At our recent People Summit Series event on Recruiting for the Future, much of the discussion focused on the issue of how employers harness the benefits of social diversity in the workplace.
Diversity and inclusion is now rightly seen as a core part of recruitment and retention strategy but, in my experience, it has traditionally been viewed through the prism of "protected characteristics" covered by discrimination law – such as gender, disability and ethnic origin.
There is perhaps less focus on addressing disadvantages stemming from social background, even though this has long been recognised as a significant barrier to individuals achieving their potential.
The Elitist Britain 2019 Report, published jointly by The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, highlights the extent to which a disproportionate number of individuals who attended independent schools occupy high ranking positions across a broad range of public and private sector roles. In summary, although only 7% of the British population are privately educated, they make up 39% of this identified "elite".
There will be many people with strong ambitions who will have had a state comprehensive education and been the first from their family to go to university, but lack the confidence to apply for or compete for the best jobs. I was one of those (many years ago!). In the end, I was very lucky to find a law firm where I enjoyed fantastic training and was able to progress from there – but, rightly or wrongly, I had the distinct sense when first considering a legal career that I was an outsider (and it nearly put me off).
As a member of the legal profession, I was also pretty underwhelmed to read that 65% of senior judges attended independent schools and 71% were Oxbridge-educated. Quite apart from the message it sends to lawyers seeking to enter the judiciary, surely our judges need to be more representative of the society they serve?
This is not in any way to downplay the achievements or potential of those who have had benefited from a fee-paid education or attended one of the Oxbridge colleges. They are talented individuals who have rightly taken up the opportunities presented to them. They have the same right as anyone else to pursue their career aspirations and they will bring significant value to their employers.
However, I do believe that employers should be looking at the widest possible talent pool when seeking future recruits. They will often be faced with a group of very evenly matched, well-qualified job candidates. All of them may be at similar destinations, some will have had a longer and more challenging journey to get there (and demonstrated resilience and tenacity along the way). Are employers missing a trick by not engaging with and encouraging future applicants from a range of social backgrounds, who may bring different attributes and perspectives?
We invited Patrick Philpott (Founder and CEO of Visionpath) to talk at our People Summit about how social mobility is the last piece of the diversity jigsaw when attracting and retaining the best talent. Here's what he had to say after the event:
Q. What are your immediate reflections on the conversations that took place at the People Summit?
It's encouraging to see social mobility rising up the agenda for many businesses. The debate and discussion at the recent People Summit showed it's being recognised as a key priority for responsible, forward-thinking businesses and a chance to make a difference for their organisation and their communities.
Q. So how can responsible, forward-thinking employers best go about addressing this issue in practice?
Like so many big societal problems, it's difficult to know what part you or your business can play in tackling the issue or even where to start. But whether you're a large multinational or a local SME, there's more you can do than you realise.
One way you can make a difference is by embracing apprenticeships. The Social Mobility Commission, in their 2019 State of the Nation report, highlighted apprenticeships as a key to unlocking social mobility but one that isn't being maximised. Level 3 apprenticeships, particularly suited to school-leavers and a stepping-stone into sustained employment, are currently in decline against higher-level apprenticeships. In turn, these are found to favour young people from more affluent backgrounds (who could better afford the costs of a degree) or are being used to upskill existing employees utilising the Apprenticeship Levy.
Reimagine your apprenticeships as a force for good and create opportunities to bring young people into your workforce.
Q. What has been your own experience of adopting this approach at VisionPath?
In my experience of hiring school-leavers into my own team and helping our clients to attract them too, they bring fresh ideas, energy and dynamism to any team. And, if targeted in the right way through a localised approach, you'll reach those who stand to benefit most and for whom the opportunity will truly transform their future prospects.
Q. Should employers be seeking to monitor social diversity in their workplaces? If so, how should they approach it?
I think one of the reasons social diversity has gone under the radar is that it can be the most challenging to measure, versus other aspects of the diversity picture. But employers can start to understand the social background of their workforce through indicators like whether an employee received free school meals during education, if they were the first generation in their family to attend University, or the occupations held by their parents. These can all help to build a picture of someone's background and their social mobility.