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Diversity in all of its forms remains something that is not yet entirely understood both in business and academia. We don’t fully know what diversity across less visible dimensions, such as social class, can deliver. While there is ample evidence that working-class employees don’t succeed in corporate America to the same extent as their middle- or upper-class contemporaries, it’s still unclear whether they might also bring business benefits to the table – and if so, what benefits and personal strengths they would bring.

Research by Goizueta’s Andrea Dittmann, assistant professor of Organization & Management, may be about to change all of this. In a recent paper, she provides evidence of certain critical advantages that first-generation college graduates and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds can bring to organizations. And it’s all to do with the way that we work with other people.

“We know from existing studies that working-class American fare less well than others in the workplace,” says Dittmann.

“They are four times less likely to get hired into elite companies. And even when they are recruited, they earn around 17% less and they’re almost 34% less likely to get promoted into leadership roles. So the chips are stacked against them. What we don’t know is what firms lose when they fail to recruit and promote this demographic.”

To unpack this, Dittmann conducted two studies. The first looked at how working-class people with a foot on the corporate ladder see themselves in terms of specific strengths and challenges; the second at how organizational culture can shape whether these employees thrive or flounder in the workplace.

“I started by interviewing a large group of MBA students from different social backgrounds to get qualitative understanding of how class can impact employees’ experience navigating corporate working environments. In a majority of cases, MBAs from working class backgrounds were pioneers: the first in their family to get a college degree and a white collar job. I wanted to understand the kinds of difficulties they encountered and what, if any, strong points they felt they brought.”

Parsing their responses, Dittmann found that while working-class graduates struggled with more independent modalities of work, they excelled in tasks and activities that were more inter-dependent in approach. In other words, as employees, these people found it tougher to work by themselves, but outperformed their upper-class colleagues when it came to collaboration and working with others in teams.

Creating a Culture of Teamwork and Collaboration

Dittmann’s second study revealed that organizations with a culture of teamwork and collaboration were simultaneously creating better workplace experiences and getting better outcomes from working class employees, than those promoting independent or individual-focused working norms.

All of this is down to how people from different social classes live within communities, Dittmann believes.

“We know from research in social and cultural psychology that the working-class context engenders a more interdependent view of self, per se. This is probably down to things like greater scarcity of money, of resources, opportunities and even choices. When people have reduced access to these things, they are more likely to cleave together – to come together as a group to help and support each other in overcoming certain hardship.”

Middle- or upper-class groups, on the other hand, foster a much more individualistic and independent view of selfhood, says Dittmann. They are a demographic with the means to pursue personal goals and objectives; where individuals are expected to take charge, to exert influence over other people and stand out from the crowd.

“It’s clear from the employment stats, that corporate America favors this middle- or upper-class demographic. Clear from my study, too, is the likelihood that gate-keeper institutes such as business schools are environments where first-generation graduates might struggle more with independent modes of work and study – which remain the cultural ideal in most U.S. schools,” Dittmann says. “But there is so much to be gained by adopting a more inclusive approach to recruiting these kinds of candidates.”

Dittmann’s research points to the collaboration benefits that working class employees bring to organizations. And in the current context, she says, managers, HR and recruitment executives – and higher education admissions tutors – would do well to pay heed to these findings.

More Teamwork, Better Business Operations

Collaboration in the workplace has increased exponentially in the last 20 years, with research showing that up to 80% of employees’ time is dedicated to some kind of teamwork – be it brainstorms, meetings, or answering colleagues’ questions or requests. Finding better, more efficient ways to collaborate should be a priority, says Dittmann, if organizations want to perform better, and reduce the risks of churn and burnout.

“What my research and others’ is showing is that people from working class backgrounds tend towards behaviors that are more relational; that they are better at working together. If these people fail to make it into the workforce, and if they fail to find opportunities there for promotion and advancement, organizations are missing out.,” Dittmann contends. “They are missing out realizing the potential that this demographic brings. And they are missing out on opportunities to create more effective, more resilient, collaborative teams.”

We know that diverse organizations outperform others, says Dittmann. But we need to understand that diversity in terms of social class, too.

The Goizueta Business School values diversity, equity, and inclusion for every person without exception. This commitment uplifts individuals, enriches communities, and advances our mission to prepare principled leaders for the challenges and possibilities of tomorrow. Individually and collectively, we promote accountability, respect, and altruism throughout our institution. Informed by Atlanta’s history and Emory University’s place within it, our purpose is built upon positively influencing the world of business, an aim inextricable from positively influencing society itself. Learn more about our commitment to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.