When we think of the phrase “poor shaming” you may think of someone posting an angry Facebook post about being a hardworking person standing in the checkout line behind a person buying, shrimp and lobster and ceremoniously whipping out a public assistance card.
They are disgusted this person is flaunting what is apparent mooching off the system, because they didn’t dare fill their carts with, oh I don’t know Spam or government cheese or whatever good respectable folks on assistance are supposed to eat, because they don’t deserve hummus or omega 3 fatty acids. Or soy milk. Nope.
But there’s another kind that isn’t so easy to see, that you probably won’t read about or hear about, because the victims of what I call “professional poor shaming” would never want to be outed. It would destroy the persona they’ve built at work or in their social circles. But as sneaky as professional poor shaming is, it’s managed to work its way into workplace culture and it has a lot of people who are financially in the margins, living in fear during every business trip, or business lunch.
One of the best illustrations of this is reflected in a scene from a movie called “The Pursuit of Happiness” you know the feel good, keep dreaming working story starring Will Smith and his son Jaden (when he was little and super cute).
Will Smith has killed himself to earn an internship with a major company, he hides the fact that he is homeless and sleeping in public bathrooms at night and fighting for beds at shelters and emerges as one of the rising stars. He is in a cab with one of his very wealthy bosses. The cab ride is but a mere $10, and his boss says, “Hey, I don’t have any cash, can you take it?” Will’s character is mortified because basically that is the only $10 he had which would be a meal for he and his son, but the shame and the desire for this man to see him as an equal steps in, and you can feel the pain as Will has to hand over that money to the cabbie.
This scene plays out at lunches, where if you are a young professional, single and paying most of your bills and paying back large student loans or repairing your credit, surrounded by people who make more money than you and live in dual income homes you are overwhelmed with the feeling of being able to keep up, pay your share, or even take the tab for the entire group, because the last person who opted to pay for everyone reminded the whole table it’s your turn.
This scene plays out in an institutional way if your company sends you on a business trip, but turns around and says you have to use your credit card to pay for the trip and once you file expenses you’ll get the money back later. But what if you don’t have the money or the credit now?
The panic sets in. You may ask your boss a whole lot of details about the cost of things, and they will wonder why you are so uncomfortable. “Just charge it, you’ll get reimbursed. It’s no big deal.” Will be the response.
They don’t realize, nor the people who put together these reimbursement protocols that everyone doesn’t take home the same check they do, or face certain financial difficulties. Just like the boss in the movie, they think about money, but they don’t really think about money. And if you are in the world of the powerful or wealthy, everyone in the circle kind of assumes everyone else’s financial status and no one is going to be crazy enough to admit, I just can’t do it.
Especially in business, it would seem you are weak or irresponsible if you just can’t quickly muster up $300. In some people’s mind it may pull into question your judgement. But for people trying to make it everyday, you best believe that $300 they had to use on a trip or the additional $30 to make up for Frank’s tab at the restaurant since he treated last time, can put people in a financial tail spin. It will cause people to hold their breath when the card swipes, it will cause people to go without other necessary things at home, to keep up a good face at work.
I feel like professional institutionalized poor shaming is like an invisible electric fence to people who come from lower incomes who are making strides to enter another professional and economic level. You want to feel your talents are what get you in the door, and it is. But a “little” thing like paying for your own hotel room at the conference so you can show your talents and show people why you belong there are an added and in my opinion unnecessary pressure that management can easily resolve. But those in management at a number of companies that don’t send socioeconomically diverse people anywhere do not see or understand, because they are not quite in touch with being an educated, professional person still living in the margins.
Educational professionals don’t want to admit to it because they are ashamed, and it is taboo to discuss salary, when most folks know a lot of people, especially women and minorities are statistically underpaid. It seems that if you are able to boldly pick up the tab or have no questions when the company says you have to come out of pocket for a company sponsored event, you are implicitly saying, “Yes, I belong here. I am better than, those people.”
If you raise a question, in order to brace yourself for the costs and how it will affect you and your money and your life, which you are responsible for, you may get clarification, but now people are questioning you. And your professional currency is losing value.
It’s a form of poor shaming, and these practices are exclusionary to really bright people who can contribute something valuable, but because they may not have enough credit, or any credit or they are repairing their credit, they are being discriminated against or missing out on other opportunities that can really boost their career and in turn their earning potential. It further frightens me that this is a very real barrier to some people getting ahead. It is something to think about and if you are in a position of power within your organization, you should take a look at company-sponsored events, group lunches and proactively think of ways to even the playing field for your lower paid workers so they can participate without fear and not just lower paid workers, but employees who are struggling regardless of income.