The 5 Social Classes in the Corporate World, Explained

Pete Ross

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Have you ever noticed that life in the business world, for all it's seriousness, often resembles the movie Mean Girls? There are cliques, power struggles, gossip, rumor, but perhaps most surprisingly, it turns out to be much more of a popularity contest than you'd ever expect. So in this ecosystem that generally takes place inside of an office building, here are the different social stratas - in descending order, that you can expect to see wherever in the world you might be.

The Politburo aka “old money” aka “the inner circle”

Have all the decision making power, not to mention a reality distortion field. They can say the most ridiculous, hypocritical things and never get called on it because they can kill your career at the company in an instant. The Politburo is often fond of grandiose speeches and mission statements that are so out of touch with reality you’d think they were on an acid trip.

They’re also fond of corporatisms, buzzwords and jumping on the latest bandwagon regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not.

Much like the aristocrats of old, they only mix in their circles. They’ll be polite and say hello if you cross paths and possibly even inquire about your weekend, but that’s it. Their concerns are far above yours. They talk in big platitudes which are scant on details to the little people, because the details of what they do are super secret and like politicians, they’re all about staying on message rather than telling the truth.

The Rising Stars aka “nouveau riche”

These are the people that have been designated as HiPo’s by the inner circle. They enjoy a smooth promotion path and are frequently given awards and praise around the business. Being in this class is all about optics. You can be good at your job or utterly useless, it really doesn’t matter, because ability is not what has landed you in this class. The deciding factor is that you’re in a highly visible or important team, you work on a major project, you’re very good looking or you’re just the person that everyone wants to be around.

Just like the nouveau riche in times gone by, everything is about looking good. You’ll see them taking joyous selfies at company events, splashing themselves all over LinkedIn and similar behaviour you’d expect from Instagram “influencers.” And just like the nouveau riche of old, you’ll find many suckling at the teat of power, trying to hasten their rise to the top.

If you’re one of the little people looking to climb the ladder, you absolutely need to keep these people on side. The Politburo are too high up to really notice you, but if the rising stars don’t like you, you’re sunk. So every now and then if you want to continue advancing, you're going to have supplicate yourself before them and put on your best impression of being a sycohpant, no matter how disgusting it might feel.

The Middle Class

Just like in real life, you’re destined to a life of working and fighting for everything you get. Maybe you’ve gotten a promotion or two, but it was after long years of toil and achievement and when it finally happened, it felt like more of a consolation prize grudgingly given because you’d been there so long. You’re not viewed as high or low potential, you’re just another middle manager with zero influence on what goes on.

This can go one of two ways. You recognise the lay of the land and are beloved by your team, because you’re one of them who has made it up a bit higher and knows to treat them well. The other option is that you become bitter and try to hold your team back because you can't stand the thought of someone else being favoured.

Either way, you stay at the company a long time. You’re one of the ones that gets a big thank you at the very end of your career because you’re practically part of the furniture and the upper classes would feel guilty without giving you something.

The Peasants

Are you highly competent? Do you achieve excellent results? Prone to workaholism and taking on other tasks because other people can’t get their act together? Congratulations, you’re one of the peasants. Peasants in feudal society performed a back breaking amount of labour that provided the base of everything that was possible. And just like peasants during feudal times, your effort is taken for granted. Should you dare to express dissatisfaction with the status quo and that you deserve better, the upper classes react with shock and indignation at your presumption. You’ll hear things like “we pay the market rate” or “the budget is tight”, not to mention “you’re not ready for promotion just yet” and “we just don’t see you as management material.”

After all, if you wanted to be more than a peasant, you shouldn’t have been born a peasant.

If you eventually go to another company and get deservedly bumped to the middle class or nouveau riche, those left act as though it didn’t happen or was not a big deal, because nothing you’ve done could be that important, so we’ll just get another peasant. The mere question that they were wrong and a peasant was right would pop their reality distortion bubble.

The Invisibles aka “those who work from home”

Things have changed a lot with COVID, but pre-COVID, working from home was far from the norm. Publications spent a lot of column and screen space talking about the rise of working from home and how we should all be doing it. They clearly didn't realise how human interaction works, because if you want to ascend the career ladder, working from home is career suicide. That’s because you’re not a face, you’re just a name. Names don’t have influence and people can talk all the crap they want about that name, with no way for them to counter it. How could they counter it when they don’t even know things are being said?

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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