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Over the past few years increasing attention has been paid to the numerous negative impacts of bias and discrimination. Sometimes the benefits of diverse and increased representation have received less attention. Diversity of people and backgrounds leads to a diversity of ideas and experiences that can benefit the larger group or community.

The Bottom Line

A great competitive edge is a diverse organization, because that leads to new products and services, as well as perspective on different demographics that you may or may not get from market surveys or market focus groups. Organizations must become aware of the eight class biases that show up in the workplace as well as in the hiring process: education, culture, prestige, occupation, heritage, wealth, income, and personal power. It is important to look at organization systems to see where bias exists in the system. The goal is to not say anti-biased, but to identify and expose biases, thus mitigating them.

In his book What’s Your Zip Code Story? Understanding and Overcoming Class Bias in the Workplace, Christopher “CJ” Gross addresses class division and shares knowledge needed to promote productive discussions and bring about effective changes. Mr. Gross is founder of Ascension Worldwide, a firm dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusivity training and consulting based in the Washington, DC area. He also serves as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Master Faculty for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Center for Innovation and Business Management, Adjunct Faculty for the Community College of Baltimore County.

Ahead, he discusses how one’s ZIP code can influence their opportunities, discusses how diversity benefits organizations, and shares actionable tips for increasing diversity and representation in businesses, including medical practices.

What are some of the identified detriments to an organization that is not focused on having a diversified and representative workforce?

CJ Gross: Several things actually will show up in a company’s outcomes. The first is leadership. If there’s a lack of representation of diverse populations, diversity only shows up in the lower levels of the organization. That will further perpetuate the lack of diversity at different levels of the organization.

There will also be a lack of innovation. Throughout history, we’ve seen that innovation comes from things that already exist in different ways that are brought together from different cultures and industries and perspectives to create new products and services and ways of doing things, whether it’s in politics, pharmaceuticals, engineering. We see innovation and communication across differences. Innovation leads to different products in the marketplace, different ways to reach different customer groups, which then also will lead to increased market share. The lack of diversity impacts market share in two ways: By decreasing market share and market share stagnation. Both impact revenue.

Make Change

“Consider providing paid internships for marginalized identities,” Mr. Gross says. “Paid internships and more focused internships designed to support individuals from lower class backgrounds and first-generation college graduates can help them develop the skill sets necessary to compete for jobs or for promotions within the company.”

Aside from non-profits, most companies are in business to make money. If you have a monopoly on a market, that’s one thing, but if you have contenders, you definitely want to utilize your competitive edge. A great competitive edge is a diverse organization, because they’ll come up with new products and services. They’ll talk about and give you perspective on different demographics that you may or may not get from market surveys or market focus groups.

Of course, key is not to simply “present” a diverse workforce but to actually integrate a diverse workforce. I worked with one company that lost a $100 million contract because they didn’t have a diverse group of leaders. They had one woman on the pitch team for this contract; she didn’t speak and when asked questions would refer back to her white, male colleagues. The bidding company recognized that the woman presenting was not valued as a contributor to the leadership team.

This same company was flatlining in its metropolitan market, which was growing 10%. Roughly 25% of the stagnant company’s small pool of diverse employees was leaving for the competition, which fosters diversty throughout their company and was flourishing.

How can one’s ZIP Code affect the individual and their potential opportunities?

Mr. Gross: When we did research for the book, one of the things that was astonishing—that blew my mind—is that the US Census Bureau uses the ZIP code to determine mortality rate, level of education to be obtained, exposure to crime, and income potential, not to mention quality of health.

So, is it the chicken or the egg? Are we creating this story about people in this ZIP code? Or are decision-makers at agencies, companies, etc. using ZIP codes to determine how many resources they’re going to put into certain communities based on expected ROI?

According to a recent study, in seconds hiring managers determine whether or not a job candidate is going to be a good fit for a position based on how they talk or in other words their ZIP code story. ( In that brief moment, the ZIP code becomes a subconscious assessment that may influence further action.

We worked with a major university health care service in a large urban setting. Their HR professionals did not look at location very much when dealing with hiring for medical care providers. But they acknowledged that one of the first things they looked at for other potential hires was ZIP code. There is an assumption that higher level employees will have the means to get to work and an assumption that lower-paid employees cannot be relied upon to get to work from farther distances. The ZIP code can create a story about who that person will be in the interview.

What are some of the things that an organization can do to help eliminate bias in its hiring and staffing?

Mr. Gross: The first thing is to really become aware of the eight class biases that show up in the workplace as well as in the hiring process. These are: education, culture, prestige, occupation, heritage, wealth, income, and personal power.

Education refers not only to the degree attained, but also to the conferring school. As I’ll discuss in a bit, sometimes a focus on degrees can override a focus on applicable skills.

Culture refers to both organizational culture and background culture. One clear example is in Canada where, in some areas, if you don’t speak French or don’t have a French last name, you can be very easily excluded from the hiring process.

Prestige is a reflection of “how you show up.” Potential employers may favor candidates with nicer cars, nicer suits, nice schools, etc.

Occupation means people will create a story about you based on whether you’ve already held a certain position versus not held that position.

Heritage generally refers to your family heritage and how that is presented. This may be especially relevant in small cities and developing countries.

Wealth and income may be intertwined. The more wealth you have, the more opportunities you have. One clear example is the correlation of wealth with internships. People with more resources can often capitalize on more or better internship opportunities. Many large companies offer unpaid internships, which are accessible to those with wealth but are not realistic for individuals who require an income.

Income, of course, is how much money you actually bring in. And that allows the individual to have experiences that influence additional opportunities. It’s conceivable that a candidate cannot afford the $20 for the parking garage to attend an interview. Individuals with lower incomes may not be able to afford to go out to lunch with colleagues, which excludes them from the benefits of those opportunities.

Make Change

“It’s time to challenge some of the common norms that we’ve been operating from. I often hear hiring managers, especially in the pharmaceutical field, tell me they need to hire individuals that have past experience in the field,” says Mr. Gross. “But what if you can see the transferable skills and be able to correlate that to success in this field? Hiring managers who can do that are going to have more diverse teams, because they’re able to look beyond the fact that you don’t have the experience specifically in this field, but they’re transferable.”

Personal power is how you influence, whether it’s in the interview or in the job. For example, people who are very charismatic have the ability to connect with other people easily. That is also a class bias, because classification is not just based on social class. It’s the things that you hold that allow you to leverage opportunities. Someone who can speak well or has the ability to connect in a specific way may out-maneuver someone in an interview, but they may or may not be the best person for the job.

What does it look like to be actively anti-biased in the approach to hiring and staffing?

Mr. Gross: To be anti-biased is to also embrace the awareness and reality that biases exist. A lot of companies are trying to get rid of biases, but biases will always exist. Instead of trying to get rid of their biases, I encourage them to become more aware of their biases and talk about their biases. At our organization, Ascension Worldwide, one of the things we do when we get off of a Zoom call or finish interviewing someone, is immediately talk about the stories that our brains created about the person so we can put them on the table and be aware of them.

For example, during a video conference interview with an intern, I noticed he didn’t make his bed and it bothered me; it reminded me of my oldest daughter. In my head, I was thinking, “If I hire him, is he going to be like my daughter and not get things done that I ask?” If I’m not aware of that bias upfront, then it can easily become a subconscious bias that, like the ZIP code, story is created in seconds. With these individual biases, it is helpful to then discuss the relevance of the stated bias. If it has no true bearing on the job, then it should be discarded. If there is potential relevance, discuss it further.

It is important to look at organization systems to see where bias exists in the system. For example, some companies have requirements for geographical location. Is that necessary anymore since we’ve all gone through COVID? Can we expand our reach in terms of people who now can work from home or work from different ZIP codes or different geographical locations? Is it true that this position requires a PhD or a master’s degree or even a degree? Could we give candidates credit for transferable skillsets?

Our goal is really to not say anti-biased, but to embrace the biases we have and through embracing them and exposing them, then mitigating them. You can’t adjust for something that you don’t acknowledge exists.

What about smaller, local organizations like medical practices, that don’t necessarily have access to diverse candidate pools?

Mr. Gross: When businesses understand the business case for diversity, they don’t see developing diversity as extra work; they see it as supporting the business. They want to expand their pool.

One option is to tap into HBCUs and certain associations that support under-represented individuals. Don’t plan to just call them when you need someone. You have to build a relationship with them so that they trust that you’re not just doing a diversity hire, but you actually want to be an inclusive and diverse organization. This is a critical step, and this is where many organizations fail.

I get calls all the time from people saying that they need to hire someone in order to reflect diversity. They may even say they need to hire a woman, or a person of color, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ. They indicate they cannot find someone who meets key qualifications for the job and ask what to do.

I always tell them not to hire someone solely to fill a “demographic.” I prefer you not have a diverse team than to hire someone who has a diverse background from your culture and set them up for failure because they’re not the right fit or you didn’t give them support that they needed.

What strategies can be put in place to support the success of a diverse staff?

Mr. Gross: This is where the rubber meets the road and where the greatest opportunity lies. Once you have individuals in the organization that are diverse, you must employ the three Cs. First is cultivating a culture of mentorship. Mentorship seems to be one of the main keys to creating a sense of belonging, as well as developing new talent for the pipeline for leadership and equity.

I call mentorship the bridge to equity because you can give someone resources like pay equity, you can increase their pay, but that only gets you so far. A culture of mentorship means that everyone in the C-suite and leadership is mentoring everyone. So you can knock on someone’s door and peek your head in and someone will give you resources or a phone number or go to lunch with you. They have time for you. And it’s something that leaders just do. It’s not something that you have to sign up for.

The second C is culture and character development. When people are looking for leaders, the seek individuals who have an understanding of culture of the organization, as well as different types of people and backgrounds. So you should operationalize this in a development program.

The second part of that is character. When organizations are looking for leaders, they’re looking for character, which means really how you handle difficult situations or pressure. What is your decision matrix? What does it look like when you are in those particular situations? Can you lead people? Can you lead yourself? Will you do the right thing when no one else is looking?

The last C is credentials. Class bias happens beneath and beyond particular credentials like degrees and certifications, and this can be especially relevant for class migrants and first-generation graduates. Many credentials that people need to make it in business and leadership specifically have to do with things that are not necessarily going to show on the resume. Travel is one of those things. It costs money. It takes time. However, if an intern or a college graduate is sitting in an interview and she’s talking about her travels—maybe they did a study abroad program, or they did a volunteer program that took them around the globe and gave them a different perspective from a different country—that lends to their credibility. It makes an impression for the hiring person within the company organization. Playing golf is another credentialing activity and it’s often tied to wealth and income.

Companies can make it a part of their benefits program or allow employees to use their education dollars, not just for traditional credentials, but also for things that are going to make them a well-rounded person. Some companies even offer work abroad programs.

If the organization is willing to infuse the three Cs into their operations—the way that they grow talent, the way they bring talent in, their succession planning, their mentorship programs and their internship programs—they’re going to see a great return on investment as well as more diversity, especially in leadership, which is what we really are looking for.

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