The benefits of a strong workplace Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programme are legion, ranging from a bigger talent pool and improved employee experience and performance, to better decision-making and stronger business results. It’s not hard to see why. People are the greatest asset of any organisation, and while diversity is about bringing more voices to the table (across race, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs and more), inclusion is important in making sure they stay.

Businesses across the UK are making D&I a priority and progress is being made, supported by the 2010 Equality Act. However, there are diversity issues that fall outside the remit of the law. Social mobility, for example, is an important facet of D&I, but can be a blind spot for organisations.

To better understand social mobility and what it means, how it can be measured and what we can do to improve it in our businesses, we hosted a panel discussion with Sarah Atkinson (CEO at The Social Mobility Foundation), Justin Rix (Partner at Grant Thornton UK LLP), Jasmine Song (D&I Lead at Sky), Dax Grant (CEO at Global Transform), Stephen Haines (CFO at Joseph Homes).

What is social mobility?

The UK’s Social Mobility Commission defines social mobility as “the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.” In essence, it’s about a person’s chances of movement, either up or down, in terms of their circumstances in comparison to those of their parents.

As Sarah Atkinson, CEO at The Social Mobility Foundation, put it: “The language around this issue is tricky. ‘Social mobility’ has become the term we use to describe awareness and action on socio-economic disadvantage. We use it because ‘socio-economic disadvantage’ is a tongue twister, and just not how people would describe themselves. ‘Social mobility’ is easier and more positive to say.”

Language aside, it is a feature of every developed economy in the world. The 2020 Global Social Mobility Index from the World Economic Forum concluded that the majority of the 82 economies benchmarked (the UK is ranked 21st) are “failing to provide the conditions in which their citizens can thrive,” meaning that “an individual’s opportunities in life remain tethered to their socio-economic status at birth, entrenching historical inequalities.”

Improving social mobility is about tackling these inequalities and removing barriers to allow people to succeed. So where to start? Our panellists shared insights and best learnings from their professional and personal experiences.

Leaders need to lead the way

“It is fundamental that any action to improve social mobility comes from the top,” said Justin Rix, Partner at Grant Thornton UK LLP. “It’s not just about saying the right words. Leaders have to take accountability that things will change, and that they are committed to delivering it. That’s where it starts.”

Jasmine Song, D&I Lead at Sky, agreed: “It’s like with D&I more generally – many businesses view it as something to help them function better, or become more profitable. And while that is one lens, it’s also about transforming peoples’ lives through employment, and helping them flourish into their best selves.”

In addition to driving change at an organisational level, engaged leadership can indeed enact significant change on an individual level, as Stephen Haines, CFO at Joseph Homes, shared. “I was fortunate in my early roles that I had managers who took the time to help me one-on-one. They taught me the ropes and encouraged me to go to night school. And having come up through care, without a strong framework or family life, that was something that resonated with me and gave me a real sense of identity and belonging. It shaped me. Without the help of one manager in particular, giving me feedback, guidance and advice, I’d almost certainly not be where I am today.”

The sharing of stories and, in the process, normalising the social mobility conversation is a powerful tool. Organisations should consider establishing platforms to foster involvement with social mobility efforts, and encouraging participation from those who feel comfortable sharing their experiences.

It’s also important that organisations invest in leadership development so that leaders, from the CEO to line managers and mentors, have the tools and skills required to support the team appropriately. One important leadership piece in this area is listening, according to Stephen Haines. “A lot of what’s going on with your team isn’t going to be open to you. You need to understand your people and truly listen to – not just hear – what they’re telling you. Not everyone will be comfortable talking about social mobility issues; I know I’ve become much more open over the years. So give them a sounding board, give them opportunities and invest in them.”

Get the data

Data is another powerful tool to help you understand your organisation. Everyone has a socio-economic background, meaning that you can measure it and define it. Sarah Atkinson recommends asking questions – respectfully and confidentially – about three key areas to get the information you need from your current and new employees: parental occupation; the type of school they attended; and free school meal eligibility (crucially the eligibility for it, not whether or not the scheme was used).

“Using that data, you can map socio-economic background objectively,” Sarah explained. “However, there is a subjective measure to take into account as well, and that’s social class. It brings in things around identity, accent, culture and place, which are emotive. If you’re having a conversation about creating an inclusive environment in terms of social mobility, you have to be open to this part of the conversation as well.”

Armed with the above data you can effectively target, implement and track social mobility change in your organisation, and measure the success of your policies. You can also evaluate your efforts against national benchmarks, and those for your industry, if they’re available. The Social Mobility Employer Index is a good place to start.

Be honest and confront bias

Any journey to improve social mobility involves the examination of any possible bias, unconscious or otherwise. You might, for example, consider your internship programme to be inclusive, but if it’s unpaid and in a major metropolitan centre, like London, you are most likely excluding applicants from a low socio-economic background. According to Sutton Trust, a leading organisation in the social mobility space, 70% of internships are unpaid, thereby “locking out young people who cannot afford to work for free.”

“A lot roots down to classism and people not fitting a mould,” explained Jasmine Song. “Often working class people don’t fit the mould of what an elite company wants to see. And then young people are discouraged from even considering applying because they don’t feel they can be themselves. Even if it’s not explicit, there are situations where there’s an expectation that, if you do join, you will adapt and change and fit in. Essentially, you can come from a working class background, but you have to be culturally middle class… We will accept you as long as you aren’t you.”

Sarah Atkinson agreed: “There’s this difficult association of the characteristics and behaviours of privileged people – people talk about “polish” and “confidence”, for example – with talent and capability. You also get the reverse where people want the credibility and grittiness of working class backgrounds, to reinforce the sense that they worked their way up without the benefit of privilege. It’s complex stuff. Everyone’s journey is different, and that’s the richness of D&I. But when you come down to it, there are specific barriers that people from low socio-economic backgrounds experience – some hard and some soft – and experience consistently. We have to make sure our focus is on changing the barriers in their way, not changing the people who are going to come through them.”

Don’t waste talent

Improving social mobility involves opening up your company to the best people, regardless of their background. Panellist Justin Rix’s company, Grant Thornton, for example, removed the academic entry requirements for its entry-level schemes – thereby removing a hiring practice that might discriminate against disadvantaged applicants who might not have had the opportunity to attend university. “We’ve got nothing against grads applying, but we want to make sure we’re open to a much broader range of people,” he explained. “We wanted to level the playing field in terms of where people start from, and it’s worked. We went from a 90% grads and 10% school leavers split, to more like 50/50.”

Sarah Atkinson agreed, adding “Are you asking applicants for what you really need from them – or just asking for what you always ask for?” Her recommendation: “If it’s not what you need, change it. No one ever regrets that.”

Jasmine Song also recommends that you “look for potential, not polish when hiring. And evaluate achievements in the context they were achieved. Not all achievements are equal, even if they might look that way from the outside.” Looking at skills, rather than just qualifications, for example, could help you identify promising candidates who might look less qualified on paper.

Widening your talent pool can be achieved in many ways, including engaging with schools and further education colleges (particularly in areas of historic socio-economic disadvantage), and encouraging employees to support your social mobility outreach. This will also help counter any lack of knowledge. “It’s one thing to throw open the doors, but if young people don’t know who you are, they won’t apply,” said Justin Rix. School leaver programmes and work experience can therefore be very beneficial.

Create a culture where everyone succeeds

As the Social Mobility Commission’s Employer Toolkit stresses: “socio-economic inclusion is not just about who gets in, it’s also about who gets on.” Be sure to examine your requirements for career progression, as well as recruitment. Discrimination in the social mobility space isn’t confined to early careers. “I had a head-hunter ring me up a few months ago, saying he had the perfect job for me, but couldn’t put me forward for it because the company was insisting on a red brick degree,” Stephen Haines said. “How ridiculous is that? 30 years into a successful career and that’s still a barrier.”

Employee data can help identify if there are levels within your organisation that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not reach. Regular performance reviews and discussions about career progression, as well as opportunities for further training, can also help with this.

As Justin Rix explained: “It’s one thing to get a more diverse range of people into your business, another thing to make them feel welcome and keep them in the business. You have to make sure your business is somewhere they want to be, and can be themselves.”

Final thoughts

Taking action on social mobility doesn’t have to involve a massive budget and a grand plan from the outset – improvement begins with a few small steps, and you can take it from there. As Dax Grant, CEO at Global Transform, asserted: “Take some time to look at your own story and be clear on your purpose. Articulate why you want to drive social mobility improvements and turn that into a key practical action. Enact it and see what happens. If it works, great. If it doesn’t? Try again.”

If you would like any assistance with making your hiring processes fully inclusive, from resources to hands-on guidance, please contact our D&I specialists and they will be happy to advise you.

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