Jenny Baker
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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Co-Editors: Apryl Brodersen, Metro State University, Sarah Layman, DCI, and Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center

“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, Andrew Loignon and Kristina Loignon provide a thought-provoking piece about how I-O psychology researchers and practitioners can increase understanding about and mitigate the effects of social class divides in the workplace.
 

How I-O Psychology Can Help Bridge Social Class Divides Within Organizations

Andrew C. Loignon and Kristina K. Loignon

“Americans have never been comfortable with the notion of a pecking order based on anything other than talent and hard work. Class contradicts their assumptions about the American dream, equal opportunity and the reasons for their own successes and even failures.” (Scott & Leonhardt, 2005)

 

A cornerstone of the “American Dream” is a nearly unshakeable belief that, regardless of our starting point, we should be able to ascend the social ladder. Nearly 95% of Americans endorse the principle that “everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead,” and public support for this sentiment has not wavered in over 50 years (Putnam, 2015). Likewise, Americans regularly overestimate the degree to which we can improve our social class, and some may, in fact, bristle at the suggestion that our lot in life is, at least somewhat, influenced by where we start (Kraus & Tan, 2015; Scott & Leonhardt, 2005).

Unfortunately, such beliefs do not fully coincide with reality. Most notably, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that social class differences permeate our society (Bapuji et al., 2020). Throughout the pandemic, those who occupy the lowest social class positions—people who live in poorer neighborhoods, have less income, and possess a lower level of education—have been more likely to contract and succumb to the virus (Hatef et al., 2020; Koma et al., 2020; Wadhera et al., 2020). In addition, they have faced the steepest climb to prepandemic levels of employment (Long et al., 2020).

In this edition of “The Bridge,” we hope to begin a conversation among I-O researchers and practitioners regarding the ways in which social class differences likely permeate many of the talent management systems and practices that are a cornerstone of our field and what we can do to mitigate their effects.

What Is Social Class?

Part of the challenge with addressing social class differences is that operationalizing the construct of social class can be daunting (Côté, 2011; Diemer et al., 2013; Scott & Leonhardt, 2005). For our purposes, we leveraged a recent systematic review of the literature that integrated multiple perspectives, which defined social class as the social context that a person occupies as defined by the resources that they hold and their subjective interpretation of that context (Loignon & Woehr, 2018). Examples of resources that create such contexts include human capital (i.e., income, prestige, and education), social capital (i.e., contacts and connections that allow them to draw on their social networks), and cultural capital (i.e., a set of distinctive tastes, skills, knowledge, and practices).

How Does Social Class Permeate Talent Management Systems?

Given the breadth and far-reaching effects of social class, it should come as no surprise that there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that differences in social class can affect how people think, feel, and act within organizations (Côté, 2011). Below, we highlight some particularly compelling examples from the literature of how social class differences can manifest within talent management systems.

  • Recruiting: When entering the job market, lower social class college students are more likely to use haphazard search strategies, which ultimately yield fewer interviews and offers (Fang & Saks, in press).
  • Selection: People can identify another person as lower social class, with above chance accuracy, based simply on hearing seven spoken words. Hearing their accent then affects the degree to which the person is perceived as competent and, ultimately, can affect whether they are extended a job offer (Kraus et al., 2019).
  • Organizational culture: People who grow up in lower social class environments, which are defined by a dearth of resources, come to value interdependence (i.e., adjusting and responding to others’ needs, connecting to others, and being part of a group; Stephens et al., 2012). However, most organizations value independence (i.e., the ability to exert agency, influence one’s environment; Stephens et al., 2014).

Although brief, this summary of recent class-based research demonstrates how social class differences can disadvantage applicants and employees within various talent management systems.

What Can I-O Psychology Do?

Faced with such findings, as well as the undeniable class-based divisions within our society, we believe there is value in I-O researchers and practitioners considering how they can reduce these divides. These efforts include designing talent management systems that are more consistent with the ideals of a “classless society” where achievement is less about one’s birthright (Amis et al., 2020) and instead allow organizations to leverage the unique skills and knowledge that class-mobile employees may bring with them (Herrmann & Varnum, 2018; Martin & Côté, 2019). Below, we put forth considerations to mitigate class-based effects in the areas of recruitment, selection, and organizational culture.

Recruiting: Source Applicants From All Social Classes

Before screening employees to fill a particular role, we suggest that employers consider adding nontraditional sourcing strategies to their current recruitment approach. For instance, if an organization regularly recruits from campuses, they might consider diversifying the types of colleges and universities they work with in the hopes of casting a wider net across various class boundaries. One potential resource for identifying "class-friendly" institutions of higher learning is an online database from The New York Times, based on work from Harvard University economist Rav Chetty and colleagues, which designates schools that facilitate upward social mobility. Schools that rank higher on the list have done a better job of admitting students from across various social classes and helping them ascend the class ladder.

Along with sourcing, consideration should be given to the language used in job descriptions and postings, as it can discourage otherwise qualified candidates from certain class backgrounds from applying. For example, a common requirement listed in job postings is a college degree. To ensure that such requirements are not inadvertently limiting job opportunities to applicants from across various social classes, practitioners can work with subject matter experts to consider whether the role really requires college training or whether there are alternative means of demonstrating adequate job fit. For instance, a survey of HR leaders found that many are willing to consider recognized certifications, certificates, degrees from massive open-online courses, and even digital badges in lieu of college degrees for certain positions (Maurer, 2018). It is likely that this type of flexibility in designing job descriptions and postings could help increase the class-based diversity of an applicant pool.

Selection: Have Class-Based Criteria Seeped Into Your Hiring Process?

Because social class can be readily perceived and informs important interpersonal judgments (Kraus et al., 2017), there is ample opportunity for class-based bias to emerge during the hiring process. One approach to minimize such biases is to use a blind-résumé-review approach, wherein résumés are scrubbed of job-irrelevant information that may provide cues about an applicant’s social class. This can range from extracurricular activities, which are often segregated along class lines (e.g., boxing vs. golf; Rivera, 2012), to subtle cues like names and addresses (Barlow & Lahey, 2018; Kline et al., 2021).

There may also be subtle, class-based constraints that exist within an organization’s hiring system. For example, 75% of households that have at least one college-educated member have access to high-speed Internet, but this number plummets to less than 50% for those who did not graduate from high school (Cleary et al., 2006). Similar divides exist along other indicators of social class (e.g., family income). As such, employers might consider the extent to which applicants need access to high-speed Internet, or even a computer, to complete prehire tests in lieu of other media that are more readily accessible across populations (e.g., mobile-optimized technology).

Organizational Culture: Let’s Give Everyone a Seat at the Table

Beyond hiring and promoting diverse talent, employers can focus their efforts on retention policies that provide a sense of inclusion and belonging for people from all walks of life. Although social class is not officially recognized as a legally protected class within the United States, we believe efforts to encourage social class diversity would likely dovetail with the recent emphasis that has been placed on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in today’s organizations. In particular, companies can demonstrate their commitment to having a diverse workforce by expanding ongoing DE&I practices to include social class. For instance, antidiscriminatory policies could include language acknowledging social class backgrounds, affinity groups could be formed for people from lower social classes, and class-based metrics could be created that allow stakeholders to track and report their progress toward class-based diversity goals (e.g., tracking the number of first-generation college students throughout the workforce). More broadly, recent research has found that interventions aimed at reconciling differences between the values held by those from lower social classes and many elite institutions can enhance task-based performance retention (Stephens et al., 2012). Taken as a whole, these various actions may ameliorate many of the pressures felt by those from different classes (Gray et al., 2018; Warnock & Hurst, 2016).

Conclusion

Some have referred to organizations as gateways where people can either ascend or descend the social class ladder (Stephens et al., 2014). If that’s the case, then we encourage I-O researchers and practitioners to begin to see themselves as gatekeepers to such important outcomes. In this paper, we outlined some of the ways that research has already helped to inform employment practices, such as recruiting, selection, and DE&I efforts. We invite researchers and practitioners to continue addressing the social class divide in the workplace. As a first step in this process, we have included a list of suggested readings that are focused on social class (see Table 1). Such a mindset, coupled with thoughtful changes to existing talent management systems, can help our field move the “American Dream” closer to a reality.

Table 1

Suggested Social Class Readings

Reference

Summary

Popular press books

 

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Putnam, 2015)

Putnam demonstrates, with accessible and compelling data, that one’s ability to transcend the social class they were born into has waned in recent years.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (Smarsh, 2018)

Smarsh analyzes society’s perceptions of the working class while recounting her experience growing up in extreme poverty.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Vance, 2017)

Vance describes his experience transitioning across social class boundaries while growing up in Appalachia, joining the military, and eventually attending Yale University.

Educated: A Memoir (Westover, 2018)

Westover illustrates the struggles of being raised outside of society’s borders and eventually overcoming a lack of formal education to attend Harvard and Cambridge Universities.

Popular press articles

 

Ingram (2021)

Ingram provides a contemporary, and captivating, discussion of why social class should be considered in conjunction with other major forms of diversity.

Scott and Leonhardt (2005)

Scott and Leonhart wrote a captivating introduction to the The New York Times’ special issue on social class in 2005, titled “Class Matters.”

Basic research

 

Kraus et al. (2019)

Kraus et al. demonstrate how social class can be signaled in incredibly subtle (i.e., one’s voice/accent) and powerful ways.

Stephens et al. (2012)

Stephens et al. provide evidence of distinct class-based cultures within contemporary universities and show that being a “misfit” in such class-based cultures is detrimental for lower social class students.

 

Part of empowering ourselves as I-O researchers and practitioners involves learning about how different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences impact how we show up at work. There are many resources that can enlighten us and shed light on differences across social class upbringings. Below are a few select pieces that span academic literature and the popular press. Full citations of each can be found in the reference section.

References

Amis, J. M., Mair, J., & Munir, K. A. (2020). The organizational reproduction of inequality. Academy of Management Annals, 14(1), 1–36.

Bapuji, H., Patel, C., Ertug, G., & Allen, D. G. (2020). Corona crisis and inequality: Why management research needs a societal turn. Journal of Management, 46(7), 1205–1222.

Barlow, M. R., & Lahey, J. N. (2018). What race is Lacey? Intersecting perceptions of racial minority status and social class. Social Science Quarterly, 99(5), 1680–1698.

Cleary, P. F., Pierce, G., & Trauth, E. M. (2006). Closing the digital divide: Understanding racial, ethnic, social class, gender, and geographic disparities in Internet use among school age children in the United States. Universal Access in the Information Society, 4(4), 354–373.

Côté, S. (2011). How social class shapes thoughts and actions in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 31, 43–71.

Diemer, M. A., Mistry, R. S., Wadsworth, M. E., Lopez, I., & Reimers, F. (2013). Best practices in conceptualizing and measuring social class in psychological research. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 77–113.

Fang, R. T., & Saks, A. M. (in press). Class advantage in the white-collar labor market: An investigation of social class background, job search strategies, and job search success. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Gray, B., Johnson, T., Kish-Gephart, J. J., & Tilton, J. (2018). Identity work by first-generation college students to counteract class-based microaggressions. Organization Studies, 39(9), 1227–1250.

Hatef, E., Chang, H.-Y., Kitchen, C., Weiner, J. P., & Kharrazi, H. (2020). Assessing the impact of neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics on covid-19 prevalence across seven states in the United States. Frontiers in Public Health, 8, 571808.

Herrmann, S. D., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2018). Integrated social class identities improve academic performance, well-being, and workplace satisfaction. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(4), 635–663.

Ingram, P. (2021). The forgotten dimension of diversity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2021/01/the-forgotten-dimension-of-diversity

Kline, P. M., Rose, E. K., & Walters, C. R. (2021). Systemic discrimination among large U.S. employers (NBER Working Paper No. 29053). National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w29053

Koma, W., Artiga, S., Neuman, T., Claxton, G., Rae, M., Kates, J., & Michaud, J. (2020). Low-income and communities of color at higher risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/low-income-and-communities-of-color-at-higher-risk-of-serious-illness-if-infected-with-coronavirus/

Kraus, M. W., Park, J. W., & Tan, J. J. X. (2017). Signs of social class: The experience of economic inequality in everyday life. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 422–435.

Kraus, M. W., & Tan, J. J. X. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101–111.

Kraus, M. W., Torrez, B., Park, J. W., & Ghayebi, F. (2019). Evidence for the reproduction of social class in brief speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(46), 22998-23003.

Loignon, A. C., & Woehr, D. J. (2018). Social class in the organizational sciences: A conceptual integration and meta-analytic review. Journal of Management, 44(1), 61–88.

Long, H., Van Dam, A., Fowers, A., & Shapiro, L. (2020). The covid-19 recession is the most unequal in modern U.S. history. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/business/coronavirus-recession-equality/

Martin, S. R., & Côté, S. (2019). Social class transitioners: Their cultural abilities and organizational importance. Academy of Management Review, 44, 618–642.

Maurer, R. (2018). Employers open to ditching degree requirements when hiring. Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/eliminating-degree-requirements-hiring-ibm-penguin.aspx

Putnam, R. D. (2015). Our kids: The American dream in crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rivera, L. A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms. American Sociological Review, 77(6), 999–1022.

Scott, J., & Leonhardt, D. (2005). Shadowy lines that still divide. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/us/class/shadowy-lines-that-still-divide.html

Smarsh, S. (2018). Heartland: A memoir of working hard and being broke in the richest country on Earth. Scribner.

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102.

Stephens, N. M., Markus, H. R., & Phillips, L. T. (2014). Social class culture cycles: How three gateway contexts shape selves and fuel inequality. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 611–634.

Vance, J. D. (2017). Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. HarperCollins Publishers.

Wadhera, R. K., Wadhera, P., Gaba, P., Figueroa, J. F., Maddox, K. E. J., Yeh, R. W., & Shen, C. (2020). Variation in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths across New York City boroughs. Journal of the American Medical Association, 323(21), 2192–2195.

Warnock, D. M., & Hurst, A. L. (2016). “The poor kids’ table”: Organizing around an invisible stigmatized identity in flux. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 261–276.

Westover, T. (2018). Educated: A memoir. Random House.

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