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HR professionals should lead the way in creating a more inclusive workforce

Fewer than two-thirds of young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds think a satisfying job is open to everyone if they work hard enough.

This is according to the latest Social Mobility Employer Index report, which assesses the steps employers are taking to attract talent from all backgrounds.

People professionals know this number could easily be changed; they are aware of the vital need to make social mobility part of an organisation’s business strategy.

In the current battle for talent and skills, alongside the resurgence of the productivity puzzle, recruiting from the biggest and most diverse pool possible is the only thing that makes sense.

Creating socio-economic diversity at work:

Should socio-economic background be a protected characteristic?

Social mobility: The route less travelled in diversity and inclusion

How do you define social mobility?

Recruitment and selection processes that prize polish, an individual's accent, connections and educational background over potential, or miss strengths and capabilities because a candidate is not quite the finished product, benefit no one except those who are already well placed to succeed.

This creates a system where many working class people are left behind despite having the potential to succeed. Employers simply can’t afford to overlook the talent yet to be unleashed.

Meanwhile it is increasingly important for employee engagement and retention to respond to expectations that their employer will demonstrate a commitment to being a responsible business, taking a progressive stance on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, and offering opportunities to get involved with inclusion and volunteering initiatives.

As we are all aware, the cost of living crisis continues to place increased burdens on young people entering the workforce, exacerbating Britain’s deep social divide. The workplace is as important as the classroom in increasing social mobility.

As Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said on his appointment to the Social Mobility Commission advisory group in December 2022: “The people profession has a crucial role in ensuring that everyone has the chance to access and progress through work, and delivering the change needed at work. With employers facing increasingly persistent skills shortages this is a pivotal moment to explore how we can drive social mobility in the workplace.”

Yet too many HR departments have yet to seize this moment.

We know there are many ways employers can improve socio-economic diversity within their HR processes.

Taking part in the 2023 Social Mobility Index can help.

Collecting socio-economic background data, using the Social Mobility Commission’s data toolkit for example, and monitoring recruitment, pay and progression for differences by socioeconomic background is an important starting point. Publishing data and setting targets for improvement takes you to the next stage.

When it comes to recruitment, make sure you are paying the cost of travel for interviews and assessment centres, and if you interview online, understand that not everyone will have a quiet space of their own to work from.

Challenge whether qualification or grade requirements are really necessary – they’re rarely a good predictor of performance – and be alert to biases around ‘polish’ and ‘fit’ which favour more privileged candidates over those from different backgrounds, who may have more potential.

And HR leaders in any organisation, of any size, can play an important role in normalising the conversation around socioeconomic background and social mobility. Encourage colleagues to share stories about their background and the opportunities and challenges they have faced, and get senior leaders involved where you can.

Social mobility awareness day on 15 June could be a good opportunity to make a start.

Sarah Atkinson is CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation