It's a concept as old as fairytales: the working-class hero or heroine whose homegrown ingenuity succeeds where the elite have failed. But does it work like that in reality?
According to an MIT study, the answer is a resounding yes. The most diverse workplaces are the most profitable – and that includes class diversity.
Class diversity is something that rarely comes up in diversity training, even though classism is just as real as racism and sexism, particularly in the UK. But a new study from the University of Virginia has looked specifically at the impact of class diversity at work. The findings are fascinating.
The study found that “social class transitioners”, people who’ve changed from one class to another, added tremendous value at work because of their skill at relating to people from all walks of life. However, it also found that the transitioners themselves often felt exhausted and isolated.
People who’d climbed the social ladder said they didn’t understand the unwritten rules of their new environment. But they were also found to adapt over time and become the most culturally savvy of all employees – and the bigger the class jump, the more pronounced the effect.
Those who had moved down the social ladder were much less likely to develop new cultural skills than those who moved up. Another important factor was timing: those who switched classes in childhood adapted better than adults.
Successful class transitioners can not only relate to a wider variety of people, they can also bridge gaps between groups and create better connections. If they’re willing to share their experiences, they could even help the whole workplace become more culturally sensitive and inclusive.
These unique social skills can drive a wide variety of positive workplace behaviours and make class transitioners very valuable.
However, these valuable individuals need support. Being a class transitioner can be socially isolating and exhausting as they struggle to play by rules they were never taught. These problems can hold transitioners back from using their unique social skills.
The researchers point out that elite companies, whether intentionally or not, tend to hire people from privileged backgrounds, and that this can actually have a negative impact on performance.
So, when you’re planning your next diversity initiative, remember to include class diversity. Give a hand up to someone who didn’t have your advantages – the benefits they can bring you are no fairytale.