Hidden rules of class affect workplace

Deletha Assenmacher

Do differences in socio-economic status have an effect on employee success in the workplace? Does organizational culture affect those who were raised in poverty or wealth? What’s the effect of this aspect of diversity on businesses overall? The answers to these questions might surprise you — as well as inspire you to pay attention to this often overlooked aspect of organizational diversity.   

As it is suggested in their book, “Hidden Rules of Class at Work,” Ruby Payne and Don Krabill make the case that the economic classes in which individuals are raised influences their opportunities and determines the resources they develop that either help or hinder them in the work force. 

From childhood, we learn behaviors and hidden rules necessary for survival in our economic classes. Hidden rules are unspoken mores that cue an individual as to whether or not they belong in a particular situation. Behaviors develop that support the hidden rules of each class and those same behaviors show up in the work place. Studies conducted by Payne and Krabill conclude the extent to which an employee fits in and achieves success within an organization depends largely on how their resources, connections (relationships) and hidden rules mesh with the resources, connections and hidden rules of the organization.

Supervision in organizations typically comes from mid-management positions that tend to model the hidden rules of the middle class: achievement, work and self-sufficiency. Individuals raised in generational poverty learned the hidden rules of survival, relationships and entertainment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the hidden rules for those raised in generational wealth are financial, political and social connections. The differences clarify why the typical business, run with middle class norms, might not feel comfortable to every employee and why some employees might not easily adapt to the culture or succeed in these organizations. The hidden rules are foreign.

Managers and supervisors must be aware of the hidden rules of their employees and be willing to teach them rules that bolster their success within the organization. For example, do your employees understand the organization’s unspoken rules about money? Those from poverty grew up with the notion that money was to be used, spent. Middle class norms suggest that money is to be budgeted and managed closely. Wealth suggests that one should conserve and invest money. What’s right? Each is a viable use for money, but do your employees understand the views of your organization?

The same can be asked of the view of higher education. Middle class norms suggest that education is critical to success and making money. But to those from poverty, education is more abstract, not a viable reality. For those from wealth, education is a necessary tradition for making and maintaining social connections.

With this perspective of economic diversity and the role it plays in individual success in our middle class organizations, business owners and leaders can better provide the support and resources employees from all classes require to thrive. Employees can be coached to understand the hidden rules regarding the use of time, appropriate clothing, language, humor and other key areas that shape employee behaviors and help them better mesh with the organization.