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Do employers discriminate based on social class?

Diversity should include socioeconomic considerations

By Brian Kreissl

We tend to think of Canada as being a “classless society,” meaning there are few real differences between people based on socioeconomic factors such as income, education, accent or occupational background. It also means there are few restrictions on upward mobility, especially for people from traditionally working class backgrounds.

When I was a university student in Scotland, I noticed it was pretty easy to pigeonhole someone there based on their accent. And it felt like upper middle class people led totally different lives and moved in completely different circles from their working class counterparts.

While tuition was free to most domestic students at the time, it was also strange how the vast majority of university students over there came from fairly privileged backgrounds. Many people from ordinary backgrounds didn’t even consider university or managerial and professional careers to be options open to them.

No doubt, class distinctions are much less restrictive in Canada than they are in Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. A recent study by the Economic Mobility Project even found Canada had 2.5 times the economic mobility of the United States.

So, we should congratulate ourselves on having a society where hard-working people can get ahead based on their ability. But there’s still room for improvement.

There’s also much more to the debate than economic mobility, since income isn’t the only element of social class. For one thing, many blue collar occupations in Canada have traditionally paid better than a lot of white collar, managerial or even professional jobs.

While we’ve all heard stories about assembly line workers or bus drivers earning close to $100,000 a year, the problem in Canada is we’re seeing a dramatic decline in those types of jobs as manufacturing jobs disappear and governments and taxpayers increasingly adopt a hard line stance towards public sector unionized workers.

There’s some very real evidence we’re seeing an increase in the gap between rich and poor in this country. And as well-paid blue collar jobs disappear, more of the people who previously worked in those jobs will find themselves increasingly marginalized. Retraining will become necessary.

Discrimination based on social condition

Only a handful of Canadian jurisdictions ban discrimination based on “social condition.”

In other jurisdictions, human rights legislation does not specifically protect workers from discrimination based on social class — unless that discrimination is somehow also tied to another ground that is actually prohibited.

Should other jurisdictions expand the scope of prohibited grounds to cover this area? Is such legislation even necessary?

I personally believe class distinctions are alive and well in Canada and people of lower socioeconomic standing should be offered assistance. But legislation might not be the answer.

Class distinctions in Canada

No doubt class distinctions aren't nearly as pronounced in Canada as they are in a country like the U.K. But, perhaps because I spent so much time living in Scotland, it's pretty easy for me to spot the markers of class.

Some blue collar people in Canada actually have a slightly different accent, meaning they often pronounce certain words slightly differently. And the words and phrases they use are often a little different. Clothing, tastes in music, leisure activities and even food can also be relevant.

Likewise, it's fairly easy to spot an upper middle class person. For example, golf is often a marker of social class, since golfing often goes hand-in-hand with “old money.”

People of higher status often live in certain neighbourhoods. They also tend to shop at certain stores, eat certain foods, drink certain wines and read certain books.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, it does show we're not quite the classless society many would have us believe we are. I suppose our backgrounds, experiences and finances shape our tastes and our habits, but problems can arise when people are treated differently because “they're not like us.”

Does this happen? I believe it does.

I’m not arguing good communication and interpersonal skills or the right image isn’t important for certain roles. Cultural fit can also make or break an individual’s ability to perform successfully in a role.

But to be truly inclusive, employers need to start looking beyond characteristics that have nothing to do with a candidate’s ability to do the job. So what if someone pronounces “garage” more like “gradge” and she prefers beer over wine — or if he drives a pickup truck rather than a sedan and doesn’t play golf?

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com. 

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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3 Comments
  • RE: Lack of class mobility worst in U.S.
    Wednesday, January 25, 2012 11:43:00 AM by Brian Kreissl
    Hi John:

    I believe the New York Times article you mention was referring to that Economic Mobility Project study I referred to in my blog post. It certainly was an interesting finding. Apparently, the U.S. isn't quite the "land of opportunity" many people thought it was. However, I still think we have our own challenges here in Canada with respect to the widening gap between rich and poor. Some of those types of concerns are discussed in the following Globe and Mail article by Barrie McKenna:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/in-canada-unlike-the-us-the-american-dream-lives-on/article2303230/