Unconscious bias about economic class often surfaces in the workplace. First of all, your brain is on autopilot based on how you grew up. Mindsets, habits, patterns, opportunities and experiences are all shaped by the environment in which we experience our lives. Survival, achievement and connections are also important.
Can you live without a credit card and checking account? You have employees who do. Can you move in a single day? You have employees who are masters at it. Do you understand the difference between the principal, interest and escrow payments on your mortgage statement? The more we have experienced, the more versatile we are and the more we can contribute in the workplace.
Entry-level, lower-wage workers (who often are living in survival mode) experience higher levels of personal instability, which leads to absenteeism, health problems, violations of workplace expectations, and communication conflicts. Employees living in the tyranny of the moment focus on meeting their daily survival needs, while management is thinking about tomorrow, planning and focusing on achievement. The two mindsets collide at work, creating conflict.
How can employers support employees who are living in economic instability?
First, understand the environment you grew up in and the environment your coworkers come from. How do your employees spend their time? Is it spent in survival mode, solving problems that come up today, or is it spent in achievement and work mode? Are they spending time on today or on the future? By doing this, you help better relationships evolve, which results in less turmoil and more productivity.
Second, take a look at the policies, procedures and benefits of the business. Analyze what needs to be revised to better accommodate those employees living in instability. This is not a matter of lowering expectations in the workplace; instead, you are creating new pathways for business success.
An example of an existing procedure is reviewing applications and interviewing candidates for your workplace. Are applications accepted only via a web portal? What kind of algorithm does the application process use? Does it accept applications with misspelled words? Most applicants use the correct buzzwords for the job in order to land in the inbox of the human resources department? What if this demographic of employee does not have a computer in the home? How many visits are required before the candidate starts on the first day? This demographic of employee may have more challenges with transportation than others. What can be done to streamline that process?
An example of a policy that could be changed might be health insurance. Many employers offer health insurance, but the deductible is so high that most entry-level employees can’t afford to use it — and if employees have lived in daily instability for generations, they may not know how health insurance works. Here are two ideas you might consider:
(1) Provide a class on how health insurance works presented by a coworker or other peer.
(2) On the first fiscal month of a health insurance year, deposit money into a flexible spending account (FSA) so employees can afford to use the health insurance benefit. We are not talking about an ethical argument, but a direct financial incentive.
Another thing to consider is the benefit of creating relationships of mutual respect with your entry-level, lower-wage employees.
When you live in daily instability, relationships are of the utmost importance. In the environment of daily instability, when your car breaks down, AAA is not an option; Uncle Ray is the option. That is why relationships are so important. And yes, that carries over into the workplace.
Ask about employees’ families, listen to their stories, and share lunch together. Once employees know they are respected, they will have your back. Since these employees make decisions based on relationships and survival, it is a key component in driving retention.
Avoiding workforce instability starts with pre-hires and moves on with promoting employees from within. Use these opportunities to grow your brand, improve morale and productivity, and watch your profitability increase.
So, how do I hire employees and retain them?
When people live in daily instability, there are not enough resources for today, let alone for tomorrow. In such an environment, relationships are a driving force, and employees make their decisions based on relationships and survival.
When hiring in this highly competitive market, the following points are important to remember when hiring under-resourced employees.
Concrete versus abstract
When an employee lives in the present and makes decisions for today, life is concrete and is about what can be touched, felt, seen, smelled and tasted.
When an employee lives instability, life can be abstract. You may find that under-resourced employees have a harder time understanding abstract concepts, such as initial public offerings and marketing plans.
Both concrete and abstract thinking drive policy and procedure in the workplace. Under-resourced employees will respond to short-term rewards like hiring bonuses,one-week bonuses, and gas cards or bus passes for the first week of work. The objective is to make it through the day. A bonus promised after six months of employment is not much of an incentive for a new, entry-level hire who lives in daily instability. Consider a bus pass or a grocery or gas card in the first week of employment to get them through to the first paycheck. Remember that working overtime might be about daycare and transportation issues or deadlines and not about being lazy.
For stable, resourced employees, long-term benefits like health insurance are meaningful. If under-resourced employees’ health benefits aren’t in line with their wages, then that’s a benefit that won’t be utilized, and employees will still be absent due to illness.
We know that the $300 federal stimulus was only a small portion of why employees were not returning to work. Affordable childcare is a large issue for many people seeking work. COVID increased childcare shortages. If we didn’t have issues before the pandemic, we do now. Women want to come back to the workplace, and they find childcare a huge barrier. A strong alternative for employers is on-site subsidized childcare; this option allows parents to report to work with the option of dropping in on children during breaks and lunchtime.
The time offered for lunch break may impact hiring and retaining employees. Can you schedule lunch breaks based on school hours and the time needed to pick up and drop off children? What about flexible work hours for college students?
What is the word on the street about your company? What is your company known for? Fairness, respect, a caring culture? Relationships come first for under-resourced employees, and whether you want to believe it or not, this makes an impact when you hire and try to retain employees.
Consider having a “coach” visit your business on a regular basis. This person helps solve life problems while an under-resourced employee is at work. Companies that offer this benefit have seen a huge difference in stability, productivity and retention of all employees. ERN-USA is an organization that does this well. The ROI, which includes retention and productivity for those that have been served, is over the top and should not be ignored as a retention strategy.
The demographic of the entry-level employee is not going to change for your company. You can choose to continue on the hiring treadmill and get the same results, or you can choose to review your employee life cycle within the company to determine where barriers are created for this employee group. Are there barriers in the application and hiring process, the first week on the job, the first month on the job, etc.? Where can those barriers be eliminated so that employees are more successful, which in the end makes the company more successful?
Changing a few policies and procedures while working to hire and retain lower-wage, entry-level employees can make all the difference in increasing retention rates and the bottom line for your company. This is our goal for your business and the resources you provide in your community.
Many of you know about the work aha! Process has done with economic diversity and the approaches we recommend for workplace stability for hourly wage workers. We always recommend a two-pronged approach — providing information for both the employer and the worker. For the employer, we recommend the book written by Ruth Weirich called Workplace Stability. For the employee, we recommend the book GettingAhead in the Workplace by Philip E. DeVol.