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Inclusion and Belonging through the lens of Class

In a world where there is so much focus on Inclusion, I recognise that being white, male and middle-aged gives me an immediate advantage in so many situations, so what could I write about?

Raise your classes

I have wanted to write a blog about Inclusion for some time, but I had an obstacle to overcome almost immediately: 

I am white, male, and middle-aged. 

In a world where there is so much focus on Inclusion, I recognise that being white, male and middle-aged gives me an immediate advantage in so many situations, so what could I write about? 

My thought processes were: 

  1. Do I write about being an ally?
  2. Do I write a blog sharing some of our data on belonging in the workplace? 
  3. Do I write a blog on our Inclusion model? 

I mentioned this to Rob Robson, and he asked me why I didn''t write about something that I am passionate about, something that I try and champion, something that I have lived and experienced. 

So, here is my blog about Inclusion through the lens of Class. It is a little about my personal story, a little about some facts on class and what inclusion/exclusion looks like when you think about class. 

For clarity, in this blog, I am typically talking about Class in the UK as this is what I have experience of. 

The Class Ceiling 

When we talk about class, what do we mean? 

In the UK, we talk about class and then classes within these classes, however for this blog, we will talk about the main groups in the table below, usually set by social and economic status: 



Upper Class 

Less about work, more about position and wealth – typically the wealthiest members of society or those who have the most political power 

Middle Class 

Managerial, Supervisory, Administrative, Professional work 

Working Class 

Manual work 

Furthermore, we will focus on the largest populations of the Middle Class and Working Class. 

It is important to mention that Class is not a protected characteristic. This means that nothing stops a hiring manager or organisation from declining someone from a role because they come from a different social class. 

Class is changeable 

As a characteristic, Class is very changeable and subject to where you are right now. 

Because class is typically set at a “Job Role” or “Wealth” level, people can change class as they move between roles and lifestyles. 

Typically, people go from Working Class to Middle Class, but the reverse is equally possible. 

And this gives us a bit of a challenge. 

There is a clear under-representation of women in senior roles and boards; when a woman can move into positions overrepresented by men, they retain the fact that they are women. 

We are, therefore, able to see female role models and potentially organisations that promote Inclusion around gender. 

But, with class, we do not (typically) see working-class people in senior roles and board roles because, by definition, they are now middle class. 

If you asked companies, how many working-class people are on your board? How many of your senior managers are working class? The obvious answer is…None. 

Now, ask how many came from Working Class backgrounds, and you may get a slightly different answer. 

I am going to talk a bit about me now (sorry)! 

Heart of Class 

Setting the scene, the early years: 

I grew up in a working-class family. We lived in rented accommodation on a low pay income and had state benefits to top that up. 

The things I look back on with picture-perfect memories of this are: 

  • We had beans on toast a lot 
  • When we didn''t have beans on toast, you made sure that you cleaned up the plate 
  • Holidays were at home; I do not mean in the UK I mean at home in our house 
  • My first school uniform was second hand, way before second hand was cool 
  • If we wanted/needed anything above food and utilities, we got into debt to buy it – my first computer, any school trip etc. 
  • We had so many family friends who always seemed to be around, bringing food or art or music into our house and vice versa (we regularly had shindigs with a live band in the house). I grew up always with so many people around me. 
  • My career advisor told me that I should not aspire to be an Art Teacher to consider a career in retail. 

When was this? it was the late eighties (nineteen eighties – just in case you had a cheeky comment to make!).  

What was going on in the wider world around me 

The eighties were a time of unprecedented growth and opportunity in the UK, both in jobs and wealth. Still, it also delivered a sudden rise in inequality that had not been seen before, and as a society, we haven''t resolved since. 

The chart below shows this data using the Gini Coefficient index; A Gini index of zero represents perfect equality, while an index of one hundred implies perfect inequality. 

So, while the ''80s gave us so many wonderful things like Mobile Phones, Ghost Busters, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bananarama, it also introduced inequality and a more significant divide between many people. 

The little-known pay gap 

At the time of writing this blog, the gender pay gap in the UK is 15.4%. 

The class pay gap in the UK is 16%. 

So, the gender pay gap and the class pay gap is comparable in terms of numbers. Not surprising where one is based on gender across many roles, and the other will be driven by role. 

But we still do not hear much about this. Why not? Well, one reason is that, as mentioned earlier, class changes often depend on your role and the pay you receive. 

However, we cannot simply say that the class pay gap is due to different roles. 

A study found that in interviews with accountancy, law and financial firms, higher grades were demanded of state school applicants than of private school ones. 

Research conducted by academics from the London School of Economics and University College London found that, even in the same middle-class roles.  

So, it would appear that the gap is in part driven by barriers in opportunity that UK businesses may unwittingly be introducing. 

Back to me, education, and work: 

I studied art but left to become a welder and then worked in warehouses driving a forklift truck – the exit from studying art is a separate story involving a cheese plant. 

I joined Tesco in 1997 as a warehouse operative and soon became a Trade Union representative, where I represented a workforce of 500 for USDAW alongside my fellow Union Reps. 

I found that my values and the fact that I hated to see unfair treatment or inequitable practices lent themselves to the role. I think that I did an ok job and helped make a difference in people''s working conditions and pay. 

Soon I reached a career crossroads where I had to choose between pursuing a career in the Trade Union or a Managerial role at Tesco. 

Linda Avis was the Head of HR for the Warehouse where I was a rep, and she once said to me that the attributes for being a great manager were the same as being a great Trade Union Rep, namely: 

  • Ability to empathise. 
  • Treating people fairly – and doing this consistently 
  • A balance of People needs and Organisational Outcomes. 
  • Giving people your time 
  • Listening skills 
  • Acting once you have the facts and rarely before 
  • Working with people when they are angry, upset and frustrated and not always achieve the outcome they may want, but to do this with all the above points in mind. 

Gentle reader, I became a Manager. 

My journey from Working Class to Middle Class

As I progressed and I moved more away from Logistics roles and into Head Office roles, and moving away from Tesco, I realised a few things: 

  1. My earnings increased at a rate faster than ever before 
  2. My background and values would continue to hold me back 
  3. I would feel uncomfortable and out of place in several situations 
  4. My family became middle-class

Regarding point 3 - I often explained this away as Imposter Syndrome. While this may have sometimes been the case often, the reality was that in many situations, my Working Class values, and style did not fit easily into a middle-class world of middle/upper management. 

I was good at the jobs I had, I got stuff done, and I would hear the same feedback (words changed to protect innocent eyes) about me: 

  • Maverick 
  • Rebel 
  • Rule Breaker 

All of which do not lend themselves to you being bumped up the hierarchy, whatever social media would have you believe. Quite the opposite. 

But I got s**t done, and the people I worked with got s**t done. We made a difference, delivered some exceptional work that to this day is standing the test of time, and we delivered when others tried and failed (Probably because of those badges?). 

I thought it would be helpful for me to share some examples: 

  • I was turned down for a role that I had been doing for around six months because the person it was offered to dressed smarter than me; the actual words used were, "I know that he has less experience than you, but he is always clean-shaven, has no tattoos and always wears a suit." 
  • I have never been to a work office Christmas Party in 20 years of being employed because I felt uncomfortable and out of place in a black-tie situation. 
  • My general frustration in talent meetings where I often saw managers celebrate those with degrees and ensure that they are in line for the next role over and above those with no university education but the relevant experience. 
  • When I was recruiting my team, I was explicitly told not to recruit someone because they would not transition from warehouse management to the office/project environment; I was told that "they were a little rough" – I recruited them, and they went onto deliver amazing things. 
  • My social life remained (and remains) typically working-class, so when people asked what I got up to at the weekend, I often brush over the gigs I went to, the people I saw and suchlike. 

Middle-Class Barriers to Working Class Inclusion 

As I carried out my research for this blog, I was amazed at some of the things I saw every day that maintain a barrier between working-class and Middle-class values. 

Independence vs Collaboration 

Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, stand on your own two feet, meritocratic, if you want something, then work hard and shoot for that goal – you can do it! 

These are all middle-class values, and yes, you have seen them a lot, haven''t you? 

Middle-class organisations, institutions (Universities etc.) and people value independence and self-drive and focus; this has been shown in several studies. 

One of our Advisory Board told me that what CEOs are looking for in the UK right now is - a better collaboration between teams, interdependence, empathy and a focus on others. 

These are typically working-class values (see study referenced later) that we have systematically weaned people off over time! 

Poor Inclusion = Lost values, Stress and Loneliness 

 Social dominance theory suggests that if working-class values are carried forward into a middle-class group, this translates to a threat to those already in the middle-class group. Like with any threat, it has an almost automatic response. 

We demand that the working-class individual assimilates the middle-class values or face exclusion. 

When we only accept people who are fitting into our way of thinking, our values and the things we hold dear this ensures that we are protecting our way of life from that perceived threat. 

But this has a negative impact on the working class individual who is asked to fit into a middle-class world; this has been shown in  (Friedman S (2014) the price of the ticket – rethinking the experience of social mobility) 

The negative impacts are: 

  • Feelings of isolation 
  • Loss of working-class social networks (friends) 
  • Mental health problems 
  • Lower life satisfaction 

According to an article by Anthony Manstead, Cardiff University – The Psychology of social class: how socioeconomic status impacts thought, feelings and behaviour: 

The extent that many workplaces are dominated by middle-class values and practices, working-class employees are likely to feel out of place. 

This applies to both gaining entry to the workplace and the daily interactions 

Many workplaces are characterised by cultures of expressive independence, where working-class people are less likely to feel at home. 

This mismatch between working-class employees and middle-class institutions could also reduce employees Job Security and Satisfaction, continuing the disadvantage for working-class employees. 

Below is a visual representation of the differences in social class and how they may manifest: 

From this study, we can take away that poor Inclusion and feelings of not belonging can drive a negative impact on your People Experience and overall Employee Engagement, and ultimately impact your company purpose or profits. 

So what can you do? 

When I wrote this blog, it was really about raising awareness and asking people to think about class when they think about inclusion/belonging, but I know that the natural end is – "great, so what, what next?" 

I stumbled here, I am not an expert in Inclusion and to try and badge myself as one would be disingenuous, so I asked for some help from Rob Robson (Director of People Science). 

Let us start with a few questions you can ask yourself: 

  • How has your class, when growing up, influenced your career? 
  • How do you respond to people that are from a different class background to yourself? 
  • What advice would you give to a young, ambitious employee that is (recognisably) from a working-class background? 

Look around your organisation. Can you see any of the examples in this blog being prevalent in your business? 

  • How do you value natural team workers and independent workers equally? 
  • When you recruit, how do you advertise roles? 
  • Do you ask that all candidates must have a university education? 
  • Are your company values focused on individuals performing or on collaboration? 

And, my final question to you is – What might you do differently as a result of reading this blog? 

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, tweet us @ThePxHub 

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