There's a key scene in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, which I caught on the plane ride home from a business trip last week; it speaks volumens about how companies fail to account for the financially diverse backgrounds of their employees, even while having corporate policy in support of diversity.
The main character, played by Will Smith, is an ambitious but down on his luck man seeking to better his prospects with a nonpaid internship with a major brokerage firm. Though he and his family have been evicted from their home and they are living in a shelter, Smith's character, based on the real-life businessman Chris Gardner, manages to show up for work every day in a suit. No one knows how broke he is.
One day, on his way out of the office, a broker asks Gardner for $5, what he needs to hop in a cab to get to his appointment. Gardner looks in his wallet, at his last remaining $7 or $8 dollars for the week.
"Thanks, Chris," the broker says, grabbing Gardner's five dollar bill. "I'll get you back later." The broker, obviously, had no idea that he had taken the money that Gardner needed to feed his son that day.
I had no idea why I was blubbering like a baby while watching this movie on the plane. For the most part, even in leaner times, I've been fortunate to not wonder if I would eat that day. Even in my first job out of college, when every single dollar was accounted for, I could afford to "lose" $5. I may not have liked it, but I could survive it.
But this movie made me painfully aware that even those who work hard in life to get ahead in business must be at a threshold-level of wealth and education to even get or maintain these opportunities.
Chris Gardner was more than just lucky, or extremely talented; he was an anomaly. What he could bring to the table was seen almost accidentally, when he managed to crack the code of a Rubik's Cube in front of another broker and scored an interview for a non-paying, highly selective internship.
There is a strong irony in many corporate circumstances: the higher you go up the ladder, the less personal financial accountability you have—the more meals get put on the company card, the more box seat tickets you get to the games, the more forgetful you are of what it took to get to where you are. Many who are there never had to ask themselves whether they should take a staring position and risk not feeding their families.
In another very frustrating scene, Chris Gardner scores a high-level meeting for the brokerage and has 20 minutes to see this potential new client. As he rushes out of the office, a senior broker asks Chris to please move his fancy car out of the tow-away zone, as he's on his way to a meeting himself and needs to get there on time. The irony, of course, is that Gardner needs his meeting much more than the senior broker does, as his future at the company depends on earning new clients. Gardner scours the city in the senior broker's expensive car, looking for a decent parking spot. He finds an illegal one, misses his meeting and gets a parking ticket—one he opts to pay but cannot afford.
This movie begged the question for me: How can companies truly accommodate talented but less financially advantaged people? It's one thing to support diversity, but we still advertently require a baseline level of wealth to survive in these positions.
In my first job out of college, we were often encouraged to have staff lunches in restaurants. Problem was, we were all paid so poorly that only the people who were independently wealthy or living with their parents could afford something better than a bag lunch or bagel. To get ahead and be team players we had to buy lunches we didn't want in places we couldn't afford. Many of us couldn't afford to live in New York City and had long commutes, or we lived in the city in borderline crazy situations. I lived with two women in a two-bedroom apartment—we traded off who got a bedroom every four months. Many nights I slept in the living room. One of my work friends lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four mattresses across the floor to accommodate her and her three roommates.
We did our jobs knowing (or praying) that our situations were only temporary. Knowing that our parents sent us to college and that, if worse came to absolute worst, we could scrape up a few dollars from home, we were able to take the risk of a low-paying but potentially high-yielding position. Others who don't have family income to fall back on, or who have children, don't always have the luxury of betting that the future will hold more. They need to go for less lucrative, but more immediately gratifying, blue-collar jobs.
How can companies accommodate financial diversity? I see several ways:
—Commute stipends: People that have to come in from far outside a commercial epicenter can't afford to take cabs to work. They take longer, less reliable forms of transportation, sometimes multiple forms of it, to show up at the office. When we ask these people to work long hours we are often making it impossible for them to get home without finding special transportation (cabs, limos, etc.) If a company can't pay to get their people home safely and affordably, let them go home on time. And have a culture that allows people to leave after normal business hours.
—Petty cash: Many corporate accounting structures require an initial outlay by an employee for travel or entertainment expenses, followed by reimbursement 30 to 45 days later. For junior employees there should be a petty cash system that provides immediate, accounted-for per-diems, so that these costs are covered immediately. Employees won't have to worry about covering rent while they wait for a reimbursement check.
—Shared meal budget: Typically if a manager takes her team out to lunch, the manager pays—though that's not always the case: When I worked at a startup and offered to take out my team, I knew better than to tap the limited T&E budget; everyone had to cover themselves. But I also made sure that the place was well within everyone's food budget. Even better is to allocate a budget for regular social interaction among your team. The budget doesn't have to be large, but it should be given to employees to use at their discretion. They may opt to go somewhere inexpensive, or someone more expensive and use the funds to supplement a meal. The only "rule" should be that the activities funded by this budget be inclusive of everyone (and be legal, of course).
These are tiny things, but as the film showed me $5 can mean a lot.