British companies are finally acknowledging the benefits of class diversity

Class still matters.
Class still matters.
Image: BLIFE REUTERS/Peter Macdiarmid
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Social mobility is increasing in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, but in much of the world it isn’t changing fast enough. In the UK, a country notorious for its preoccupation with class, an initiative by a government organization, a charity and some of the biggest companies hopes to do something about that.

Nearly 100 companies applied to be part of Britain’s first “Social Mobility Employer Index,” a joint initiative between the UK government’s Social Mobility Commission and the charity Social Mobility Foundation. The index was released in June and lists the top 50 UK companies they reckon have taken the most action to improve social mobility within the workplace. Law firms dominated the index, but the top 10 were a mixed bunch that included banks, professional services and a retailer:

(The exercise was to promote do-goodery among employers and create some healthy competition around it, so no firms were singled out for bad practice.)

Firms were assessed in several areas, from recruitment to working with young people and career progression. One area where all firms have been making headway is outreach—not surprisingly, perhaps, since it’s far easier to set up programs for students than completely overhaul a company culture. The construction firm Skanska, for example, came third in the list, and has been working with Arrival Education, a youth organization that works with businesses to improve their social outreach, to deliver two-way coaching programs for top executives and students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.

Until recently, firms had a rather lackluster interest in social mobility. Attempts at diversity tended to focus on the visual: how to boost the number of traditionally under-represented members of the workforce, such as those from ethnic-minorities and women. Though essential in their own right, this has overlooked the more subtle issue of class: All too often, companies end up hiring people who come from similar backgrounds to them and thus think like they do.

David Johnston, who heads up Britain’s Social Mobility Foundation, thinks this has a lot to do with how privileged folk conduct themselves in interviews and on the job: Those who have less polished manners are often mistaken for being less able. And even getting an interview is tough for those who aren’t born with privilege: In an increasingly competitive job market, unpaid internships and unofficial work experience placements provide those in the know or who can afford work for free a glittering CV that few others can match.

The sudden surge in businesses’ interest in social mobility stems from a plethora of evidence which says employing people from all walks of life makes sound business sense. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006 found that teams made up of people from diverse backgrounds were more objective and made fewer factual errors when discussing evidence. And diversity spurs industry disruption: A homogenous group of people is less likely to challenge an idea or present an alternative point of view, which can lead to stale thinking.