Claire England: Social mobility, it’s time for employers to up their game

It is well known that a significant number of industries are guilty of a lack of socio-economic diversity within their workforce. The property sector is just one example where a large number of roles are held by white, middle class, privately educated individuals, which is not reflective of society. An increasing number of forward-thinking employers are putting social mobility high on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda, and are working hard to recruit employees from a range of backgrounds. However, this is not widespread and more can be done across industry to improve the socio-economic diversity of those working within it.

The importance of social mobility was highlighted with the publication of the 2019 Social Mobility Employer Index. This is a bench-marking initiative from the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) that ranked the Top 75 UK employers across 18 sectors on the work they are doing to open up access and progress talent from all backgrounds. The research from participating organisations shows that whilst 45 per cent of graduate applications to all Index employers come from the 24 Russell Group universities, 62 per cent of hires do, a figure that has remained largely unchanged in three years. These figures are a genuine cause for concern, indicating that companies are continuing to overlook and miss out on talent from a range of backgrounds.

However, what the SMF research does show is a desire for change, with 85 per cent of respondents saying that their clients wanted them to be more socio-economically diverse. This statistic, I would hope, will act as an incentive for organisations to accelerate change. With more diverse teams, businesses will be better equipped to service their clients drawing on a broader range of skills, backgrounds, attitudes and experiences.

As things currently stand, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds often face barriers to enter a number of professions. To avoid perpetuating this problem further, employers could look at increasing the number of apprenticeships in line with graduate schemes. In doing so, the skills and values held by talented candidates from less traditional backgrounds will be able to join organisations and progress their careers on an equal footing.

Barriers can also be eradicated by placing a candidate’s success within the context of their socio-economic background, helping an employer to have a more objective view of an individual. For instance, we use the Rare Contextual Recruitment System which asks for additional information about alongside academic achievements. If for example a candidate was awarded three B’s at A Level, but their school’s average was three C’s, they wouldn’t be dismissed for not achieving top grades, but instead would be recognised as an overachiever as we understand the context of the overall school performance.

Organisations must learn to look beyond solely the academic achievements of candidates, keeping in mind that education is not a proxy for intelligence. The SMF’s research showed 30 per cent of companies now remove the personal details and academic history from their applications. By doing this, employers are more likely to employ those with diversity of backgrounds, someone with potential which they can invest in, mold and develop, rather than hiring someone that just fits the bill on paper.

Even when a candidate has an exemplary academic history, they may struggle to access their profession of choice without the relevant industry connections. Traditionally, professions, such as property, law and finance, have relied heavily on connections and who knows who. As a result, socially and economically disadvantaged individuals have often missed out on placements which could open doors for them later in their career. It is important that employers hire beyond their internal connections to recruit new talent. SMF’s One+1 initiative looks to make meaningful change in this area, offering experience to a young person with no connections to the industry for every individual that does.

Nevertheless, these means of opening up previously inaccessible professions depend on businesses changing their working practices and culture. Recruiting from lower socio-economic backgrounds will only be successful if potential candidates feel welcomed and comfortable within their working environment.

To ensure a more diverse pool of people are retained, businesses must make an effort to ensure that all employees are accommodated for and are not made to feel like outsiders. Relaxing the dress code, for instance, is a genuinely practical way of relieving the daily pressure placed on those without the means to meet a corporate dress code. Similarly, broadening out networking and work outings so they do not revolve around class-specific pastimes, such as skiing or rugby, will allow a range of recruits to feel like they fit in. In short, socio-economic factors should not define an industry’s working culture if talent from all backgrounds are to feel included and welcome in the sector.

I believe that socio-economic diversity is essential for the future of business, and genuinely feel all diversity makes for a more interesting and rewarding work environment. Practically speaking, it has been shown that companies with diverse teams are 70 per cent more likely to capture a new market, and 45 per cent more likely to financially outperform their industry average. Every industry has a responsibility to challenge the current ways we work, and commit to ensuring that efforts are made to open our industries up to the widest pool of talented individuals, rather than recruiting more of the same. The sooner employers recognise the genuine positive impact these efforts have on their business operations, the more effective they will be.