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UK finance firms told to break ‘class ceiling’ in new report

Laura Starrett tells HRNews about practical steps firms can take to improve social mobility

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    The U.K‘s financial services sector has been told it must do more to “break the ‘class’ ceiling,” with new targets calling for at least half of senior leaders to come from working-class or lower socioeconomic backgrounds by 2030.

    The new report, by The Socio-Economic Diversity taskforce, commissioned in 2020, outlines a pathway for firms to ensure that accents and parentage do not dictate workplace progression. The City of London Corporation, the governing body that oversees the U.K.’s finance industry, said the targets were crucial not only for improving boardroom diversity but also for boosting growth in the sector. Catherine McGuinness, chair of the task force, said: ‘We need to break the ‘class’ ceiling — removing unfair barriers to progression is not only the right thing to do, it will enable firms to boost productivity, retention levels and innovation.’

    The report shows around half of all U.K. financial services employees are currently from non-professional backgrounds, defined as working class and intermediate backgrounds. Yet, they tend to progress 25% slower than their peers. Just over a third (36%) of those employees manage to climb the ladder to senior levels. Meanwhile, employees from non-professional backgrounds tend to get paid up to £17,500 less per year, with zero links to their professional performance.

    The report includes a Five Point Pathway aimed at tackling the lack of socio-economic diversity at senior levels. The five points (or steps) on the pathway are: leadership, assess, take action, set goals, and publish and involve different processes depending on which set of institutions an organisation belongs to. 

    Point 2 is the one we would highlight. In order to make progress employers need to understand their current makeup and levels of diversity. The report sets a target for that – they say: ‘employers in UK financial and professional services should collect data on the socioeconomic background of their employees by 2025.’

    Whilst this report is focused on the FS sector the issue of social mobility reaches across all sectors and we are currently working with a number of clients to help them address this issue. Laura Starrett has been involved in that ad earlier she joined me by phone from Manchester to discuss it:

    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.”

    That report by The Socio-Economic Diversity Taskforce is called: ‘Breaking the Class Ceiling - Recommendations for Building a More Socio-Economically Diverse Financial and Professional Services Sector’. We’ve put a link to it in the transcript of this programme. 

    - Link to Report: ‘Breaking the Class Ceiling - Recommendations for Building a More Socio-Economically Diverse Financial and Professional Services Sector’.

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