Breaking the class ceiling

Class is Britain's forgotten strand of D&I. But we must ensure someone's background doesn't hinder their success

It’s been the diversity story of the year. In July the BBC, under the terms of its new Royal Charter, had to disclose the pay of 96 of its top stars earning more than £150,000. The list made for uncomfortable reading, revealing that around two-thirds of top-earning celebrities are male.

And yet lurking behind the many scandalised headlines on this gender disparity was another much less-discussed diversity story. A fair few commentators highlighted the shockingly small number of ethnic minority presenters on the list – a mere 10. But few would have realised the unsettling class imbalance this list also represents, with 45% of those on it having attended private school.

The BBC is by no means alone in this imbalance. Dig a little deeper into the structures of the prestigious institutions and senior management strata that make up our country’s economic, social and cultural life, and an unsettling picture emerges.

According to The Sutton Trust, roughly half those among the professions were privately educated, despite the fact only 7% of all pupils attend private schools (this statistic has remained virtually unchanged in 20 years). This rises to three-quarters of top judges in the UK, and seven in 10 at top military schools. UK professionals from working-class backgrounds are also paid £6,800 less on average each year than those from more affluent families, the Social Mobility Commission found in January.

Unfortunately – but in organisations’ defence at least – this imbalance is undeniably reflective of that still found in British society at large. A report led by chair of the Social Mobility Commission Alan Milburn found in June that only a third of 25- to 49-year-olds felt they were better off financially than their parents, compared with nearly three-quarters of over-65s. A third thought the next generation would be worse off financially, while 39% predicted the next generation would experience lower job security, and 38% said there would be poorer housing.

Education was the only area people felt the next generation would be significantly better off in than their own. Yet this is an area of concern too. A report by the Department for Education last year revealed that the number of working-class students attending universities and colleges dropped in 2013-14, the first year affected by the tuition fee rise.

Class complications

But there are at least signs that the issue is receiving more attention. The Milburn report is a case in point – as is the word ‘meritocracy’ creeping back into the mainstream political lexicon. Since becoming prime minister Theresa May has promised to make Britain “the world’s great meritocracy” on numerous occasions. “I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege, where it’s your talent and hard work that matter,” she proclaimed, introducing her pledge to revive grammar schools (which has since been scrapped).

Back in the workplace, this year marked the inaugural publication of the Social Mobility Employer Index – a list of the 50 UK employers taking most action on social mobility. Yet it’s a diversity topic still receiving nowhere near as much focus in workplaces and from HR as others.

This is unsurprising given the wider political context, feels Louise Ashley, a lecturer in HR management and organisational behaviour specialising in research on D&I programmes at the University of London.

“We have to remember that class fell away from the national conversation in the Blair years; we stopped talking about it and the impression was we’d done away with it,” she says. She points to employers assuming the class box has been ‘ticked’ through hiring more people from varying ethnic, but still just as privileged, backgrounds.

Class has become more complicated to define rather than disappearing altogether, feels Sam Friedman, a sociologist of class and inequality at the London School of Economics. “From the ‘90s onwards we were told continually by politicians that we lived in a classless society,” he says. “What class meant and looked like changed in important ways, but I think change is different to something disappearing.”

“Class is a very complex, slippery concept,” agrees Ashley. “So how do we define it? Do we talk in terms of people’s incomes? Or are we talking all the other aspects like education and social capital? That’s really difficult to get a handle on.”

No wonder most employers still haven’t got to grips with, or even turned their minds to this. Not only is class fiendishly difficult to define it’s also not a protected characteristic, points out Friedman: “So in a very banal way HR departments just aren’t compelled to think about it in the way they are with other characteristics.”

The danger is employers seeing class as ‘someone else’s problem’. “There’s a huge amount of discussion now about education, but there is far less sophisticated debate about the workplace,” says Lee Elliot-Major, director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust. “But all the studies suggest inequality is as much an issue there.”

“One of the problems that’s gotten in the way of progress is each stage blaming the stage before,” feels David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation. “So employers blame universities, who blame the schools, who blame parents, who blame the government… but all of these stages have a role to play.”

Unfortunately, as Johnston describes, the hands-thrown-up logic from many employers is still: ‘regrettably the most able candidates do come from more privileged backgrounds, and we the employer are at the mercy of this in selecting the best talent’. Many would point to this as not just ethically dubious, however, but inherently flawed logic that ignores the strong business case for taking greater ownership of the issue.

Employers might think they’re identifying the creme de la creme when they either consciously – through educational background and attainment – or unconsciously – through qualities such as ‘polish’ and confidence – rely on class signifiers to spot talent. But often they’re doing anything but, asserts Gideon Calder, senior lecturer in public health, policy and social sciences at Swansea University. They’re missing out on a wealth of bright and able individuals.

Calder points to work by Nick Duffell, founder of Boarding School Survivors, a therapy centre specialising in helping those affected by attending boarding school. Duffell’s work found that while prestigious boarding schools such as Eton produce individuals “immensely competent, confident, articulate and competitive,” there are also significant drawbacks. “They tend to lack empathy and emotional intelligence,” Calder says. “So while Eton equips you for individual achievement it doesn’t equip you for teamwork.”

“I think we need to get away from this fixation with the way people speak, whether they’re confident in meetings… I would argue the state school kids we support have got things that some of the more prestigious young people don’t; which are hunger, drive and resilience,” agrees Elliot-Major.

“If you have really closed decision-making in your business because everyone comes from the same background and sees the world in the same way that’s a long-term risk for an organisation,” adds co-founder of The Centre for Organisation Renewal Norman Pickavance, regarding the business case for class diversity. “If you want to address that you need people who have had different experiences.”

What gets measured…

All inspirational and business-critical stuff. But addressing this will seem – given the complex class ecosystem employers inhabit – far from straightforward.

The first step (as with any business or HR issue) is finding out how much of a problem you actually have, says Friedman. “The first really important thing, which is starting to happen in organisations but needs to happen a lot more, is firms properly measuring socio-economic diversity,” he says. “A lot do it but in different ways and not in robust ways.”

The difficulty, as Ashley explores above, is that there is no one, clear measure for such a complex characteristic. The solution at PwC, which came seventh on the Social Mobility Employer Index, is to monitor four data sets, reports head of people Laura Hinton. “We ask about free school meals, whether you’re the first generation to go to university, whether you attended state school, and whether you came from a home eligible for income support,” she says.

What’s needed, says Friedman, is a much more standardised approach to data collection so organisations can start to benchmark themselves. Rachel Hill, senior inclusion manager at Grant Thornton UK, the Social Mobility Index’s number one-rated company, agrees. “If you have a number of firms in a sector collecting data you can come together and see if you’re facing a similar challenge. Then you’re in a great position to decide how best to tackle it,” she says. “On some diversity agendas we do need to work together,” agrees Hinton. “Because it’s in everybody’s best interest.”

Robustly tracking data on class can also play a crucial role at the next priority area for many: recruitment. Awareness that a candidate went to an under-performing state school, was a recipient of free school meals, or grew up in a deprived area of the country can add crucial context. It’s a process, reports managing director at Rare Raph Mokades, that more and more are starting to employ through his company’s contextual recruitment software.

“We’re starting to see more sectors getting involved, so enquiries from industrial firms; that’s new and a really big deal,” he says. “Quite a few FTSE 100 companies use it now – several household names. It’s become de rigour in law.

“There’s a big debate at the moment about if grades mean anything, and I think it’s probably true getting three As doesn’t mean that much if you’re from a more privileged background,” he adds. “But I think getting three As from a particular background does mean something – it means you’re smart, hardworking and resilient.”

Blind recruitment can also play an important role, says Hill. “We pre-empted that there may be some barriers within our selection process,” she says. “We took out the need for relevant work experience; recognising that some people won’t have the contacts to secure that. We took out references to extra-curricular activities.

“Probably the biggest action was removing minimum academic requirements for our early talent programmes; so our school leaver, undergrad and graduate programmes,” she adds. “When you look at volume recruitment it’s an easy way of taking people out of the process. But given the amount of talent you’re overlooking that just doesn’t make sense.” She points also to the need to widen the pool of universities firms target.

Dispensing with minimum qualifications and grades will require organisations to be much more thoughtful on assessing potential, says Ashley. “A lot use academic qualifications to indicate future potential and that’s really problematic because there isn’t often any evidence that academic performance is indicative of career success,” she says. “So it’s finding more innovative and inventive ways to decide what potential looks like.”

Key will be ensuring that the interview process doesn’t suffer unconscious class bias, Ashley says. But organisations must also recognise that a lot of class bias is conscious. “What I don’t think is unconscious is when people say ‘we cannot have this person in this firm because they will not look good in front of clients’,” she says. “We have to be very careful how we talk about that. We should be clear that that’s conscious and it’s discriminatory.”

“We’re polite and say it’s unconscious bias but all of that is conscious actually,” agrees Johnston. “When you decide that someone doesn’t have the ‘right’ accent, didn’t shake hands the way you wanted them to, that’s not unconscious.”

Ashley adds that organisations must, however, be wary of not becoming so afraid of bias that they introduce overly rigid measures at the wrong stage.

“Too much formalisation at pre-interview selection stage can mean things are too rigid and that can be problematic for people coming from diverse backgrounds,” she says. “They need flexibility at that point. And then at the interview and assessment centre, that’s where they need a high degree of formality to ensure bias is ironed out.

“But there are a lot of organisations who work in the opposite way. And there’s an assumption that ‘because we have this incredibly formal recruitment selection process it must be meritocratic’.”

Pickavance highlights this as an issue with talent management more broadly. “Because we’re obsessed with talent management processes we’ve criteria-ised to death that we’re we’re looking for x, y and z,” he says. “That discourages line managers perhaps taking instinctive decisions around ‘this is a good person and I need to take a risk with them’.’”

Beyond access

Which brings us to the importance of looking beyond recruitment – something very few organisations have got to grips with, says Ashley. “Most work has focused on access, but we know if you come from a non-traditional class background you may experience different rates of career progression and may leave relatively quickly,” she says. “That needs more attention from employers. It’s all very well inviting people from a non-traditional background in, but if they are then forced to exit that’s quite psychologically damaging for that person.”

Recent research by LSE’s Friedman and Daniel Laurison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania makes for disquieting confirmation of this phenomena. It found that professionals working in law, accountancy and finance whose parents did manual jobs or were unemployed earned 20% less on average than colleagues from upper middle-class backgrounds.

“People from disadvantaged backgrounds spend so much time trying to fit in that they don’t spend enough time trying to stand out,” feels Pickavance. “People who come from a certain background know how to hold themselves and so can be relaxed. I remember when I first walked into a boardroom; I was absolutely terrified and had to force myself into those situations.”

Pickavance’s comments concur with research by Sarah Townsend, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. It shows that people from working-class backgrounds tend to understand themselves as interdependent with, and highly connected to, others. Meanwhile those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds place greater emphasis on individuality and independent success.

Working-class individuals often need to be encouraged to be less self-effacing, says Joan Williams, founding director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California and author of White Working Class. “If you have a system where people write self-evaluations you need to very specifically tell people what’s expected,” she says. “Otherwise women, people of colour and class migrants will tend to write very modestly.

“People from working-class backgrounds have a solidarity versus individual achievement ethic. So they’ll be uncomfortable blowing their own trumpet because that’s considered bad taste – particularly for class migrants who have already spent a lot of time apologising to family and friends that they’re so successful,” she adds.

Williams points out that “many of the things you need to do to support and level the playing field for people of colour and women will also help class migrants”. Sandy Begbie, global head of people and organisation integration at Standard Life (who came fourth on the Employer Index), agrees. He cites buddying and mentoring. “Probably one of the most important things is our networks,” he adds. “The young person development network works really effectively; that has 350 people.”

Friedman adds the power of apprenticeships. Many have done good work around establishing apprenticeships as an alternate route into their firm. But also encouraging, Friedman says, are instances of employers “thinking creatively around apprenticeships to target bottlenecks, targeting existing employees not making it to the top-level positions.”

Reaching out

Many might still argue, however, that there’s only so much employers can do. Individuals arrive on employers’ doorsteps with at least 16 to 18 years of character- and capability-defining experience. And sometimes those from the most privileged backgrounds are, unpalatable as it might be, genuinely best for the job.

But this is where employers need to think more holistically about their broader role in society. As with gender and race, outreach activity will be key.

Deborah McCormack, head of recruitment and graduate development at Pinsent Masons (15th in the Index), says that there might seem a less obvious business case for outreach activity, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. “One of our values is being bold and to be bold in business you need people who think differently and challenge the status quo,” she says. “For us as a law firm it’s about making sure we’re truly representative of our client base.”

It’s important volunteers from the business convey the wide array of jobs on offer in a law firm, she says: “We have mentors with children as far back as primary school. Or they speak in schools saying ‘it’s not just about being a qualified solicitor; we have lots of different roles’.”

It’s important such activity genuinely targets opportunity “cold spots”, says PwC’s Hinton. “Tower Hamlets are apparently inundated with offers because everyone in the City just goes next door,” she says. “We have clear targets that help hold us to account. We will deliver 1,000 paid work experience placements over the next five years and 25,000 hours of work-based skills training in schools. And our focus is right across the country.”

E-mentoring and virtual work experience play an important role in combatting geographical inequality at Fujitsu (13th on the list), reports head of internal mobility and junior talent recruitment Mark Jackson. “There’s often a limitation on how far someone can move from home – there are dependencies there,” he says. “They might not be able to afford to travel back and forth.”

Regarding work experience, Johnston highlights the Social Mobility Foundation’s One +1 campaign. “We say: we know you’re going to take your or your neighbour’s child on work experience this year, take someone without those connections,” he says, reporting strong adoption from employers, many of whom have grown tired of “the lazy client’s child who knows they need work experience but doesn’t want to be there”.

For Begbie, inspiring appetite among the wider business for all of this activity is crucial: “I’m all for business cases and am very commercial, but I’d say don’t spend a lot of time on the business case. Because you’re going to have to change people’s behaviours and to do that this is about passion, belief and really linking it to the purpose and values of the organisation.”

The meritocracy myth

But there’s a danger that with all this well-meaning activity and talk of supporting people into elite contexts, comes disquieting assumptions around elevating a person’s social standing. Wanda Wyporska, executive director of the Equality Trust, says it’s crucial to stay alive to the connotations of words. “‘Social mobility’ really says to me that being working class isn’t something to be proud of, you need to move up the ladder,” she says. “I’ve always found that uncomfortable.”

She adds: “I’m a working-class mixed heritage woman who was able to go to private school because of an assisted place. But that was one person plucked out of many people. So social mobility is very restricted because it focuses on giving poor but bright kids a leg up, but not on the issues holding back the rest of the young people.”

Rare’s Mokades agrees, highlighting the slippage that can occur when ‘social mobility’ is the preferred euphemism for ‘class’. “I think people are uncomfortable with the word ‘class’ but no-one’s uncomfortable with ‘social mobility’. But of course that doesn’t mean class, it means movement from one social milieu to another… Social mobility is the preferred language of government and so it’s the preferred language of employers. But it’s sort of grammatical nonsense.”

Calder agrees that plucking a bright individual from working-class obscurity ignores the real issue: significant inequality between those at the top and bottom of the pile, and the fact that too many languish at the bottom. “I worry that we talk about social mobility at the expense of [talking about] inequality,” agrees Ashley, describing similar concern with the way ‘merit’ and ‘meritocracy’ are used within organisations: “It’s used as if it’s self-evident what merit actually is, when actually it’s incredibly ambiguous.”

Her comments touch on a debate first notably addressed in Labour politician and sociologist Michael Young’s 1958 satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy. Striving for a meritocracy where no characteristic, particularly class, holds any individual back might seem a noble, unproblematic goal. But taking this concept to its logical conclusion surfaces awkward questions around what actually constitutes merit. And on whether enforcing that definition in its purest sense – promoting and rewarding those most naturally gifted – would really create the kind of equal, compassionate society ‘meritocracy’ seems to promise.

“How do you compare someone who’s naturally talented to someone who isn’t but works hard and dedicates their whole life to self-improvement?” muses Calder. “You don’t want to discourage hard work but you do need those naturally gifted people.” “Should the most deserving get the best jobs? That’s hard to argue with. But then how do you define most deserving?” agrees Mokades.

There are no easy answers. But one way employers can meaningfully address this, feel many, is to redress the very assumptions underpinning approaches to talent. Debates around how to achieve a fair yet compassionate meritocracy really come down to long-held debates in the HR community around efficacy of talent management.

Talent management needs to evolve away from assuming there are certain ‘stars’ out there who will, if identified and given particular attention and support, contribute disproportionately highly to the organisations’ success, says Vivienne Ming, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience.

Organisations and their HR and talent functions must start from the principle that “everyone can be amazing”, she says. “If ‘anyone can be amazing’ it’s not my responsibility to help someone, all I need to do is find the amazing people,” she explains. “If ‘everyone can be amazing’ that is my problem. That’s a change in ownership.”

For the Sutton Trust’s Elliot-Major, it’s about dispensing with a presumed hierarchy of professions and positions and reframing the conversation around every individual achieving their potential and ambitions – which will mean different things to different people.

“Not everyone wants to do the same job,” he points out. “In a dream world those going into journalism would have certain attributes, those going into banking would have certain attributes. But that would be disconnected to your economic and social background. So it’s about diversity of talent. And that works both ways; more middle-class young people should do apprenticeships.”

Time for change

On a pragmatic level, the crucial reason HR must get to grips with this debate, says Williams, is so they remain vigilant to how slippery ‘merit’ is, and constantly question their own people processes accordingly. “You tend to find more bias in organisations who consider themselves a meritocracy,” she reports.

She adds a recent rise in disaffected, anti-establishment, populist sentiment to the business case for sitting up and taking note. “Working-class white men just know they’re not receiving the same treatment as colleagues from elite backgrounds and it’s making them really angry,” she warns.

Grant Thornton’s Hill adds the driver of Brexit to this: “After the vote to leave the EU this can no longer be ignored,” she says. “The forward thinking firms are thinking about the impact in terms of being able to access the talent they need.”

Encouragingly there are signs of change. “We talk to a lot of corporates and we’ve had increasingly supportive conversations where social mobility has moved from a CSR to HR issue,” says Elliot-Major. “I’ve been impressed with many HR professionals who are thinking about this more deeply.”

But there’s no room for complacency. Social inequality is still a huge issue for the UK at large. And workplaces must play their part in remaining ever vigilant if they’re to reap the diversity and business-enhancing rewards.