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When we talk about diversity in the workplace, we often assume that this is limited to issues such as gender, race or disability – but issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace are wider and include social mobility. In the workplace, social mobility is the ability for individuals to apply for, secure and succeed in roles above (or below) their social strata. This month’s article, alongside our podcast looks at the issue of social mobility and touches on how organisations can attract people from all different backgrounds to apply for jobs and ensure that each applicant is treated fairly in the selection process and in the role.  

In a fair world, jobs should be available to everyone, irrespective of class or socio-economic status (SES). Candidates should be chosen based on their ability to do the role (using tools such as psychometric tests that would measure cognitive ability and personality traits against a set job role). All other socio-economic issues should be inconsequential. Whilst diversity and inclusion are common themes in today’s workplace there has been little progress on social mobility over the last 20 years (source: The Social Mobility Commission Report 2017).

What is the problem?

Essentially, people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are put off from applying for jobs if they perceive that the people who are currently in those roles are from a (vastly) different SES to themselves. For instance, young people from a low socio-economic background will not apply to industries where they perceive the workforce to be predominantly middle and upper-class. This has predominantly been the case in industries such as law or accountancy (source: research from Debut, a graduate recruiter platform).

One could claim this could be due to either a lack of ambition to move (upwards) from one socio-economic group to another, but it is more likely to do with a lack of opportunity. Take for example job roles that require a degree – lower SES candidates are less likely to have degree qualifications so these roles are unobtainable. Even temporary roles such as internships (for instance in a city bank) or work experience days (for instance in a law firm) often have qualification requirements. These types of opportunities are often accessed through informal networks and contacts and thus unattainable from those in disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the Social Mobility Commission Report 2017, James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust (a foundation dedicated to social mobility) stated that “disadvantaged young people are still struggling to get ahead and face worse outcomes than their more advantaged peers.” He also claimed that “the UK is a particularly class-based society, which hasn’t changed significantly over time.”

But society has gone some way to meet these discrepancies since this report. The government has been working with employers to ensure that good job and career opportunities are available to everyone – regardless of their background.

What have we done to address these issues?

The main solution was the development of apprenticeship schemes. An apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, which forces employers that meet certain tax criteria to fund apprenticeship training (such as accountancy schemes) that are aimed at developing young peoples’ career paths – previously only available to graduates. These schemes were designed to aid social mobility by placing greater responsibility on employers.

Some employers have started to collect data on the socio-economic backgrounds of their applicants and workforces, putting the social mobility issue top of their agenda. They have consciously made their recruitment processes as fair as possible, and as accessible as possible to the widest pool of people by removing elements of bias or discrimination in the application process. This ensures that applicants from a range of backgrounds have a fair and equal chance of success. Kate Westbrook CEO at Applied, a technology company that uses behavioural science and data science to improve the quality of recruitment decisions. She states that even at the job advert stage, employers are conscious of the type of language that they use to write job adverts so that they can appeal to the widest talent pool, to avoid bias-targeting applicants.

Alongside the collection of data in the recruitment process, the Social Mobility Employers Index was launched in 2017, to benchmark best practice across sectors. Believed to be the first in the world, the Index announced the top participating UK employers who have taken the most action to improve social mobility in the workplace. This has been particularly important to millennials and Gen Z’s applicants. These strata of society don’t just demand diversity, inclusion and social mobility, they expect it. They are aware, opinionated and vocal about these issues and they want organisations to match their expectations (source: The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2019).

Organisations must recognise that whilst recruiting from a socially diverse pot is advantageous for the organisation, some research (Stephens et al., 2019) suggests that people from different socio-economic and social mobile background behave differently in the workplace and this may have an impact on their progression. For instance, people from working class backgrounds might feel less comfortable enacting with ‘independent behaviours’ that are required for promotions or leadership positions, even though they are capable of undertaking these roles. This suggests that even if the social mobility issues are addressed at the application and recruitment end of the process, there can still be issues that need to be identified. Organisations that provide collaborative inclusive environments will ensure that the best employees can rise through the ranks, irrespective of the behaviour stereotypical of their socio-economic background. In the latest episode of POW, the psychology of work podcast, we asked Neil Morrison, HR Director at Severn Trent, about the issue of social mobility in the labour force. Neil talked about the steps Severn Trent has taken as an organisation to support social mobility putting the business case forward to encourage other organisations to follow suit as leaders in encouraging social mobility. To listen to the podcast click here.

Why is it so important?

As with other aspects of diversity, increasing the talent pool to encompass employees from all backgrounds is not just the right thing to do – but it also makes business sense. Companies with more gender and ethnically diverse workforces perform better financially because extending diversity by attracting and retaining people of a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, experiences and opinions is likely to increase competitive advantages (source: Diversity Matters report, McKinsey & Company, 2015; Delivering through Diversity report, McKinsey & Company, 2018)

When businesses are guilty of ‘professional exclusion’ they are potentially missing out on a huge pool of tremendously talented people from diverse backgrounds. This not only stunts business’ own growth but also severely affects the wider economy. But we also need to recognise that addressing social mobility in the workplace starts by opening opportunities to everyone from all socio-economic strata and following this through by addressing potential cultural mismatches in the workplace.

Where do we go from here?

As a society and in business we need to constantly assess our policies towards diversity, inclusion and social mobility to avoid fuelling inequality. We need to continue to address any inequality to support our employees in the workplace. It is imperative that businesses must do more than just pay lip service to the social mobility issues and continue to take real action before the gap widens further.


Stephens, N. M., Townsend, S. S. M., & Dittmann, A. G. (2019). Social-class disparities in higher education and professional workplaces: The role of cultural mismatch. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28, 63-73.




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