Businesses urged to get ahead of the game on social mobility

Out-Law News | 18 Jan 2019 | 10:19 am | 3 min. read

ANALYSIS Diversity and inclusion (D&I) will remain a hot topic for businesses in 2019, with the ethnicity pay gap set to join the gender pay gap (GPG) at the top of the corporate agenda following the closure of a recent government consultation on how best to report on the statistics and encourage action to close the gap.

Against this backdrop, it was concerning to see scepticism, particularly among young people, about the potential for social mobility in the workplace emerge from a survey by the relaunched Social Mobility Commission, reported just before Christmas. While respondents across all age ranges think it is getting harder for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to move up in society, those aged between 18 and 24 were particularly pessimistic, with just 25% believing that only talent and hard work determine where people end up.

There is a strong link between social mobility – defined by the Commission as the ease with which an individual can 'move up' in society regardless of the occupation or income level of their parents – and other strands of the D&I agenda, including gender and ethnicity. It is worrying that, in a landscape where there is good progress being made in relation to those D&I issues, this survey has found that the young are so sceptical about advancement.

With the UK's scheduled departure from the EU taking up most of the government's focus at the moment, social mobility is low on the priority list - but a look at recent regulatory and legislative developments suggests that it will only be a matter of time before there are developments in this area. The introduction of mandatory GPG reporting was followed fairly quickly by the ethnicity pay gap reporting consultation, while new laws requiring large quoted companies to disclose and explain the ratio of their chief executive's total pay to average worker pay have recently come into force.

Social mobility is something that the top employers are already concerned about – and, if not, they should be. In a post-Brexit landscape, with employers already concerned about the growing skills gap, broadening the pool from which companies select talent and being supportive of initiatives that help to do this makes business sense. Organisations of all sizes and in many sectors are reporting difficulty in attracting and retaining the talent they need, and finding ways to actively increase the pool of qualified candidates could help invigorate the jobs market and those employers.

The government has shown a strong commitment to facilitating real change in the D&I space, and has demonstrated that it is prepared to legislate if that change is not forthcoming. This year, organisations with 250 employees or more will publish their second annual GPG reports, allowing the government, press, competitors and the public to see whether the progress promised in the additional narrative accompanying the first round of figures has actually happened. The government sought views on the information employers should be required to publish in order to allow for "decisive action" on workplace diversity, without placing undue burdens on businesses, as part of its ethnicity pay gap reporting consultation, and will report back soon on how it plans to take the plans forward.

The government-backed Social Mobility Commission relaunched in December to great fanfare with a new chair, 12 new commissioners and an additional £2 million in public funding to commission new research into social mobility. The Commission will publish its 'state of the nation' assessment of UK social mobility in March, and is planning to focus on vocational education and skills and produce a 'toolkit' for employers in its first year of operation.

The direction of travel is clear. Social mobility is something that the government is likely to turn its attention to when time allows, and proactive employers have the opportunity now to get ahead in this area. The starting point is to gather the necessary data through a D&I audit, which will also allow you to take stock of your current diversity and inclusion practices.

Simple changes to outreach and the recruitment process can increase your prospective talent pool. Get involved early, sending speakers and representatives to careers fairs at schools, not just universities; investigate diverse routes into the business, for example more of a focus on apprenticeships and not just graduate recruitment; and consider offering financial support for travel and experience days in the office.

Technology also provides opportunities to broaden out the recruitment process, with the growth of tools such as contextualised recruitment helping to give employers a better understanding of the context in which prospective candidates' academic achievements have been obtained. A contextualised recruitment system can help employers to overcome unconscious bias and encourage applicants who might otherwise be put off. Consider also the criteria used to select applicants for interview: are base academic requirements really needed, or should the focus be more on skills and values - especially in times where flexibility and resilience are much more important attributes than might have previously been the case.

Employers should also consider engaging with third party organisations who can provide support on social mobility; for example the Social Mobility Foundation and the Sutton Trust.

Amy Hextell is a diversity and inclusion expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.