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Social class largest barrier to career progression

Socio-economic background is having the strongest negative effect on employee promotions, according to research from KPMG.

KPMG's Social Mobility Progression Report for 2022 found workers within the company from lower socio-economic backgrounds took on average 19% longer to progress to the next grade, when compared to those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. This was down from 22% in 2018.

Social class, measured by what an employee's parents did for work, was more of an obstacle than disability (2%) and sexual orientation (0%), while women and workers from ethnic minority backgrounds actually progressed quicker than average (2% and 12% respectively). 

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Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation, said old-fashioned mindsets regarding class are holding workers back.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: "Getting in is not the only challenge for talented people from certain social backgrounds, as this vital research confirms. It is simply not right that so many are held back from getting on, just because of where they were born, went to school or what their parents did for a living.

"Outdated concepts like ‘polish’ and ‘cultural fit’ persist in workplaces today, contributing to this socio-economic inequality. Our annual Social Mobility Employer Index – in which KPMG has ranked as a top-three employer for the third year running – shows that more employers are grasping the scale of the challenge and taking action, but it cannot be left to these employers alone.

"All employers should be setting strategies to improve retention and progression for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to ensure social class is no longer the forgotten aspect of diversity."

To address the promotion gap, KPMG will review its approach to work allocation, re-evaluate the data it collects on workplace progression, and introduce a new promotion readiness programme to support workers from under-represented groups who are ready to take the next step in their careers.

Carl Cullinane, director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust, said companies need to do more than recruit people from different social backgrounds.

He told HR magazine: “Many companies have made progress in recruiting employees from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds, but progression can still remain a challenge. To make the most of those employees’ talent, it is vital to look at retention and progression within the organisation. This can include monitoring class pay gaps and ensuring promotion and work allocation processes are fair.

“Employers should also strive to create an inclusive culture that celebrates diversity and different viewpoints. To truly improve social mobility, we must make sure that we make use of the talents of all sections of society. There is a wealth of evidence that socioeconomic background can impact on recruitment, progression and pay, and any action from employers to address these issues should be strongly encouraged."

Jon Holt, chief executive of KPMG in the UK, added: "This study is pioneering in its scope, and I hope adds value and rigour to the debate around social mobility. As a firm these insights are enabling us to take targeted action and we are publishing our findings so other organisations can draw insights from them and use it as a blueprint to measure and address barriers in their own businesses.

"Socio-economic background is complex and emotive. It requires us to confront how our upbringing shapes the opportunities we have access to later in life. But as businesses we need to lean into this discomfort if we are to make progress."

KMPG analysed the career paths of 16,500 partners and employees over a five-year period.