Friday 24 May 2024
main news image

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on July 17, 2023 - July 23, 2023

Changes such as globalisation and outsourcing have prompted employers to seek greater relationship flexibility with employees. This has led to an increase in non-standard, low-wage or precarious employment.

In the light of these trends, today’s workforce is characterised by diverse teams, including social groups that have traditionally been under-represented in business. This diversity includes visible traits like gender and race, as well as less apparent characteristics such as socioeconomic status, learning styles and personal beliefs.

While diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives typically focus on visible characteristics, it is now crucial for organisations and society to recognise invisible ones. By understanding the latter, managers can uncover unintentional causes of persistent workplace inequality and determine best practices to support disadvantaged employees.

One example of an invisible yet influential factor is an individual’s socio­economic condition, which could significantly affect how one thinks, decides and acts.

One of my research studies, along with previous studies, has found that financial vulnerability can hinder workers’ ability to consider the long-term consequences of their behaviours due to automatic and involuntary attention on immediate pressing matters. Such a shortened time horizon would make them appear impulsive or short-sighted, such as showing less interest in long-term career goals, even though this may not be a choice.

This can lead to others judging their performance and promotability negatively, further exacerbating their disadvantages. What is more concerning is when leaders attribute the struggles of their lower-paid and precarious workers to personal factors, such as lack of self-control, while disregarding the contextual causes. This attribution can reinforce the assumption that the working poor are responsible for their own disadvantages, thus entrenching inequality.

As another example of an invisible cause of workplace inequality, first-generation college students (whose parents did not complete a college degree) tend to excel in teamwork and contexts relying on coordination and cooperation. However, most incentive structures existing in universities and professional workplaces today still reward individual contributions a lot more than teamwork, making it difficult for these students to fit in from day one.

Recognising invisible forces of inequality, leaders could expand their definition of “good performance” and diversify their assessment. For example, if collaborative outcomes are equally important as individualistic ones, organisations should design their incentives to fairly reward both.

Considering the differences in a life journey, leaders should intentionally consider and implement measures to level the playing field for those with invisible disadvantages. For instance, present a transparent career ladder and have frequent feedback to help expand the long-term vision, especially for those who are impacted by financial stress. Other measures, ranging from offering mentoring programmes, aid and work-family friendly policies to reimbursements for travel for job candidates based in suburban areas, should be evaluated.

My hope is that an awareness of invisible forces to inequality will inspire leaders to re-evaluate their organisational systems and culture, as some of them may be inadvertently designed to set one group up for success, but another for failure. A genuinely inclusive environment should not only address concerns related to visible individual differences but also recognise and accommodate the invisible burdens that their employees carry to work.

Dr Yi-Ren Wang is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Asia School of Business. This op-ed is part of a thought leadership series — Equity, Equality, Prosperity, by diverse voices for inclusion — done in collaboration with 30% Club Malaysia, a global business campaign.

The full version of the text with a list of references is available online.



Anderson, C., Hildreth, J. A. D., & Sharps, D. L. 2020. The Possession of High Status Strengthens the Status Motive. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,

Belmi, P., & Laurin, K. 2016. Who wants to get to the top? Class and lay theories about power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(4), 505-529.

Kalleberg, A. L. 2009. Precarious work, insecure workers: Employment relations in transition. American Sociological Review, 74(1), 1-22.

Kim, J. Y., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Kay, A. C. 2018. Lean in messages increase attributions of women’s responsibility for gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 974.

Meuris, J., & Leana, C. R. 2015. The high cost of low wages: Economic scarcity effects in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 35, 143-158.

Phillips, L. T., Stephens, N. M., Townsend, S. S. M., & Goudeau, S. 2020. Access is not enough: Cultural mismatch persists to limit first-generation students’ opportunities for achievement throughout college. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1112–1131.

Pitesa, M., & Pillutla, M. M. 2019. Socioeconomic mobility and talent utilization of workers from poorer backgrounds: the overlooked importance of within-organization dynamics. Academy of Management Annals, 13(2): 737-769.

Rao, A. H., & Tobias Neely, M. (2019). What's love got to do with it? Passion and inequality in white-collar work. Sociology Compass, 13(12), 1-14.

Wang, Y. R., & Ford, M. T. 2020. Financial inadequacy and the disadvantageous changes in time perspective and goal-striving strategies throughout life. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 41(9), 895-914.

Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.

      Text Size