The Social Mobility Foundation has published its Employer Index for 2021 and it shows a surge in participation. There are now over 200 companies competing for recognition, compared to 119 in 2020 and 125 in 2019. The Index is the UK’s benchmark when it comes to progress on this important metric.
The Foundations puts the surge in participation down to the impact of COVID-19 and the struggle employers are having in attracting and retaining talent as they strive to break through the traditional ‘old boys’ network’ where recruiters favour candidates they know, or those with more privileged social status. However, notably, it seems the FTSE 100 is failing on this measure. The FT reports research by Exeter University showing only 12 FTSE 100 firms are taking social class seriously by at least mentioning it their D&I strategy, or collecting data on the socio economic background of employees. Almost half, 47%, made no mention of social class whatsoever.
Why is this issue important? As with any diversity metric, increasing the talent pool to encompass employees from all backgrounds is not just the right and fair thing to do, it also makes business sense. The evidence shows diverse business have a clear competitive advantage.
So how do you improve this particular aspect of diversity? Last month, just ahead of publication of the 2021 Index, this was the subject of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line programme ‘Class in the Workplace’ with a panel including Exeter University’s Professor Lee Elliot-Major, the man behind the University’s FTSE 100 research. He was asked that very question by presenter Evan Davies. This is what he said:
BBC Radio 4 – The Bottom Line
We agree with that, and it’s very much in line with the advice we are giving to our clients, helping them with their D&I strategy, focusing on the class and background of their staff. Heading that up is Laura Starrett who joined me by phone from Manchester to discuss the work she has been doing with clients in this area.
Laura Starrett: “In our experience, Joe, employers are at a very early stage on social mobility. It’s becoming an increasing area of focus, particularly as the class gap is now thought to be widening as a result of the pandemic and I think the key starting point for employers, as is the case with all diversity strands, is an effective data gathering exercise so that the employer truly understands the demographic of its workforce. Now, that will involve thinking about how the data gathering exercise will work, including the categories of data the employer wants to collect, and from a social mobility point of view that should include things like what type of secondary school the individual attended, the type of university, the type of job occupied by their parents and whether they attend to university and also eligibility for free school meals. These categories of data are important because they essentially help measure economic disadvantage which can then play a part in individuals securing roles within the organisation, but also progressing within the organisation. Once that data is collected, the next step is to develop a strategy to tackle any gaps identified, alongside clear targets. In terms of what that strategy looks like, that will vary from organisation to organisation.”
Joe Glavina: “Can I turn to the practical steps employers can take. What sort of things are your clients doing to make progress with this?”
Laura Starrett: “Yes, so there are lots of practical steps that employers can consider. The first thing to look at is around recruiting talent and thinking about creating diverse routes into the workplace. So that may involve, for example, using apprenticeships with a formal progression structure attached to it in order to attract a more diverse range of candidates into the business. Also, looking at retaining talent, so reviewing promotion and work allocation processes to ensure that these are as inclusive as possible otherwise there is a risk that the diverse talent that's been recruited into the business then later leaves because the pathway to the next stage is not clear for them. Another aspect that we've been advising employers to look at is the wider relationships outside of the organisation. So what we're doing in terms of working with young people in schools, universities, and further education colleges, to help broaden horizons which, in time, then opens up opportunities to recruit from a wider pool of talent. With these relationships there does need to be a sustained level of engagement so that these types of partnerships are meaningful to both the individual and the business but also contribute to an organization's wider ESG strategy in the local community. I think with any of these steps it's hugely beneficial to have an employee network who are engaged in pushing forward social mobility issues. So, for example, I'm the current co-chair of the social mobility champions network within Pinsent Masons and I believe that employee networks help build a sense of community and play a critical role in helping to shape the D&I journey within organisations and also help ensure that long lasting change and, ultimately, they also act as a first port of call to reach out to for supporting initiatives within the business, and also outside the business.”
Joe Glavina: “What about legal compliance, Laura? There is no legal duty to collect data and report on class but, if you do, then there’s the GDPR to think about for example.”
Laura Starrett: “There are good reasons for collecting social mobility data to demonstrate diversity and inclusion within the organisation. However, there isn't currently a legal requirement to do this, which adds a layer of complexity. So when we're talking about tracking the data involved in helping an organisation assess social mobility, the business will be dealing with sensitive information which should be treated as a special category data under the GDPR and what that means is that processing the data relating to social mobility must satisfy a sensitive data condition. So, for example, that the collection and processing of the data is necessary for performance of rights and obligations under employment law. However, as there is often no legal requirement for employers to monitor this type of data unlike, for example, gender, it can be difficult to fall within one of the required data processing conditions. Having said that, given that the data will help establish, for example, whether an employer's equality policy is effective in practice, alongside highlighting possible inequalities and ultimately will help feed into a wider equality strategy. These reasons are usually relied upon to justify collecting and processing the data on an anonymous basis and then, in the usual way, access to this data should be restricted and obviously stored safely too.”
Joe Glavina: “Final question, Laura. If there’s one message for HR what is it?”
Laura Starrett: “Communication is absolutely key when you're asking individuals to engage with providing data from a social mobility perspective so that they can understand the wider context as to why you're collecting the data. If you're able to have an effective communication strategy in place that will harness a much more response from your workforce and, ultimately, help you then come up with a clear D&I strategy moving forward.”
The Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index 2021 was published at the end of November and lists all those firms that have submitted data, so you can see whether your firm is on the list and, if so, where it sits. We have put a link to that in the transcript of this programme. We have also put a link to that Radio 4 programme, The Bottom Line, ‘Class in the Workplace’.
- Link to The Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index 2021
- Link to BBC Radio 4 programme The Bottom Line – ‘Class in the Workplace’