5 actionable steps to promote social mobility in your workplace

June 29, 2022

With social mobility continuing to be a critical concern in the UK, we’ve put together an actionable guide for inclusive employers who wish to address social inequalities and improve opportunities for people from all backgrounds. 

What is social mobility?

Social mobility is the term used to describe the movement of individuals between social statuses. For instance, someone from a low-income background progressing into a high-paying, ‘professional’ occupation would be experiencing upward social mobility. Some people measure social mobility by comparing an individual's life chances, income and opportunities to their parents: if you have a higher-paying role than your parents did or were the first of your family to attend university, you have experienced upward social mobility. 

Despite being one of the world’s most developed countries, the UK has one of the poorest rates of social mobility in the developed world. This means that in the UK your social background has a huge impact on your life chances, making it harder for those from low-income backgrounds to experience upward mobility and access the same opportunities as others from ‘higher’ classes. This has been reinforced following the pandemic and the cost of living crisis: it’s now less likely for the younger generation to own a home in comparison to their parents' generation and research has predicted a fall in income mobility for poorer young people too. 

Business has an important role to play in boosting social mobility for the younger generation. Companies have the power to remove the barriers against those from less advantaged backgrounds and make sure everyone has access to the same opportunities. Being more inclusive isn’t just a good ethical choice but good business practice too. Companies who embrace diversity improve their cash-flow, productivity, employee engagement and revenue. 

How can my business promote social mobility?

Take action against inequality by considering social mobility in your D&I strategy. We’ve put together 5 actionable steps that you can take to improve opportunities in your workplace and industry:

Gather data to get to know your workforce 

Know who you’re working with so that you can begin to craft an effective strategy. While tracking ethnicity and gender for D&I goals is commonplace, socio-economic backgrounds are often forgotten about. Begin your social mobility efforts by collecting data about your current workforce to see how many team members are from disadvantaged backgrounds and how they’re progressing through the company.  Knowing this information will help you to identify which areas are working and which areas need improving. If your data shows a lack of professionals from low socio-economic backgrounds, then you can amp up your recruitment efforts. If you find you have a good mixture of people throughout the business but not on your leadership team, you can take a look into why that’s happening and how your company can better support all employees to progress into more senior roles. 

Actionable tip: Check out the Social Mobility Commission’s data toolkit. They’ve identified measuring the socio-economic background of your employees and potential recruits as a critical first step. They’ve outlined three questions you can ask to begin gathering data here, plus a toolkit to help you examine the data and create a strategy from it.  

Engage with young people and schools 

Based on research from the Social Mobility Commission, the government advised firms wishing to take action for social mobility to ‘engage strategically with young people and schools.’ The barriers that prevent people from low socio-economic backgrounds from upward progression begin before they’ve started their careers. Reaching young people before they enter the workforce can have a lasting impact on their future by expanding their awareness of industries, roles and opportunities that they may otherwise not have heard of. Engaging with local schools and disadvantaged youths can also help businesses to diversify their talent pipeline by offering work experience placements and exposing their industry as a potential career pathway.

Actionable tip: Engage with local schools through school visits, career talks, offering work experience placements or providing mentorship opportunities. You could also take part in a programme like Circl where professionals learn coaching skills alongside underrepresented young people. Learn more about how it works here

Broaden your talent pool

Recruitment processes often exclude those from less advantaged backgrounds who are more likely to lack relevant contacts, information and qualifications (i.e jobs that require degrees). Traditional recruitment processes often involve recruiting from graduate pools, internal hires or personal networks. Since the pandemic, a UK survey found that 57% of recruiters had become more reliant on personal networks, with 28% saying they were more likely to hire someone they already knew as they were a safer bet during uncertain times. These practices (alongside industry norms like unpaid internships) are shutting out those from less-privileged backgrounds. Reviewing your recruitment process can help you broaden your talent pool and improve access to opportunities.

Actionable tips: Create a more inclusive recruitment process by trying some of these:

  • Openly advertise your positions so that you’re not just recruiting from personal networks
  • Diversify your interviewing panel so that candidates can see someone who looks like them
  • Be open to people without degrees to avoid discriminating against those from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Offer alternative application options (e.g. video or audio cover letters)
  • Offer paid internships so that those without financial means are able to get a foot in the door 
  • Make the most of virtual working by offering internships/jobs to people outside of London

Offer upskilling opportunities

Research by PwC (the top ranked UK employer in the Social Mobility Employer Index) found that the majority of people they surveyed said the primary block to social mobility is ‘access to the right skills through education’. Though 77% of respondents from their 2021 survey said they’re ready to learn new skills, disparities in accessing training remain. The same survey found that 46% of people with postgraduate degrees say their employer gives them opportunities to improve their digital skills, but just 28% of people with school-leaver qualifications say the same. Those who need to learn digital skills the most are still the least likely to get them, creating a digital divide that will continue to hold certain groups back. Investing in digital skills training is even more important in the post-pandemic world where virtual working is vast becoming the norm. 

Actionable tip: PwC has advised businesses to take a two-pronged approach: upskill your own workforce with training and development opportunities and focus on reaching out to the wider community to offer training opportunities. This could be done in collaboration with educational institutions, charities and industries/roles hit hardest by the pandemic. 

Have inclusive leaders in place 

“Each organisation should have an identified senior leader who champions the importance of social mobility within their own firm.” Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

We always advise those working on their D&I strategy to begin by looking at their leadership team. The senior management team set the tone for the entire business; an inclusive workplace begins with them. Efforts to promote social mobility need to be understood, backed and communicated by inclusive leaders who are culturally aware and committed to driving change. Those leaders are needed so that they can identify biases or exclusionary practices during recruitment, recognise barriers that may be holding certain employees back, and best support team members from all backgrounds to reach their full potential. Identifying a senior leader to drive your social mobility efforts will ensure your strategy is being implemented, monitored and followed through.  

Actionable tip: Build inclusive leaders by taking part in a Circl programme. By learning coaching skills alongside underrepresented young people, your team gains the skills they need to lead and support diverse teams, and promote social mobility at the same time. 

Learn more about the Circl programme here.