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How Does Your Company Support 'First-Generation Professionals'?

A business woman holding a folder in front of a group of people.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

By now, the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has been well established. To date, gender, race and ethnicity have been centered, and to a lesser degree, sexual orientation, disability, parenthood and age have been included. But one factor of identity has largely been left out: socioeconomic class.

Existing research has shown that moving up the socioeconomic ladder is becoming more difficult, and class bias has been shown to impact lifetime earnings. Studies on first-generation college students also suggest that disparities may follow them into their post-college careers.

Few studies have investigated the workplace experience of those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Do wealth differences influence the paths through which people enter and progress through their professional careers? Do patterns of barriers and privilege exist, and if so, what do they look like?

To fill this knowledge gap, we conducted a study on first-generation professionals (FGPs). Also known as "class migrants," FGPs are those who move from working-class roots to white-collar careers. We conducted an online survey with 290 professionals from the utility and finance industries in California, followed by 18 in-depth phone interviews, each lasting an hour. We included both FGPs and non-FGPs in the study in order to produce comparative data. Here's what we learned about FGPs and what company leaders can do to support them.

Structured Programs Provide Critical Stepping Stones for FGPs

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

Likewise, FGPs were nearly twice as likely as non-FGPs to report that they found employee resource groups (ERGs) helpful during their first job (23% and 12%, respectively). As one FGP participant described: "Latino organizations, Hispanic organizations…you [have to] network and join those organizations, because at that time, I didn't know anybody professionally. And there was really no one in my family that had that kind of experience that you could share issues with."

In contrast, non-FGPs indicated that they were more likely to lean on family and friends for support and advice. One non-FGP in the finance industry shared: "Both my parents were very supportive. But my dad was more supportive, because he had experience in the industry…so he could relate to me on 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 useful for their careers, contributed to promotions and improved their skillsets.

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Overcoming Workplace Bias

Professional Workplace Communication Styles Can Alienate FGPs

"Code-switching" means to adapt one's communication, appearance and mannerisms to fit in. It's widely documented that people of color feel pressured to act differently at work in order to be accepted. We found that people from working-class backgrounds often feel similarly.

During interviews, we asked, "Looking back, what do you wish you had known, going into the professional world?" Forty-three percent of FGPs reported wishing they had learned people or communication skills for the professional world, compared to 9% of non-FGPs. One FGP interview participant shared: "For people like me, who come from where I come from, who had a rough life, they really have not had those interactions with customers…How to deal with these [customer service] situations [should be taught]."

Many FGPs also reported being shocked and disappointed that their hard work and results were notably less important to their careers than knowing how to communicate in a certain way and build networks. One explained: "At first I thought, oh…just as long as I'm a great worker, right? You know, I do what I need to do, I'll get promoted fast. That's not the case. What it really is, is your contacts. Building that network."

FGPs May Feel Less Included at Work

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

There are three steps company leaders can take to support FGPs 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 for greater success in the workplace, such as ERGs and upskilling and work-study programs. But ensuring that employees actually know about the programs is key.

Use both formal and informal communications channels and incorporate employee feedback or success stories to help drive interest and participation. Likewise, keep the programming accessible by managing workloads so that employees can meaningfully participate without utilizing their time off.

If these types of programs don't yet exist in your organization, consider building one or more. ERGs can help drive engagement and boost feelings of belonging. In our research, a number of participants shared that they wished their company had a "first-gen" ERG because they didn't fit into any existing ERGs and would have benefitted from a safe space to talk about their experiences as FGPs. Partnering with external learning institutions can enhance upskilling for current and new talent, and work-study programs can help bring in FGP talent.

2. Make inclusive communication a core competency for everyone.

Minimizing corporate jargon and speaking in a way that allows everyone, regardless of their background, to contribute is a critical skill that will help reduce the pressure on FGPs and others to code switch. Leaders should model inclusive communication and endorse behaviors that enable diverse perspectives and personalities to be heard. When speaking to groups, use examples, stories and analogies that aren't specific to a certain socioeconomic class. For example, references to sports like golf or skiing or asking people to recall their childhood family vacations make those who aren't familiar with those experiences feel left out and confused about the meaning of the message. In some cases, managers might require one-on-one coaching and targeted feedback, as using class-based language can be a tough habit to break.

Training for new employees 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 help ensure common understanding of language and terms. If acronyms and idioms are frequently used in communications, make sure they're spelled out, defined and relevant to the work situation to ensure individuals understand and can contribute.

3. Assess the current workplace culture and norms.

Many companies focus their talent management strategies on "culture fit." This can exclude high-potential talent who may not be familiar with or understand the preferred norms or behaviors of your workplace.

Take some time to take a close look at the "unwritten rules" in your organization and consider whether they're understood by and inclusive of employees from varying backgrounds. This can include the methods used to recruit and hire; preferences for how employees should talk, act and look; or the criteria used to select individuals for promotion opportunities.

This exercise can be done on its own or as part of a wider DEI audit. It also pairs well with a refresh of the organizational mission and vision, as it requires thinking critically through the values that are actually prioritized in the organization, which may be quite different from the stated values.

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

Perhaps most importantly, explore what you can learn from your FGP employees and how you can continually make your workplace more inclusive. As you work through these steps, be mindful not to make assumptions about their experience or knowledge. Instead, flip the script, and learn how your organization can incorporate and value varying lived experiences. 

Martha Burwell is the lead researcher on the study of FGP professionals, a DEI expert and a social scientist based in Seattle. Bernice Maldonado is the FGP research project lead, strategy consultant and founder of First Gen Talent.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.


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