When Anyelis Cordero got her first office job, she felt like she didn’t fit in. As a Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. with her mother at age 4, she didn’t grow up around a lot of money or have access or exposure to the business world. “It was challenging for me to enter corporate America,” says Cordero, a program manager for Prudential’s Finance Leadership Development Program. “The language, the mannerisms, the polish, socialization—it was all hard to navigate.”
The U.S. may not have an explicit class system, but it absolutely does exist, and it plays a hidden role in workplace success. “Class is a big factor in corporate America,” says Francine Chew, Vice President of Impact and Responsible Investing at Prudential. “It can have an impact on how comfortable you are speaking up. And it doesn’t matter how high you climb or how much you accumulate—it will always be present.”
But as important as it is, class isn’t often acknowledged at work. Talking about money is still uncomfortable for a lot of people, and talking about socioeconomic differences even more so.
“Class is one of those invisible dimensions. When it comes to things like gender, race, ethnicity, and even sexuality to an extent, people are proud. But we don’t talk about the fact that we grew up in a working-class community and use that as a way to connect with people because it’s so stigmatized and so shamed,” Cordero says. “So there’s something to be said about being in an environment that allows you to tell your story. I feel like I can come to work and be my authentic self and share all dimensions of me.”
These truths about class differences in the workplace should be part of any diversity conversation:
1. We Are Shaped by Our Financial Past...
“Everyone’s identities and careers are shaped by a story of how they grew up with or without money,” says Anindya Sengupta, Vice President of Strategy, who was born and raised in India. Because he wasn’t in the upper echelon of social elites, Sengupta attended public school and didn’t study English until he went to college at 18—but after business school, he was told that speaking fluent English was a priority if he wanted to succeed in corporate America. Self-conscious about his language skills, he spent the early part of his career more hesitant to voice his ideas.
Chew—who moved to the U.S. from Jamaica when she was 12—had to navigate class issues from a young age. The daughter of a nanny, she attended Exeter, Yale, and Harvard Business School. “I’ve been adjacent to wealth for most of my adult life, but only as a professional was I able to have the opportunity to be middle class,” she says. “However, I still get calls from family members asking for cash. Even though I’ve done well and experienced a level of social mobility, not everyone in my extended network has.”
2. ...and by Our Financial Present
Like Chew, many people have hidden financial responsibilities. Whether they’re helping to support family, paying off student loans, or struggling with credit card debt, it means that even if they’re on an equal footing with co-workers salary-wise, they may be feeling the weight of class differences.
Cordero has experienced this firsthand. When she started at Prudential, she also had a weekend job—but nobody knew. “I remember coming in Monday mornings and everyone was talking about their weekends, like, ‘I went to the Hamptons,’ or ‘I went shopping,’” she says. “I felt a sense of shame. I didn’t want to talk about how I was working a second job because I have a lot of student loans to pay back or because I help my family.”
3. People Go Deeper Than Their Polish
Refined corporate speak may not come as easily to those who grew up outside the white-collar world. In fact, it can feel downright awkward, stiff, and uncomfortable—especially when presenting in front of a group. In these instances, it’s important to remember that the idea or the message is more significant than how it’s being delivered. “We need to always be able to have our ears open and understand,” Chew says.
For her part, Chew has never tried to adopt a more subdued, corporate way of speaking—and her approach is to be upfront about this cultural difference from the get-go. “As a Jamaican woman, I speak with my hands and tend to be a little bit louder than, say, a more stereotypical East Coast person,” she says. “A trick that I picked up is just saying, “Look, I tend to be more animated and more colorful.’”
4. You Can Connect With Co-workers of All Backgrounds
Whether you’re struggling with class bias or not, it can feel natural and comfortable to gravitate toward people with similar backgrounds—which can happen even within companies that have a diverse workforce. But that means missing out on what could be meaningful connections (both personal and professional) with co-workers just because they’re not the same as you.
Employee resource groups (ERGs)—or, as Prudential and other companies call them, business resource groups (BRGs)—can go a long way in bridging these gaps. “BRGs are not just for people with similar backgrounds, and what’s neat is that there’s intra-company education happening,” Chew says. “While you know that there are going to be people there who are similar to you, you also know there’ll be people there who are different. So you’re able to expand your network and get advocates and allies that aren’t necessarily a carbon copy of yourself, which is nice.”
5. Being Open About Class Difference Helps Everyone
Cordero attended what she describes as a “fancy liberal arts college,” and felt like she couldn’t connect with her peers—many of whom, she says, drove nice cars when her family didn’t even own one. During this time, she says, “I didn’t even know how to start a conversation around my life and how I grew up.” But now that she’s found some success, it’s easier to share where she came from—and her advice to others is to do the same, rather than hide who you are.
When individuals and companies as a whole speak honestly about class, it can come with many benefits, including increased productivity. “If someone is financially stressed, they may be checking their accounts 20 times a day or running out to pay a bill, and that can be distracting,” Chew says. “If we were more open to having conversations about financial stress and pressures, I think people would be more open about solutioning. Which would then give you the freedom to be present when you’re at work.”
Customers reap rewards as well, especially at a financial wellness company like Prudential. “Once employees are more comfortable talking about their financial stressors, it gives us an opportunity to create solutions for the customer base,” Cordero says. “There are millions of customers out there like us who are experiencing the same stressors at work.”
Through her experience working in talent acquisition, Cordero is proud that she’s been able to inspire and encourage candidates. “I’ve found that by sharing my story, I can relate to students or students who have a similar background can relate to me,” she says. “They are able to see themselves in a place like Prudential and they’re excited about the opportunity to be ‘like me.’ I’m someone who has been able to navigate the space.”