There’s evident inequality of opportunity in the labour market based on where you were born and what jobs your parents did. As the Social Mobility Commission says, the rules of the game can be stacked against people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For example, in European OECD countries, children with the greatest socio-economic disadvantage grow up to earn as much as 20% less as adults than those with more favourable childhoods. (OECD).

However, our Inclusion at Work survey, in partnership with Reed, found that just 9% of employers have focused on improving inclusion and diversity with respect to social mobility/socio-economic status in the past five years. Large organisations are significantly more likely to be doing so than SMEs (17% versus 8%, respectively).   

Looking ahead, the same percentage of organisations say they’ll be focusing on this area of inclusion and diversity over the next five years (up to 2027). Although, when looking at the data in more detail, fewer large organisations (13%) say they’re planning to address it than in the previous five years.  

The Social Mobility Commission defines social mobility as:the link between a person's occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.

Rationale for employer action 

Employers are a key piece of the puzzle in supporting social mobility in the UK, through removing the barriers to fair opportunities at work. Employee outcomes at work being dependent on any aspect of their background is inarguably unjust. Inequalities of opportunity are being reinforced by inaccurate stereotypes (for example of the area people come from, the school they went to and their accent), biases, and people management approaches, including attraction, recruitment and progression practices, which haven’t been scrutinised with an inclusion lens.   

Our 2022 Good Work Index found that notably more workers whose parents were in managerial (48.9%) and professional occupations (48%) said their career has met their expectations, compared to just under a third (32%) of workers whose parents were engaged in caring, leisure and other occupations. The survey findings point to a number of common ‘enablers (when present) or barriers (when absent) to career progression, including access to training and development programmes, quality of line management, opportunities to develop skills, defined organisational or professional career pathways, and relationships and networks’.  

Removing the barriers that prevent people accessing work and progressing, based on their talent and effort, is essential for business, as well as for creating a fairer society. Employer action is needed if they are to benefit from the skills and capabilities of people within underutilised talent pools. Research by the Social Mobility Commission found that: Employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds perform at least as well as their more advantaged colleagues, and often outperform them. In professional service firms, for example, trainees from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to achieve the highest performance.  

Employers are also likely to benefit from an enhanced reputation as a responsible and fair employer, and from people wanting to come to work and to stay with the organisation if their employment experience is one of feeling valued, and there are equal opportunities to develop and progress.  

Employer motivations for action 

We asked those employers who’re focusing, and those planning to focus, on social mobility to tell us the main reasons why. The top five reasons for focusing on social mobility now and over the next five years are largely the same. It’s encouraging to see employers are recognising the business, individual and societal benefits of taking action  

  • We believe action in this area will make a positive difference to people's working lives.

  • To appeal to a wider pool of candidates for new vacancies. 

  • Our organisation will benefit (eg in terms of reputation, attracting talented people, productivity and revenue). 

  • Change at an organisational level will benefit society more generally in this area. 

  • Leadership views in this area as important to address  

Although the top five reasons remained the same overall when looking ahead at the next five years, the increase of focus on some of the reasons is interesting. Many more organisations are reporting the positive benefits for the organisation as a main reason for focusing on social mobility over the next five years, compared with the past five years (32% versus 24%). The same trend can be seen in terms of employers citing the benefits for society as a motivation for action (28% versus 23%).   

In addition, it appears that leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the need for action with regards to social mobility. More employers are saying that leaders see social mobility as an important area to address over the next five years (30%) than said this for the previous five years (23%).  

Intriguingly, improving employee relations/reducing conflict at work is reported by more employers as a reason for focusing on social mobility over the next five years compared with the previous five years (18% versus 7%).  

Finally, we were interested to know if employers collect equal opportunities monitoring data about social mobility/socio-economic status from employees and/or job applicants. A low proportion (5%) said they do, compared to 24% for sex, 23% for age, and 23% for race/ethnicity 

What can employers do? 

There are specific actions organisation can take to support social mobility and remove the barriers people face in access to work and to progression, based on their socio-economic background  

One example is being clear on what qualification requirements are essential for a role and reflecting that in the job description. Stating a degree is needed when it’s not essential, and someone without a degree could do the job well, can limit the talent pool you recruit from. Another example is making career progression requirements transparent to help mitigate the disadvantage people can experience if they don’t have informal networks to guide them in how the process works 

For more detailed practical guidance, take a look at the Building Blocks toolkit which the Social Mobility Commission has developed for employers (commented on and endorsed by the CIPD), to help improve social mobility in the workplace.   

The toolkit provides practical ideas of how to support social mobility, with a focus on five main areas: 

  • Create a compelling, shared vision of socio-economic diversity and inclusion across your business. 

  • Widen your talent pool. 

  • Create a diverse and inclusive culture. 

  • Progression – make sure the best can succeed. 

  • Ask the key question and analyse your data: what was the occupation of your main household earner when you were about aged 14?  

Integrate a focus on social mobility into the wider approach to improving EDI 

Integrating a focus on social mobility into the organisation’s overall approach and strategy to improving EDI means it becomes part of how you operate. It shouldn’t be a ‘bolt on’, with the risk of being dropped when resources are tight.   

This is important due to ‘intersectionality’ – the fact people don’t just have one identity. Different aspects of someone’s background, identity, and circumstances will all affect their working experience, so looking at one aspect in isolation won’t result in a truly inclusive organisation.   

Our research has shown that there are fundamentals of an inclusive workplace that can support people of many different backgrounds, identities, and circumstances. These include: 

  • Ensure the organisation’s values promote inclusion. 

  • Critically examine the workplace culture to ensure it supports and promotes inclusion. 

  • Work with senior leaders to ensure they understand the importance of inclusion and its value to the organisation. Also, that they need to promote EDI through their actions and behaviour, as others will look to them as a role model. 

  • Train line managers to develop core people management skills to manage people inclusively. 

  • Assess how people develop and progress at work to ensure equality of opportunity for all. 

  • Provide a range of flexible working practices. 

  • Adopt inclusive recruitment practices. 

  • Understand your workforce. Use data to inform where action is needed and to improve. 

Many of these practices will help many different groups of people to get into and get on in the labour market. For example, managers are involved in recruitment and development decisions as well as managing people on a day-to-day basis. They can therefore be a key enabler or a barrier in terms of access to work and progression. It’s essential they understand the importance of an inclusive and diverse workplace, are trained in their role in improving EDI, as well as feeling confident in doing so. 

For more information, download the Social Mobility Commission’s Building Blocks toolkit  

About the author

Jill Miller, Senior Policy Adviser, Diversity and Inclusion

Jill is Senior Policy Adviser for Diversity and Inclusion at the CIPD. Her work focuses on the areas of gender, age and neurodiversity and she has recently led work on race inclusion, managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, and supporting employees through fertility treatment, pregnancy loss and still birth. Earlier in her career, Jill specialised in small business growth through good people management and employee wellbeing.

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