98. What are first generation, low income workers and how do they fit into the Future of Work | Gorick NG


 Gorick NG | Author and Adviser at Harvard



Welcome to Episode 98 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The Future of Work is NOW.

For the next three episodes we are joined by author and adviser at Harvard College, Gorick NG. In this first part of our conversation Gorick explains the educational origin of the term First Generation, Low Income and how today it is being used more in the business context. He references some of his own lived experiences of being an outsider, and alludes to his book of unspoken rules that hide in almost all organizations.


Gorick NG BIO


Gorick Ng is the Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, a book published by Harvard Business Review Press named by Thinkers50 as one of the top 10 management books of 2022.

Gorick is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students. He is also on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches the unspoken rules of career navigation.

He has been featured in Forbes, The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, New York Post, Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, and CNBC. He was named by Thinkers50 as one of 30 thinkers to watch in 2022.



[00:00:00] - Gorick Ng
What are the unspoken rules of your organization? What are the things that insiders might know subconsciously that will, in turn, have them come across as high performers and high potentials, but that really aren't common sense.

[00:00:25] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to Episode 98 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work podcast. This is the podcast that looks at all aspects of work in the future, and it's brought to you by WNDYR. I'm your host, Doug Foulkes, and with me is the CEO at WNDYR, Claire Haidar. This month, we're spending time with author and adviser at Harvard College, Gorick Ng. Gorick's book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, is aimed to help first-time professionals navigate the workplace and was born out of his own experiences as a first-generation, low-income graduate. This is what Claire has to say about our time with him.

[00:01:03] - Claire Haidar
Doug, I think both you and I can agree that this was perhaps one of the most emotional podcasts that we've ever done. And such a fascinating niche topic. I don't think we've ever had such a niche conversation on the podcast. We went really deep into first-generation, low-income workers in the USA today. This is an area that Gorick specializes in. Essentially, he calls this out as a group of people who are completely underserved and overlooked within the broader demographic studies that happen around work and how they are interestingly one of the biggest influences in the future of work, which is why it's such an important and applicable conversation for us to be having on our podcast today. I really came out of this, my eyes opened and really looking at the world very differently.

[00:02:03] - Doug Foulkes
Gorick, very nice to meet you, and welcome to the podcast.

[00:02:08] - Gorick Ng
Thank you so much, Doug, and thank you, Claire, for having me.

[00:02:10] - Doug Foulkes
My first question and the first segment is all around your terminology of first-generation, low-income workers. I'd like to start off by straight away asking you to maybe just give a bit more detail in the personas that you've created. Who are these people? Just so that everyone who's listening can get on the same page as who we're talking about.

[00:02:34] - Gorick Ng
Sounds great. Well, the term you're referring to actually has a comma in between, which is important to call out. It's actually a term that is used in higher education, primarily in the US, but it's catching on elsewhere. It's four words. It's first-generation, low-income. The first generation part in higher education refers to those who are the first in their families to pursue a higher education. Now, that in and of itself is a pretty broadly encompassing term because some institutions will say, Well, you need to have a parent who's graduated from a four-year institution in the United States.

[00:03:12] - Gorick Ng
I won't go into too much detail on the technicalities of who defines the term as what. But broadly speaking, I think of it more as an identity and a lived experience of being an outsider in the world in which you're entering into. In the higher education example, pursuing a higher education, having office hours with professors, needing to develop your own study habits, needing to look after yourself and balance both school, and life, and career, that might be foreign to someone who is the first in their family to pursue such an experience.

[00:03:49] - Gorick Ng
Now, in the workplace, I think about it very similar where, well, you can be first-generation if you were, for example, the first in your family to pursue a white-collar profession. You can be a first-generation software engineer if, for example, you're the first in your family to do that. I define first-generation pretty broadly. Now, when it comes to the low-income aspect, this is a matter of class, and this is one of, in higher education, being someone who, for example, might be on full financial aid or might be taking on substantial student loans to pay for your education.

[00:04:25] - Gorick Ng
In a workplace context, I think about this as a challenge of compatibility or "culture fit". Where, for example, if you are someone who can't relate to your coworker's small talk about going to the beachfront home or going on these fancy vacations or having this extravagant lifestyle, how do you engage in that small talk, which is something that we see as optional but that's really obligatory? And all of this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart because I'm the first in my family to pursue a higher education.

[00:05:00] - Gorick Ng
I'm the proud son of a working-class single mother who left school when she was 12 years old. So the experience I had of going to Harvard University was a big eye-opening and frankly, anxiety-provoking experience. My first time stepping foot into corporate America was also just a series of unknown unknowns. How do I show up? What do I say? Who do I say it to? What does it mean to have a one-on-one with your manager? All of that became territory that I had to figure out through trial and error.

[00:05:30] - Claire Haidar
Gorick, I'm going to weigh in here immediately because you've actually started answering the exact question that I wanted to ask you. First of all, welcome. It's so good to be on the show with you. I've really been looking forward to this topic since our planning call that we had. I want us to just pause very quickly. You've said something really important there. This is your personal lived experience. I want you to, rather than just sharing with the audience that we have about, yes, going to Harvard was a very different experience for you because of all these outlier moments. Share some of those with us. Take us into the actual emotion of going through that. What did it feel like?

[00:06:10] - Gorick Ng
Let me share with you three quick snapshots, three experiences that I've had that really have become the foundation of my work today. The first was when I was applying to university. When I go on to these universities' websites, they'll say, yes, submit an essay, submit some recommendation letters, submit your standardized test scores. If I just read those instructions and take them at face value, it's okay. Well, I'll go ahead and just click Share on this recommendation portal and expect my teachers to go and navigate through it successfully. I'll just submit any old essay and I'll just go ahead and just try my best at a standardized test and hope for the best.

[00:06:59] - Gorick Ng
What I didn't appreciate is that each of those pieces of the equation had so many unspoken rules where it didn't occur to me then, but after seeking out mentors who had gone through this process before, there's actually a certain style of essay that the top universities are looking for. There is a certain process by which you hold your teacher's hands through the recommendation letter. There are strategies on how to succeed in these standardized tests. This is why folks who may be coming from more well resource backgrounds pay tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for an expert coach who can guide you through the process.

[00:07:38] - Gorick Ng
It's to navigate these unspoken rules. For me, I had a friend, her name is Sandy, I actually profile her in my book, who had gone through this process before and had passed down some of her learnings. It was then that I realized, oh, wow, There is so much that you just can't Google for because you don't have the vocabulary to even type the right words into Google. Google is only useful if you know what you're looking for and I just didn't know.

[00:08:06] - Gorick Ng
The second was when I arrived at Harvard, and all thanks to Sandy for coaching me through that process. I remember walking home one day from the library and walking in the other direction were a bunch of my classmates. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a hoodie. My classmates were decked out in suits and ties. It didn't occur to me until the next day that they were actually off to an invite-only recruiting event that was put on by an employer that had come on to campus. It was shocking to me because I had gone to that career fair, I had signed in at that table. I had written my name down and put my email down.

[00:08:43] - Gorick Ng
But whereas I was so focused on the free swag that was on the table. Turns out that my classmates were focused on something very different. They were building relationships behind the scenes. They were going up to the table asking "good questions". They were asking for referrals. And so by the time they showed up and had a conversation with those recruiters, it wasn't a conversation that I had, which was, "Well, tell me about what you do." It was instead, "Oh, nice to put a face to a name. It's nice to meet you. I was referred to you by so and so." Fast forward, I walked away with a bunch of plastic water bottles, whereas my classmates ended up walking with internships, some of which weren't even well advertised.

[00:09:24] - Gorick Ng
Then the third experience that I had that really solidified for me the existence of these unspoken rules in the workplace was actually on my first day, my first week in corporate America, where I was sitting beside a colleague, we'll just call her Chelsea, we were both setting up our laptops when all of a sudden a partner at the firm walks up and says, "Hi, Chelsea, let's grab lunch." At that point, I thought, wow, how great is that that the higher-ups in this organization will take time out of their busy schedules to have lunch with us?

[00:09:54] - Gorick Ng
Well, turns out that this wasn't an open invitation to all of us. This was an invitation to Chelsea specifically because she had gotten referred to this company and she had built relationships at the most senior levels before her even first day. Fast forward, several weeks and she ended up getting on to high-profile assignments that weren't advertised. She ended up getting pulled into closed-door meetings that the rest of us interns weren't purview to. This is all as a result of her navigating these unspoken rules.

[00:10:23] - Claire Haidar
Gorick, honestly, I actually get emotional listening to you talk through these three snapshots of which are like, most probably 0.01 % of the greatest story that you've experienced. I get emotional for two reasons because I, like you, am an immigrant in this country and haven't gone through the schooling system, haven't built the networks, etc. And navigates a lot of what you navigate as well. I get emotional because there's so many people navigating this right now. It is a form of injustice, which interestingly enough is not deliberate injustice. It's not that the peers that you're talking about, the companies that you're talking about, the schools that you're talking about are trying to do this.

[00:11:13] - Claire Haidar
It is a systemic issue that has come about because of how society is structured. So the next question that I want us to dig into is where do we go from here? This is a misunderstood, underrated subpopulation of the larger workforce, and yet it is a critical part of the workforce because they are significant contributors to the workforce in a really powerful way. How do we start paying attention to them? How do we start addressing this issue?

[00:11:46] - Gorick Ng
I'm glad you're focused on the solutions here. When it comes to the solutions, I think of it as coming in two forms. One is to just simply recognize that this population exists and that they're invisible in your workplace. For any organization that has even uttered the words diversity, inclusion, equity, belonging, you've likely looked at diversity, inclusion, equity, belonging through the lenses of race and gender, which are certainly very important. An additional element to look at is classism, where to the extent that you are hiring individuals who are coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds, they're going to have a different set of lived experiences.

[00:12:33] - Gorick Ng
They will have had a different set of informal education growing up, and that all will influence how they see themselves, how they conduct themselves, and that will also influence how they're seen and how others treat them. The first step is to just even treat class as an element, as a prong of your DEI conversation. The second is to take a step back and to think about what are the unspoken rules of your organization? What are the things that insiders might know subconsciously that will in turn have them come across as high performers and high potentials, but that really aren't common sense.

[00:13:21] - Gorick Ng
One of the things that many of us in the world of leadership management, human resources, and talent development will know about is, for example, the 9-Box Matrix of High Performance and High Potential. Now, if you have this vocabulary, you can very quickly go on to Google and find framework after framework on performance management. When I coach first-generation professionals and I tell them about the existence of this mere framework, it's mind-blowing. I mean, it was mind-blowing for me personally when I realized that, oh, wow, actually doing my job is only a part of my job.

[00:13:57] - Gorick Ng
Showing that I'm ready and capable of taking on more important responsibilities is actually the key to getting ahead. It's not sufficient to put my head down, do my hard work, and let my hard work speak for itself. I have to be seen, I have to be heard, I have to be remembered in order to be promoted. I'll spew a few jargony terms here that we might all just see as common sense. Going above and beyond, being at the top of that list. What does it mean to go above and beyond?

[00:14:24] - Gorick Ng
Well, we've likely all seen high performers before in the workplace who will come to the table with solutions rather than just problems. They will propose a solution. The way that they conduct themselves will be different, too. So instead of staying quiet and not asking questions, which was frankly what I did when I was first starting out. Asking questions and asking questions well in the form of, Claire, Doug, I'm struggling with this. What I propose is path A, path B, or path C. I'm leaning towards path B. Am I thinking about this the right way? So you're giving people something to react to.

[00:15:02] - Gorick Ng
That style of communication is actually not common sense. But as I interview leaders from around the world, I realized that actually that's a behavior that is common to high performers and high potentials. It's just that we don't deconstruct it down to such clear ways. What ends up happening is those who've had this, again, this informal education growing up will just treat this as common sense, and those will also be the ones who get ahead.

[00:15:29] - Claire Haidar
Yes. I think the main point that you're bringing across there is that number one, companies have to really bring classism into their DEI triangle that they're looking at. But I think the piece that's most powerful to me, and this is the trickiest one to navigate because it's one thing to formalize something in a DEI strategy and say, okay, classism is one of these pillars that we need to look at is, as you say, reviewing the unspoken rules of the org because there's this whole education system that's happening that isn't formal education that our nonimmigrant peers are growing up in.

[00:16:12] - Claire Haidar
That's a really challenging thing for leaders to address in an organization because it's not just looking at what those rules are, but it's actually creating a culture in which that reality is taken into consideration. But then also the mechanisms inside an organization that protect those who are not in that specific class that we're referring to, and that's a lot more challenging.

[00:16:39] - Gorick Ng
Absolutely. I would say that while we can approach this work through the lens of DEI, even for those who maybe aren't looking at their organizations through such a lens, I think something that all leaders can agree upon is they want high-performing teams. In order to have a high-performing team, you need to have everyone rowing in the same direction, and you need to have certain rhythms, certain ways of doing things that are codified. What I've been doing a lot with organizations is deconstructing what great looks like at their company.

[00:17:13] - Gorick Ng
Is there an unspoken rule at this organization of coming to the table with solutions or proposals, at least, when you also come across a problem? If so, let's codify that. Let's attach some language to that behavior so that everyone is doing the same thing. If we're talking about communication, is there an unspoken rule around putting the bottom line up front and putting the explanation and bullet points afterwards? If so, let's codify that too so that everyone is behaving not in the same way, but are coming at this work in a consistent way. A third one that I'll mention is around speaking up in meetings.

[00:17:57] - Gorick Ng
If there is an unspoken rule around everyone contributing is good meeting facilitation as a result to give everyone a chance to independently brainstorm and then to come to the table with their list of bullet points to share versus letting it be an unraveling of who is the loudest, who's the fastest reacting, and who's the most confident. If that's the style of meetings that you want, well, then let's codify that as well. I've been working with a number of organizations to do just that. Not necessarily through the lens of DEI, it's just a matter of how do we create a better-performing team?

[00:18:34] - Claire Haidar
Gorick, walk us practically through how do you codify something? What does that actually look like? Because there's one thing to sit around a boardroom table and discuss it, but where does it go from there?

[00:18:45] - Gorick Ng
I've been speaking with a number of law firms in this area. Because many law firms are partnerships and have branch offices, there isn't a consistent culture around how things are done from one office to another. There's some timidness to creating a uniform culture, certainly not advocating for that, but there are certain best practices around how folks communicate. The process that we're going through right now in this exercise is deconstructing what is the archetype of a top performer in your workplace. And I'll raise another one where if we are, for example, working on a project, is there an unspoken rule about thinking ahead and then planning backwards?

[00:19:27] - Gorick Ng
If so, let's create some shared language around this. Even just stick it on a sticky note and put it on the wall so that the next time we find ourselves in this situation, we can say, "Hey, let's make sure we're following this principle or this unspoken rule or this best practice that we've all agreed upon and attached some language to." I'll give you an example here from a very different domain, which is from the domain of teaching. In the United States, there was a researcher by the name of Doug Lemov, who did some research on the highest performing teachers.

[00:20:02] - Gorick Ng
What he did was he looked at a scatterplot of standardized test outcomes and income. What he did was he found those outlier teachers who had the highest performing students despite them coming from under-resourced backgrounds. He went into those classrooms and he started trying to observe what are the behaviors of these teachers that make them so good. After making hundreds of observations, he noticed that there were a certain set of techniques that these teachers would use in the classroom. What he did was he attached some language to it.

[00:20:36] - Gorick Ng
One of those examples is, for example, cold calling or checking for retention. Even just codified the term of, hey, maybe cold calling, maybe cold calling may be a technique that you might want to try. That had opened up a whole new world of dialog within the teaching profession around, oh, wow, are our teachers actually doing this? What it has enabled principals and superintendents to do is observe teachers and give more actionable feedback by saying, "Oh, perhaps you should be trying this technique versus you just don't get it," which is often the feedback that teachers would otherwise get if they didn't have this shared language.

[00:21:15] - Gorick Ng
Now, there's been some controversy around this toolkit's work in the education space. I won't go into much detail on that. But certainly a raging debate around the efficacy of some of these techniques and their implications for diversity and inclusion. But if I just take the spirit of what Doug Lemov did in the teaching profession, that's what I've been doing with leaders and organizations.

[00:21:38] - Doug Foulkes
That brings us to the end of the first part of our conversation about first-generation, low-income workers with Gorick Ng. To follow this conversation further, make sure to catch the next two parts on your favorite podcast platform or on WNDYR's website. That's WNDYR.com. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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