Climbing the corporate ladder in thrift-store clothing
By Angela Pham
The beauty of New York is its diversity: We have workers of every skin and tie color lined up for halal street food. Muslim shoulders touching Jewish shoulders on the subway. Public housing skyscrapers with million-dollar views. What always strikes me, though, is the lack of economic diversity in New York corporate offices. Maybe you’ve noticed it, especially if you too live in a big city but come from a small town where the economy is dismal, where working as a Starbucks barista garners admiration. They get amazing benefits, you know.
At my old corporate job in Midtown Manhattan, I heard Mandarin, Spanish, and Hebrew in our elevators. We were diverse in that sense. Even as I knew stories of our black accountants mistaken for caterers and custodians, if you wore the right suit, you fit in well enough. But looking past the surface of skin, I wondered how many others in corporate America were dumbstruck when they heard how much a partner could make at their company. How many others shopped for used business clothes at thrift stores. How many others had never known the significance of “Where did you go to school?” until they moved to NYC.
The more I learned from conversations, colleagues, and research, the more I realized there weren’t many others. According to the book Pedigree, top-tier professional services, law, and financial firms—household-name kinds of companies—are heavily biased toward hiring students who lean “elite.” Whether that means an interviewer unconsciously gravitating toward a job candidate who played polo just like him, or a company consciously putting most of the HR budget toward Ivy League recruiting, most corporate dream jobs will be filled with those who come from financially privileged circumstances.
It’s isolating to feel like the odd-one-out in any setting, but especially in your 20s, and particularly in a company where it feels like everyone around you is well off, or at least better off. This kind of economic insecurity can hold you back from applying for new opportunities, negotiating for better pay, or networking with bravado.
The silver lining is that I think everyone feels this way sometimes—some just hide it better. Economic insecurity is partially what drives New Yorkers to be so competitive. But even more consoling is the fact that there are concrete things people from lower income brackets can do to work up the corporate ladder, no matter what city you work in or what social class you relate to.
What I’ve learned:
1. Recognize that financial status is mostly indiscernible. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a pair of Christian Louboutins outside a TV or magazine—they were strapped to the feet of a young woman in my office who smelled like a mix of Le Labo and cash. I instantly affiliated her with privilege. But that’s just silly. People do not know how much each other makes, how much we spend, or how much debt we carry. They don’t know how much of our income comes from credit card points, dead relatives, generous parents, or hard-earned savings from bartending. Economic assumptions often catalyze our financial insecurities, so it’s best to withhold judgments and focus on bettering ourselves.
2. Know what signals you send. Now, forget what I said before and think of what class signals you currently send professionally. In your resume, LinkedIn profile, and personal social media accounts, you’re likely revealing social class elements, whether it’s the fact that you went to community college, or your affiliations with certain organizations, hobbies, and peers. Consider the picture this paints and how this aligns with your professional pursuits.
For example, Pedigree suggests that job applicants who went to obscure schools for financial reasons should make it clear what scholarships and financial awards they received. Those who worked customer-service jobs should play up the skills it taught them that are applicable to office jobs. Emphasizing your participation in a reading club over your passion for street basketball might be more relatable to your interviewer. These are subjective portrayals we paint; whatever your feelings on personal branding, be conscious of what story you’re telling.
3. Be yourself. Being from a different economic class than your corporate peers can lead to potentially awkward moments. Watercooler talk about fanciful vacations you have never experienced can be hard to engage in, or disclosing that you still live with a handful of roommates to save money. There are ways to get through these moments. If you’re not comfortable sharing stories that reveal your financial realities, focus on the other person. Asking more questions about their lives creates a conversation the other party is likely to enjoy, because people naturally love talking about themselves.
4. Be upfront. But it’s both an educational experience for the other person and a lesson in confidence for you if you’re upfront. For example, for years I used to hide the fact that I had never been on an airplane until I was in my 20s, but sharing this helps remind people that much of the U.S. can’t afford to fly. Sometimes, this knowledge helps you relate better to a company’s customers, so putting out a unique perspective can be to your professional advantage, too—you never know. In a post-election world in which we all recognize that we thrive in bubbles, your different viewpoint is more valuable than ever.
5. Negotiate unabashedly. Those who come from less privileged financial means might tend to settle for less. The suggested salary on a job description might sound like more than enough money, especially compared to how you were raised, so maybe you don’t negotiate your pay. Just having health insurance is your priority, so asking about any 401k benefits might feel like a greedy question to you. But we should be compensated because of the value we bring, not because of the comfort level we have with our current financials. Do market research on what your job duties and title typically earn in your city, and dismiss any guilt, remorse, or other feelings that creep into your negotiations. Pay discussions should not be emotional or tied to your upbringing; they’re just business transactions.
6. Support people like you. There are many organizations that would love to have more mentors and volunteers to help others from many underprivileged backgrounds gain career skills. Streetwise Partners works in NYC and D.C. to work with young adults and adults to learn professional skills; Big Brothers Big Sisters seeks mentors for kids nationwide; Defy Ventures works to develop business plans for ex-prisoners. Find a group whose cause you feel driven by so you can pass on your own career lessons to them.
Feeling set back by your financial circumstances or upbringing is natural when you work in a corporate setting. College classes don’t prepare us for these realities, and your company probably won’t, either. But when you understand the value of your unique perspective and share it with others, it makes for a far more diverse workplace where many voices contribute to new ideas. The more comfortable you feel acknowledging this part of you, the more confident you’ll be at work.