It’s good for business when socioeconomically disadvantaged workers are given a fair chance

It’s hard to think of anything that epitomizes America more than the American dream. The idea that people can make something of their lives, regardless of their starting point, has defined the nation for centuries. However, research from Dartmouth College suggests that is no longer applicable.

The study underscores how many Americans are struggling to pay their bills, and those challenges are often stratified along racial lines, with black homeowners twice as likely to lose their homes as white homeowners. The authors argue that this is often due to a lack of financial support from the extended family and higher levels of poverty in family networks.


Leveling the playing field

While it may be tempting to suggest that business has no place trying to level the playing field for these more disadvantaged socio-economic workers, it is actually reasonable to try to do so.

For example, a recent study showed that 80% of all faculty in the United States came from only 20% of doctoral institutions. What’s more, not a single historically black college or university is among that 20%. Indeed, one in eight tenured faculty members received a doctorate from Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, or the University of Michigan.

Things are no better in other areas. Only 6% of doctors, 12% of journalists and 12% of CEOs come from the working class. People from poorer backgrounds face numerous disadvantages during the recruitment process but also in work.


For example, research shows that we tend to rate salespeople less highly when they speak with an accent. In fact, we might even be less inclined to nominate someone for a promotion if they have a strange accent.

The class ceiling

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research found that people from lower social classes were 32% less likely to hold managerial positions, making a working-class person even less likely to become a manager than a woman or African American.

Yet while other minority groups tend to have policies designed to equalize access, there is little to increase class diversity in our organizations. This is a mistake because research shows that people from poorer backgrounds are actually better leaders than their more affluent peers. This is because they tend to value things like community and interdependence over self-sufficiency and independence.


The researchers found that these people were more likely to be people-oriented, servant leaders who wanted to empower their teams. Unfortunately, due to their poor backgrounds, many were not given the opportunity to practice such leadership.

Lack of confidence

Self-doubt can also hamper the prospects of people from poorer backgrounds. Research has found that people of higher social class tend to have an exaggerated belief in their abilities, especially compared to their lower class peers. Moreover, this overconfidence often allows them to bluff their way into positions of power.

“Advantages beget advantages. Those born into upper-class echelons are likely to remain upper-class, and high-income entrepreneurs disproportionately come from highly educated, affluent families,” the researchers explain. “Our research suggests that social class shapes the attitudes people have about their abilities, and this in turn has important implications for how class hierarchies persist from one generation to the next.”


The reverse is often the case for people from poorer backgrounds, with anxiety and self-doubt hurting their prospects. If organizations can work with people to overcome these fears, then exceptional leaders can be forged, but this needs work and support to happen.

Dealing with weaknesses

Research from the University of Basel highlights the crucial role that self-belief can play in our success in life. When we believe something is possible, it can become a form of the Pygmalion effect, whereby our beliefs become reality.

Researchers show that while cognitive skills are important, the most important determinant of success in both education and career is the aspirations one had as a youth. In fact, researchers believe that a lack of ambition in youth is a key factor in the lack of social mobility we see today.


A good first step in helping those from poorer backgrounds to thrive in their careers can be to build confidence early on so they believe they can succeed and are given opportunities to do so.

In our research, we found that housing associations also play a crucial role in facilitating the acquisition of soft skills, building people’s confidence and developing the networks and connections that are vital for career progression.

If you are a business, however, then you may want to consider doing more to mentor socially disadvantaged people through your local community, while greatly expanding your usual means of recruitment so that the ‘invisible workers’ are embraced. You might even consider creating formal initiatives targeting DEI to ensure that people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are not left out.


We are in the midst of a talent shortage, so it is wise to ensure that people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are not invisible to your talent management efforts. It will also help ensure that the American Dream really gets back on track and becomes viable again for the next generation.

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