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Recap – Employers Masterclass: How to talk about class in the workplace

How do you talk openly about class in the workplace? In our latest Employers Masterclass, we discussed the importance of having a workplace environment where employees can talk openly about their backgrounds –enabling employees to feel able to bring their whole selves to work.  Catch up on the session and read our key takeaways from Wednesday’s session below.

Class feels like it is the last taboo to talk openly about. But if an organisation is serious about its efforts to build an inclusive culture within its workplace, breaking taboos and avoiding stigma around class background is necessary.  Having open, honest discussions within the workforce about what class means to people and what barriers may be faced by those from lower socio-economic backgrounds is where real trust starts.  The business benefits are immense – staff engagement, staff retention, new talent attraction and positive organisational reputation.

We were joined by Tim Smith, Partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP (BCLP) and James Hillhouse, Co-founder at Commercial Break who shared how they encourage employers and employees to kickstart conversations about class in the workplace.

1. Take small first steps to understand your workforce

“We are often asked as an organisation when you started out ‘how did you define social background’ – this has particular resonance, especially if you are a global company and it’s interpreted differently in other territories” says Tim Smith, Partner at BCLP, a law firm spanning across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America which features high up on the Top 75 list of the Social Mobility Employer Index.  “Here in the UK we didn’t as an employer seek to define working class – we sought that from our employees.”

BCLP considered it important to start collecting data to understand their baseline, gathering qualitative and quantitative data. Their diversity and inclusion (D&I) employee survey enabled them to view this in the round, but they also looked at employee exit surveys.

Early work involved their graduate recruits, to understand their perception of the organisation’s culture and values before they entered the organisation. BCLP felt that the new entrants would have an unique perspective on what things were really like (or appeared to be like) and that helped shape awareness and messaging.

By understanding the rich data that this type of exploration of the workforce brings,  employers can begin to identify and tackle challenges the organisation faces.

“It’s important when starting out to engage with everyone – from the back office to the front office, and at all levels of the business”, explained James Hillhouse, co-founder of Commercial Break, an organisation focused on increasing working class representation in the creative and marketing industries by working with companies to ensure they’re properly set up for working class talent to thrive. ”Observation can be incredibly rich for understanding the culture in a company – and culture is pivotal for enabling individuals to feel like they belong and will have access to the careers their talent deserves”.

2. Address the importance of leadership buy-in to drive the conversation

“Without senior leadership buy-in nothing happens – you have to unlock the leaders to unlock change. You have to make leaders know they are part of the process, and they own up to a lack of knowledge”, James continued.

A key focus for leaders should be making sure diverse talent feels like they belong and thrive in your company.  To do so, organisations should consider three things – their working practices; understanding how people progress and the organisation’s culture.

Commercial Break recommends a five-step process through open dialogue that gives leaders:

  • an understanding of what they need to change (including why and with whom);
  • the development of rich data;
  • the ability to make a plan of change;
  • the opportunity to consider how it’s sustained
  • and finally putting it into practice

Lived experience is key to this whole process – everyone needs to understand what the lived experience is actually like, and without dialogue on the topic, how does that happen?

“We have found it incredibly powerful to get those with lived experience in front of senior managers to speak their truth.  It’s also imperative that senior leaders are held accountable and evaluated on their efforts to make their organisations more inclusive” says James.

3. Create a safe space for employees to share their experiences.   

“Company culture drives this”, says Tim.  “You need to foster an environment where people can feel comfortable disclosing their background. A lot of what shapes an organisation’s culture is not overt behaviour but a series of micro-behaviours.  They can establish or reinforce a sense of a dominant culture which is not going to help you create an environment where everyone feels comfortable so this needs to be surfaced.  What this should not be about is allowing working class people to assimilate into the dominant culture.”

“Unfortunately, still too often having a working class background is seen as a badge of shame, especially in those organisations where the dominant culture is middle class”, interjects James.  “If companies are serious about talking about class they need to tell their employees why they are doing this – we highlight to companies where the prevailing culture is middle class that they should view working class as a superpower.  Having that different perspective within your organisation can bring immense benefits to you reaching a wider audience for your products or services.  But remember that changes within an organisation needs to work for everybody”.

4. Avoid pitfalls when talking about class

Both our speakers agreed that there are far fewer pitfalls than you might think.  By creating open dialogue, it encourages employees to know there is a shared licence to say the wrong thing – we need to accept that not everybody knows everything – but having these open discussions is how we learn and progress.

Terminology is key – class can be a loaded term. Class encompasses a range of socio-cultural and geographical factors and objective measures of assessing family income may not necessarily match up with individuals’ perceptions of their social class status, and individuals may feel less comfortable talking about social class.

“Through our work with organisations”, explains James, “we actually advocate for the term ‘working class’ rather than talking about social mobility (for us one is descriptor, one is goal).  And we would certainly recommend avoiding terms like ‘deprived’ ,‘under-privileged’ etc”.

We recommend you discuss with the staff in your own organisation about what terms they most identify with.

It’s important to consider class through the lens of intersectionality – “class should not be an afterthought in your diversity and inclusion strategy”, says James, “but rather like all diversity characteristics as an inherent part of people’s personal backgrounds and lived experiences”.

5. Engage allies within your workforce

“Class is often a masked characteristic so it is not always obvious who shares a common background.  Allies who are willing to share their backgrounds are  therefore very important”, mentions Tim.  “For me Allies can be split into two groups: mentors and sponsors.  Mentors: those who guide, support encourage, but who do it privately with the individual.  Sponsors: those who bring candidates along with them, share work opportunities, advocate for them in more public forum (e.g. discussions about those in line for promotion).  That two-way dialogue between people with different backgrounds is critically important – it helps bring to the forefront different  lived experiences and helps those who perhaps haven’t had to face many obstacles in their experience an opportunity to understand”.

“It’s like that old proverb, ‘It takes a village….’, everyone has a role to play”, explains James.  “We talk about allies as those that can be the example; those that can be advocates; and those that are shapers.  And those roles can be interchangeable.  Offer colleagues the opportunity to be coached on how to be allies.  Mentorship is also great, but offering training for those mentors.  If you want to really get under the skin of the organisation, consider reverse mentorship.”

6. Widen your conversations outside of your workplace 

Both our speakers agreed that it’s vital companies are sharing what they are doing in this space.  The greater the knowledge of how other organisations are tackling the challenges they are facing, the better it is for the future of their, and their industries workforce.  We should all take the opportunity to learn from other companies and industries.

“But we need to be careful that highlighting what might be happening at industry level doesn’t lead to it becoming viewed as an ‘industry’ issue”, stresses James.  “Yes, there are industry-wide issues in the Creative Industries in which I work, but that doesn’t mean that they are insurmountable.  If people start to think of it as ‘well that’s just what happens in my industry, not a lot I can do about that’, it can lead to widespread inaction.  This can be incredibly damaging for an organisation young talent seeking placement in an industry are expecting transparency”.

For shared success stories from other employers, please visit our ‘success stories’ page.

Final thoughts

Through a question from the audience on whether the panel thought strong regional accents might impact individuals’ progression, Tim says “It’s important for everyone to understand the value hearing a variety of different accents brings to an organisation.  Correcting pronunciation is incredibly patronising, what you are effectively saying is ‘that there is a norm and I am correcting you on this norm’.  For me, in my line of work, it is simple – conveying advice in law is about the content – it’s about what you are saying and not how you are saying it!”.

How might class be considered across the lifecycle of a career?  “It’s the D&I myth that if you think about getting the pipeline sorted, they’ll trickle up the organisations…”, says Tim, “you have to nurture this conversation throughout the employee lifecycle – but certainly interventions are different depending on the stage of someone’s career”.

“A lot of the work we do with companies is to try to make the paths to progression simple, clear and understandable”, says James, “if you think about it as from ‘classroom to boardroom’, this will help you achieve that inclusion you seek”.

Ultimately though, says James “the proof of the pudding is the action that occurs.  For organisations to change, it’s about ‘deeds not words’, so if you are talking about class, also ensure you are taking action to address any barriers you surface”.

Want to start the conversation in your workplace?  Visit our resource guide ‘Let’s talk about Class’ on our resources page here.