I’m working class. I was raised on a council estate by a foundry worker and an unpaid carer. I spent my teenage years surviving in the benefits system and for the decade after I left school worked in factories, cleaning jobs and the mental health services. At age thirty I started work in the environmental sector as a fundraiser. For the next twenty I worked in NGOs and social movements and this experience has shown me the difficulties of being working-class in middle class dominated workplaces. But more importantly, it’s shown me that our movements have a great deal to learn from working-class people.
Defining working class
Definitions of class evolve and there’s a wealth of reading out there to explore. Historically, the focus has been on physical, male work, but now it’s more likely to include communities, women and children – more accurate definitions that encompass race, gender, age and geography. During the 1980s and 1990s academics and politicians claimed the class system was ending because the demise of manufacturing had changed the nature of work, but it wasn’t long before the myth of meritocracy fell apart, divisions along class lines marched on, and the inequality gap widened.
An up to date definition that I use with NGOs is from the Race and Class report: We Are Ghosts (2021), because it manages to encapsulate the diversity of working-class lives:
- Essential [workers] cleaners, drivers, nurses, retail cashiers, social care workers, security guards – and the list goes on.
- The unemployed (whose ranks are drawn disproportionately from semi-routine and routine workers with lower employment security).
- People from working-class backgrounds and who therefore, regardless of occupation and earnings, face greater insecurity and inequality in the labour market.
- People who care for children and family outside of employment…their contribution to working-class communities is just as crucial as that of employed workers.
- Working-class people [who] are not in work for various other reasons, such as disability, long-term illness or mental health conditions.
Why should we be aware of class in our organisations and social movements?
‘Working-class people tend to carry the environmental burdens for society’ Karen Bell, Working-Class Environmentalism.’ 2019.
Our organisations are about changing society for the better, but this is unachievable without the knowledge of working-class people. Working-class people are those who live and work most closely to essential systems. They are more likely to be using public services, such as health and social care. They are more likely to be involved with energy provision, food supplies, housing and transport. They are also the people who ‘carry the environmental burdens for society,’ says Karen Bell, a working class academic at Bristol University. They carry most of the other burdens too, like picking up the pieces when public services are cut. And despite carrying these extra burdens they are more likely to face scrutiny and judgement for their choices.
Welcoming workplaces for working-class people
Working-class isn’t a protected characteristic, even though working-class people face disadvantages in workplaces culturally, socially and economically. Despite rhetoric around aspiration and levelling up, the biggest indicator of future income is still our parents income, and even working-class people who find themselves in middle class dominated workplaces face a class pay gap. Unfortunately the class system is good at keeping people in their place via complex threads of geography, privilege and education.
Recommendations for groups and workplaces:
1. Notice the working-class people around you
- Firstly, learn to recognise the working-class people who already exist in your workplaces. This begins with dropping the assumptions about the class make up of the people around you. Over the twenty years I’ve worked in NGO’s I’ve frequently heard phrases like: ‘we’re all middle class here,’ which can be alienating to those of us who aren’t. Cliches and stereotypes about working-class signifiers run deep and often along racial, gendered and geographical lines, which means the working class around you may be overlooked and may also feel uncomfortable pointing this out. This ties in with number 3, below.
- Defensiveness around class positions sadly exists. Getting an expert in to help guide staff is useful. The Class Works Project, for instance. This can help people to think though their class positions and how this may have helped or hindered them, without judgement. Once issue that I’ve heard raised is that middle class people struggle to examine their own class position and how it has shaped and advantaged them. Working through this can help.
- There aren’t foolproof ways to achieve this, but normalising talking about class and backgrounds can help. One organisation I know has an occasional go round asking ‘what jobs did your parents do?’ Performed clumsily this could be intrusive, but in the right atmosphere, with a genuine drive to diversify, it could be transformative in breaking down class assumptions and to stimulate class discussion.
- Some organisations survey their staff. A question asked by one organisation is: ‘What was the occupation of your highest earning parent when you were 14?’ This kind of question is a useful indicator of the economic origins of class. Wider questions like: ‘did either or both of your parents attend university and at what age?’ (Working class people often achieve formal education later). Or ‘Did your parents own their own home?’ “How many books did you have at home growing up?’ help delve into the more complex cultural and social areas of class. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on ‘habitus,’ the way children learn to navigate the world, through accents, gestures, dress and etiquette is useful for understanding this.
2. Rethink recruitment
Recruitment is a crucial stage of addressing class issues. Rethink your recruitment processes, especially for creative and decision making roles. Working-class people are more likely to be in the admin roles, the support roles, when you ideally need that knowledge in leadership and advice giving roles. The following ideas are not a one-size-fits-all and implementing them very much depends on your organisation. You can find more here.
- Mention class on your recruitment forms. For instance, I noticed recently that the Co-op supermarket asks ‘Are you from a low socio-economic background?’ in their recruitment packs.
- Dense written forms can be intimidating, but so can CVs if you aren’t schooled on how to sell yourself. One organisation I know allows people to send video and voice overs of their answers.
- Be clear about dress codes so that people don’t have to guess. Unwritten, unconscious, middle class coding is everywhere.
- Redact schools and universities from the forms. I unfortunately witnessed an interview panel member reading out the schools in a shortlisting process once, with the implication that the ‘better’ schools would produce a ‘better’ candidate. There’s no need to ask for a degree, or even A levels and GCSEs – even as desirable – unless absolutely necessary for the role.
- Be open to those who have been to prison or have no fixed address. Make sure people know it’s ok to have gaps in their CV.
- Be flexible about interview times and mindful of public transport availability. Working-class people are statistically more likely to have caring responsibilities, especially working-class women. Offer childcare/dependent care expenses.
- Consider sending out the interview questions in advance, being mindful to keep it short for people with less time. You are looking for the best person for the role in the long term, not who can perform best at interview.
- Rearrange the room so it’s less intimidating. There are many ways to do this. The panel can walk into the room with the candidate, rather than be sat waiting, or instance. Acknowledge that interviews can be nerve wracking, and allow for small talk. Make sure that at least one person from a working-class background is on the interview panel in a decision making capacity. Ask the working-class people in your organisation for ideas.
- Place job adverts where working-class people are more likely to see them: libraries, public services, hospitals, laundrettes, hostels, playgrounds, public transport and local facebook groups.
- Implement socially just waging policies. This can range from flat pay structures, adjusted upwards for people with dependants and caring responsibilities, through to good practice like pay ‘parity’ (e.g. no wage is more that 2.5 times higher than the lowest salary) pay and grade transparency, incremental pay rises, robust personal development, active promotion pathways and publishing the gender/class pay gap.
- Appoint work mentors for new staff as part of your line management and staff support. One organisation I worked at also had a system of personal mentors, to help with more general work and personal issues, which could be developed as a way of marginalised people having dedicated support.
3. Read and listen to the words of working-class people
Changing recruitment processes only works alongside a shift in organisational culture. This requires shifting our own perceptions of class by reading widely and examining our assumptions.
As part of your training on diversity, include specific reading on class, to increase knowledge of working-class lives. The middle class people I know who are the most inclusive, and manage to avoid stereotypes, are the ones who’ve taken the time to read works by working-class people from the full range of experiences. Katie Beswick’s paper is a good star. It explores the legacies of class that come from being raised and embedded in working-class families and communities, and the lasting impact this has on people’s lives – materially, bodily and culturally. Karen Bell’s Working-Class Environmentalism for those in the environmental sector is essential reading. Diane Raey’s work on working-class people in education is useful. There’s Lumpen – quarterly journal for poor and working-class writers. You can find more working-class writers here.
Encourage each other to rethink your responses to grammar errors, accents, education levels, clothes, and other class prejudices you may unconsciously hold.
Let working-class people lead
- Promote existing working-class people to project leads and other leadership positions. This will help with tone checking your organisational strategies. This can be part of commitments to internal recruitment. Often the knowledge and skills you need are inside your organisation.
- Make working-class people advisors. A charity I worked in set up a diversity and inclusion group that included a focus on class, to help put forward recommendations to the senior management group.
- Recruit working-class people to your advisory boards and trustee groups whilst building in flexibility and adequate support.
The classism across society and its structural violence towards those at the lower end of the class system is often out of our control. However, our organisations have the potential to be a space where some of the inequalities of the class system can be mitigated and the contribution of working-class knowledge and experience can be valued and appreciated.
Thank you for reading and good luck.
Tanya Hawkes is currently researching the history of the coal gas industry and its impacts on working-class communities, as one of the Vice Chancellor PhD Scholarships at Anglia Ruskin University. This is part of the Doctoral Training Alliance: Future Societies Programme – a consortium of researchers from across Britain working on interdisciplinary climate and social change solutions. @tan_hawkes
Class, Environmentalism and NGOs. Tanya Hawkes, 2021.
So you’re about to recruit? Tanya Hawkes, 2019.
The Class Ceiling: Why it pays to be privileged Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison 2019
Katie Beswick. “Feeling working class: affective class identification and its implications for overcoming inequality.” Studies in Theatre and Performance 40, no. 3 (2020): 265-274.
Karen Bell Working-class environmentalism: An agenda for a just and fair transition to sustainability. Springer Nature, 2019.
Diane Reay. “Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes.” International Studies in Sociology of Education 27, no. 4 (2018): 453-456.
Andrew Miles and Mike Savage. The remaking of the British working class, 1840-1940. Routledge, 2013.
Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, et al. “A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey experiment.” Sociology 47, no. 2 (2013): 219-250.
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