promotions, and mentorship. “Leaders can create transparent paths to promotions and stretch assignments. Or assign KPIs to department and business unit leaders on sponsoring and mentoring outside of their ‘friend’ or comfort zone,” Ehrlich says. Measurement begets action, and action drives change.

Employees shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to prove their value and feel included. When leaders can identify and mitigate classism in the workplace, they can effectively foster a culture of belonging where everyone feels part of the “in crowd,” and clear the path for meaningful connections to form.

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