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Exploring social class differences at work

Evans, Samantha (2016) Exploring social class differences at work. In: British Universities Industrial Relations Annual Conference hosted in University of Leeds 2016, 29 June - 01 July 2016, Leeds. (Access to this publication is currently restricted. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:58846)

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This paper is part of a wider project that investigates how organisational and individual factors within the workplace contribute to social class differences and inequality by examining the relative impact of objective and subjective indicators of social class on explicit (e.g. salary, promotions) and implicit (e.g. career satisfaction, quality of working life, stress and well-being) career and work outcomes.

There is increasing recognition that social class differences play a crucial role in social inequality, presenting economic, educational and occupational barriers for lower class individuals in the labour market (Ashley et al, 2015; Milburn, 2012; Nunn et al, 2007). Such differences have been inextricably linked to careers, occupational status, income differentials, employment conditions and the quality of working life (Ashley et al, 2015; Gray and Kish-Gephart, 2013; Côté 2011; Atkinson 2010; Crompton, 2010; Hughes, 2004. Yet there exists relatively little research within organisational studies or human resource management that seeks to understand and tackle the issue of social class inequalities in organisations, who themselves rarely consider social class as part of any diversity management strategy. One particular challenge for understanding the dynamic nature of social class in the workplace has been a lack of interdisciplinary enquiry. Social class has been studied predominantly by sociologists at group and societal level. While this has provided considerable knowledge around the definitions of class, the relevance of class and values and social interactions associated with social class, far less is known about its relationship with individual attitudes and behaviour in specific organisational and workplace settings (Crompton, 2010). Therefore, in our project we combine sociological and psychological perspectives to provide a more holistic view of social class inequality in the workplace.

In particular, this paper investigates the experiences of individuals in class-discrepant positions, which Gray and Kish-Gephart (2013: 692) define as those who work in roles that are above or below their initial social class standing. When individuals engage in cross-class interaction they are argued to experience heightened anxiety (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998) and although there has been theoretical development about the contribution of class-discrepant roles to workplace inequality (Gray and Kish-Gephart, 2013), research has yet to empirically explore these theoretical propositions. In addition, individuals who traverse class boundaries within organisations are known to engage in passing and shaping, performativity and class based impression management to facilitate their ‘class travel’ and progress in their careers (Hughes, 2004; Moodley, 1999; Skeggs, 1997). Gray and Kish-Gephart (2013) introduce the concept of ‘class work’ to describe some of these behaviours and theorise that class work perpetuates class differences and inequalities at work. Despite their compelling theory of class work and how it may interact with class-discrepancy to reduce anxiety and perpetuate class norms in the workplace there has been no empirical investigation into the types of class work that individuals may engage in, the type of organisational conditions that effect the likelihood of individuals engaging in class work, or how it might serve to maintain class inequality in the workplace.

In this paper we report on preliminary findings from a pilot study exploring the impact of social class and class work on class inequality in the workplace. Using mixed methods the study consists of a two-stage methodology to 1) quantitatively investigate the experiences of individuals in class-discrepant positions and the impact on their workplace anxiety and 2) to qualitatively explore their experiences of social class inequalities in the workplace and their engagement with ‘class work’. The final paper submission will include data and findings collected from the pilot study.

Stage 1: Survey

To capture the range of different perspectives on social class from different disciplines we used a variety of objective and subjective measures. From these two forms of class-discrepancy were calculated. We adopted affective wellbeing as an indicator of anxiety in the workplace, following existing research (e.g. Mawritz, Folger and Latham 2014). Participants were sent an online questionnaire, which took approximately 15 minutes to complete. Participation in this study was voluntary, and all participants were asked for permission to use their anonymised data for research. Table 1 shows the means, standard deviations and intercorrelations between study variables. Age was negatively related to objective social class, but positively related to objective occupational class and discrepancy, suggesting that older participants may have experienced greater ‘class travel’. Objective social class was positively related to subjective social and occupational class, but not subjective discrepancy. However objective occupational class was positively related to subjective discrepancy suggesting that individuals are more accurate in their subjective evaluations of occupational class then their subjective evaluations of general social class. Subjective class discrepancy was negatively related with negative affect, although no other significant correlations with the affective scales were found.




To test our propositions hypothesis 1 hierarchical regressions were conducted using SPSS 22, controlling for age and gender. Findings are presented in Table 2 and show that objective class discrepancy had no significant relationship with either affective outcome. Therefore hypotheses 1 is rejected.




This analyses was repeated for subjective class discrepancy (Table 3). There was no relationship between subjective class discrepancy and positive affect. However, findings show that subjective class discrepancy is negatively related to negative affect. This suggests that those who perceive themselves as higher social class in comparison to their colleagues experience higher levels of negative affect.




Stage 2: Method

This stage involves a qualitative study exploring and clarifying the measurement of social class used within the survey as well as focusing on the notion of ‘class work’. Therefore our second study uses a qualitative methodology to explore the experiences of individuals in class-discrepant roles of class work and their experiences of class work using a combination of open-ended interview questions and the critical incident technique. To date, fifteen one to one interviews lasting on average 45 minutes have been conducted. The final paper submission will include data collected from further interviews and findings.


The findings of these studies will inform how social class operates within organisations and its contribution to employee wellbeing and workplace inequality. It will also provide a foundation for our wider project investigating the impact of social class on organisations and their employees.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Uncontrolled keywords: social class, inequality, class travel, class discrepant roles
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
Divisions: Divisions > Kent Business School - Division > Department of Leadership and Management
Depositing User: Samantha Evans
Date Deposited: 21 Nov 2016 16:42 UTC
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2022 12:21 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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