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Social mobility: The route less travelled in diversity and inclusion

Employers are getting to grips with social mobility as part of building a fairer workplace. Beau Jackson reports on the pitfalls HR needs to be aware of when taking its first steps.

Standing at almost 25,000 feet tall, the peak of Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan is renowned as the tallest unclimbed mountain in the world. Few have attempted to reach the summit and due to a ban on mountaineering, it may remain unexplored forever. In the workplace though, HR directors do not have such an excuse for leaving any stone unturned.

Socio-economic background remains one of the lesser explored areas of diversity and inclusion (D&I), despite a public appetite for employer accountability of social mobility.

Social mobility in the UK:

How do you define social mobility?

Half from disadvantaged backgrounds find recruitment unfair

Working class and a woman: what the research tells us

How employers can get involved with social mobility

In the government’s Social Mobility Barometer 2021, 42% of people said employers should have to take action to improve social mobility, a rise of 11% on 2019.

Thankfully, it seems some are taking notice, and gradually the UK is starting to scale its problem with socio-economic inequity.

Levelling up, as mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, is a core part of the government’s agenda which aims to spread opportunity, both educational and professional, more equally across regions outside south
east England. 

Influential organisations have begun making public statements about the socio-economic makeup of their workers too – with KPMG, PwC and the BBC among those setting targets to increase the representation of people from less-privileged backgrounds in their workforces.

As a developing area of D&I, there are some treacherous paths for tackling social mobility that HR needs to be aware of.  

So, what does HR need to know when exploring this uncharted territory for the first time? And, as it has its own nuances, does social mobility need to be treated any differently from other elements of D&I?


Agreeing on a definition 

One of the difficulties with talking about social mobility has been the lack of an accepted definition of socio-economic background. 

Though conversations around race or gender are still far from easy, Donna Catley, chief people officer at food service company Compass Group, says: “You just ‘get’ gender. You just ‘get’ race. With social mobility – people don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

Thankfully, where employer data collection is concerned, there is a consensus developing around the Social Mobility Commission’s definition of what constitutes socio-economic background.

Its research found that asking people about their parent’s profession was the
least likely to offend, and the best for determining someone’s start in life. 

The main metric it therefore recommends for defining someone’s socio-economic background is: “What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?”

This is the metric the BBC will use in its pledge to make sure 25% of staff are from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds by 2027, and KPMG used the same question when setting its target for 29% of partners and directors to be from a working-class background by 2030. 

Social mobility charity The Sutton Trust supports using the parental profession question to measure socio-economic diversity. Rebecca Montacute, senior research and policy manager at the charity, says it is useful because it gives an idea of two things. 

She says: “Someone’s job gives you an idea of the likely amount of money that would have been available at home when someone was growing up. And the flipside is, what you do also impacts the social capital that you’ve got – so whether or not you went to university and you’re likely to know other people who might be able to give your child help with different routes.”

By agreeing on parental profession as the key metric, companies in the UK are in a better position to benchmark their progress. In the organisations that use it, it is also helping to remove some of the sting from the subject.

Catley adds: “Socio-economic background is not a subjective piece, it’s rooted in the government’s analysis of what your socio-economic start is in life, so we’ve made it fairly scientific to try to eliminate some of the emotion that we started to step into.”

Like others, Compass has also stopped using the word class when referring it socio-economic background as research found it was too emotive. 

“We never use the word class,” adds Catley. “We’ve made lots of mistakes as we’ve pioneered this space, and one of the areas we saw high levels of sensitivity was whenever we used the word class, because somehow people placed a value judgement on that and they felt that we were either demeaning or belittling whatever their start in life was, and that’s not the intent.”


Target setting 

To keep a clear and scientific approach to social mobility, firms need data, although opinion is divided on how employers should use and share this data.

The Sutton Trust’s employer guide to social mobility in the workplace advises organisations to measure socio-economic diversity as a minimum, so they can see where the gaps are in the employee life cycle and take targeted steps to progress. It does not have specific guidance on target setting though.

Montacute says it can be good to have goals, but employers should be careful that they pursue them in earnest, rather than just ticking a box: “Some of the issues with having specific quotas is always the question of, are doing that by ‘bums on seats’ versus doing the hard work to make sure your recruitment processes are fair, and you’re bringing up talent?”

Since 2017, the Social Mobility Foundation has published its Employer Index which tracks how various processes, such as recruitment and promotion, are set up to eradicate socio-economic bias. Organisations of any size can apply, for free, to enter it.

Tech company Fujitsu UK has consistently appeared on the foundation’s ranking and in 2021, it landed at position 45 ahead of the Home Office, Goldman Sachs and several other government departments, law firms and professional services firms that make the top 75.

Fujitsu UK’s VP, head of HR Europe Services Jason Fowler, says that looking at employees’ socio-economic backgrounds was an obvious move for the firm as it is naturally diverse in that area. He argues socio-economic target setting can be helpful for some, yet warns against the inertia constant target setting can create. 

“We have to be really careful that what we don’t do in our efforts to improve diversity and a sense of inclusion and fair opportunity is end up just increasing the number of categories that we put people into,” he says.

If an organisation is in a sector and operates in a way that naturally helps improve social mobility, Fowler argues that setting socio-economic targets could be seen as an easy win.

“There’s an established link between improved social mobility and the consequential impact on improved representation of other underrepresented groups, but it’s not exclusive,” he says. 

“There’s something to watch for here, in that social mobility is possibly an easier metric to make progress with than companies have shown they can make progress with things like gender and ethnic diversity. 

“The risk is that we prioritise social mobility at the expense of other aspects of diversity and we therefore feel as though the job has been done.”

Louise Ashley, a senior lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, studies how D&I programmes are implemented and developed by employers, and contributed to the Social Mobility Commission’s Employer’s toolkit.

Looking at both sides of the target setting dilemma, she says: “In D&I generally, we do have an audit culture which has been quite roundly criticised by many academics in the sense that it can drive change, but it can also limit it.” 

Targets can drive change, Ashley says, if they encourage sharing of best practice. Change is stifled if targets lead to complacency. She adds: “It might allow some organisations to generate reputational capital without actually having generated all that much change.”

One of the rubs, she argues, is that targets can wash over intersectionality within a group. By setting targets, such as 30% working class representation at board level, she says: “In essence, we’re concealing as much as we’re revealing, because we are taking 30% of our population and we are treating them as an homogenous group when, of course, they’re not. 

“People within that 30% will have a whole range of different backgrounds, a whole range of different life experiences. And there will be significant differences in terms of income and backgrounds and occupations within that route.”

Despite the challenges and pitfalls of target setting, Catley argues if social mobility is part of a D&I strategy, then it should be treated the same as any other area of business. 

“There’s no bit of business where you would identify a strategic intent, not use data and not set goals to drive results,” she says. “So, I would ask the question, why would you choose a different approach for D&I?”

Three tips for making a start with social mobility 

1. Keep it simple – Jenn Barnett, head of inclusion and diversity, Grant Thornton: “Until you get really immersed in D&I and social mobility in particular, it can feel quite overwhelming because we make it really complex, and it doesn’t need to be. Once you understand it, it is really easy to get engaged.”

2. Make sure employees are on board – Donna Catley, chief people officer, Compass Group: “When we had the most productive conversations about this was where we’d already got interventions in place, and we could paint the agenda for people who said: ‘This is what
[social mobility] is about’.”

3. Be transparent – Didi Enonuya, project manager of the Employer Index, Social Mobility Foundation: “The most important thing that you need to do within the strategy is to collect data, but within that you also need to be really honest with what you report and what you’re talking about.”

Without data, Catley says, it is difficult to make genuine progress, and often D&I strategies suffer from a lack of scrutinising findings to discover the areas where they are failing employees. She adds: “It’s often the data that will show you where you need to have very targeted interventions and if you’re not targeted, then you’re going to struggle to hit the right spots.”

The Social Mobility Foundation encourages employers working on social mobility to set targets rather than quotas. 

Didi Enonuya, project manager on the foundation’s Employer Index, says targets are crucial and encourages employers to be bold: “When it comes to that, we say be as ambitious as possible. 

“Be realistic – there are some things that you just can’t do right now, but when creating a one-year, three-year, five-year plan, within that you can put in your targets quite simply, and they’re easily adjustable.”


Check out part two of this cover story here.


The full piece of the above appears in the May/June 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.