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Class Systems at Work

June 26, 2017

On a recent tour of an expansive multi layered workplace the senior manager acting as my guide spoke of her initiation to social hierarchies when she had first arrived with the company decades ago. The topic occurred to her when we arrived at the employee cafeteria and as an intern she had mistakenly taken a seat with seasoned employees who immediately bristled at her arrival. She was later informed the table for interns was at the back and it was inappropriate for her to sit with full timers. She proudly told me that they had since come a long way. 


“We are an entire village here, 2000 employees, with labourers, trades people, professional, technical and scientific staff, multiple levels of office workers and management and 300 highly specialized individuals who are seen as experts in their field.” She went on to tell me that for many years different classes of employees didn’t mingle and barely acknowledged others in their daily interactions.

I suspect part of her early experiences had to do with the formality that defined many workplaces of the past which is a stark difference to today’s reality where some company owners and presidents tweet and text with junior ranked employees while attempting to create open and more egalitarian work cultures. I know of a number of CEO’s who essentially dismantled the C-suite where senior managers used to have their offices  behind closed doors and mandated their VPs to find themselves office space with their departments to build the opposite of an ivory tower culture. 

In some workplaces divisions are still very real between unionized and non-unionized employees, between office workers and those who work outside or with their hands, between professionals and non-professionals, newbies and veterans. Many workplaces where issues of diversity have been tackled head on and in the open still struggle with their version of a class system.

Some individuals are more sensitive to issues of exclusion and lack of recognition however negative impacts of feeling discounted, marginalised or invisible are well documented on job satisfaction, engagement and ultimately on productivity. The often unacknowledged workplace class system and its inherent mistreatment based on rank is well documented by mathematician, physicist and former college president Robert W Fuller’s books “Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank” and of “Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism”. He makes a compelling and well researched argument that “rankism” in workplaces can lead to mistreatment based on people’s education, social class or job function.  Whether you are sensitive to such issues or not, one deserves condescension or the indignity of not being acknowledged and recognized by others.

Workplaces cultures that celebrate all forms of diversity and value recognition through their employee selection processes, training and management actions go a long way toward neutralizing the ill effects of a workplace class system. Formal and informal Leaders who recognize, value and appreciate others through their words and deeds regardless of education, professions, job function and social class have impact. Senior managers who make it a point to disrupt traditional classist behaviours by simply sitting at any open seat in the staff lunchroom and demanding their managers and supervisors do the same have impact. Employers who always include multiple levels of interdisciplinary employees on all working committees’ and project teams make a dent. Employers who use appropriate job titles that focus more on defining the work rather than defining a level or status and avoid unnecessary distinctions are also increasingly common.

I am heartened by an employer who recently restated their commitment to making everyone within their walls feel valued and appreciated. They specifically directed their managers and supervisors to pay attention to the smallest of common courtesies of saying hello, smiling and acknowledging everyone regardless of rank, status or role and their attention to such issues was a stated expectation of any leader within their employ. That is in contrast to the workplaces I sometime witness where busy leaders rush around and send all the wrong signals by not offering the most common of courtesies thinking they don’t matter. Those courtesies are noticed and appreciated and leaders have an obligation to honour everyone regardless of their role or status. 

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