How does your company support “first generation professionals”?


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Bby now, the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace is well established. To date, gender, race and ethnicity have been centered and, to a lesser extent, sexual orientation, disability, parenthood and age have been included. But one identity factor has been largely overlooked: socio-economic class.

Existing research has shown that it becomes harder to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and class bias has been shown to impact lifetime earnings. Studies of first-generation college students also suggest that disparities may follow them into their postgraduate careers.

Few studies have focused on the workplace experience of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Do differences in wealth influence the paths by which individuals enter and evolve in their professional careers? Are there patterns of barriers and privileges, and if so, what do they look like?

To address this knowledge gap, we conducted a survey of first-generation professionals (FMPs). Also known as “class migrants,” FGPs are those who move from working-class roots into white-collar careers. We conducted an online survey of 290 professionals in California’s utilities and finance industries, followed by 18 in-depth phone interviews, each lasting one hour. We included both FGPs and non-FGPs in the study to produce comparative data. Here’s what we’ve learned about FGPs and what business leaders can do to support them.

Structured programs are essential stepping stones for PGFs

FGPs were more likely than others to say that structured programs were helpful to their careers. For example, we asked each survey respondent how they got their first professional job and found that 23.7% of FGPs got their job through a college work-study program, compared to only 7.6% of non-FGPs.

Similarly, FGPs were almost twice as likely as non-FGPs to report finding Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) helpful in their first job (23% and 12%, respectively). As one FGP participant described it: “Latino organizations, Hispanic organizations…you [have to] network and join these organizations, because at that time I didn’t know anyone professionally. And there really wasn’t anyone in my family who had that kind of experience that you could share issues with.”

In contrast, non-PGFs indicated that they were more likely to rely on family and friends for support and advice. A non-FGP in finance shared, “Both my parents were very supportive. But my dad was more supportive because he had experience in the industry…so he could identify me on the personalities and behaviors that I saw in the office. And kind of helped me with that and helped me with some industry terms.”

FGPs were also significantly more likely to report that professional development and leadership training was helpful to their careers, helped with promotions, and improved their skills.

Professional communication styles in the workplace can alienate FGPs

“Changing code” means adapting one’s communication, appearance and mannerisms to fit in. It’s been widely documented that people of color feel pressured to act differently at work in order to be accepted. We have found that people from working class backgrounds often feel the same way.

During the interviews, we asked: “In hindsight, what would you have liked to have known when entering the professional world?” Forty-three percent of FGPs said they wished they had acquired interpersonal or communication skills for the professional world, compared to 9% of non-MFGs. One FGP interview participant shared, “For people like me, who’s from where I’m from, who’s had a tough life, they really haven’t had those customer interactions… How do you handle those [customer service] circumstances [should be taught].”

Many FGPs also said they were shocked and disappointed that their hard work and results were significantly less important to their careers than knowing how to communicate in a certain way and building networks. One explained: “At first I was thinking, oh…as long as I’m a great worker, right? You know, I do what I have to do, I’ll get promoted quickly. This it’s not the case.
really is, is your contacts. Build that network.”

FGPs may feel less included at work

Some of the biggest differences between FGPs and non-FGPs in our survey were revealed when participants were asked directly about how they
felt in the professional workplace. They were asked to rank several statements on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. The results show that FGPs rated almost all statements lower than non-FGPs, including: “My personality type is valued”, “I have access to decision makers”, “I feel comfortable talking about my family and my personal life” and “My unique personality skills are valued and used.” This tells us that general feelings of inclusion and belonging are likely lower for FGPs.

Business leaders can take three steps to support PGFs and include them in their company’s overall DEI efforts:

1. Be transparent about available programs and resources

Most leaders understand the benefits of programs that help prepare employees to be more successful in the workplace, such as ERGs and development and work-study programs. But make sure employees
know about programs are essential.

Use formal and informal communication channels and incorporate employee feedback or success stories to stimulate interest and participation. Likewise, keep scheduling accessible by managing workloads so that employees can meaningfully participate without using up their free time.

If these types of programs do not already exist in your organization, consider creating one or more. ERGs can help boost engagement and strengthen feelings of belonging. In our research, a number of participants said they wished their company had a “first generation” GRE because they didn’t match any existing GREs and would have been given a safe space to talk about their experiences as than FGP. Partnering with external educational institutions can enhance the development of current and new talent, and work-study programs can help attract FGP talent.

2. Make inclusive communication a core skill for everyone.

Minimizing company jargon and speaking in a way that allows everyone, regardless of background, to contribute is an essential skill that will help reduce the pressure on FGPs and others to change code. Leaders must model inclusive communication and adopt behaviors that allow diverse perspectives and personalities to be heard. When speaking to groups, use examples, stories and analogies that are not specific to a certain socio-economic class. For example, references to sports like golf or skiing or asking people to reminisce about childhood family vacations make those unfamiliar with these experiences feel left out and confused about the meaning of the message. In some cases, managers may need one-on-one coaching and targeted feedback, as using class-based language can be a hard habit to break.

Training new hires can also help level the playing field. If your company or industry uses nuanced language or specialized vocabulary, create an internal wiki or glossary of terms with definitions, examples, and visuals to ensure a common understanding of language and terms. If acronyms and idioms are used frequently in communications, make sure they are spelled out, defined, and relevant to the work situation to ensure people understand and can contribute.

3. Assess the currworkplace culture and norms.

Many companies focus their talent management strategies on “cultural fit”. This can exclude high-potential talent who may not know or understand your workplace’s preferred norms or behaviors.

Take the time to look closely at your organization’s “unwritten rules” and determine if they are understood and inclusive of employees from diverse backgrounds. This may include the methods used to recruit and hire; preferences for how employees should speak, act and present themselves; or the criteria used to select individuals for promotion opportunities.

This exercise can be done on its own or as part of a larger DEI audit. It also pairs well with a refresh of the organization’s mission and vision, as it requires critical reflection on the values ​​that are
Actually priorities in the organization, which can be very different from the
declared values.

If your employee base is large enough to analyze demographics while protecting individual privacy, consider adding FGP status to your data collection and analysis to track whether any talent management disparities may emerge.

Perhaps most importantly, explore what you can learn from your FGP employees and how you can continually make your workplace more inclusive. During these steps, be careful not to assume their experience or knowledge. Instead, flip the script and learn how your organization can integrate and value diverse lived experiences.

Martha Burwell is the Principal Investigator of the FGP Professionals Study, a DEI expert and social scientist based in Seattle. Bernice Maldonado is an FGP research project manager, strategy consultant and founder of First Gen Talent.

This article is taken from harvard business review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.


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