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New report: Are progression policies hindering social mobility?

A woman with a takeaway coffee cup with the Houses of Parliament in the background

Social mobility isn’t just about who gets in, it is also about who gets on. While it is important to make sure that employment opportunities are open to individuals from a low socio-economic background (SEB), it is equally crucial that once onboard, all employees have equal access to opportunities for progression.

The Social Mobility Commission’s (SMC) latest report, Navigating the Labyrinth’ examined progression within the civil service and found that people from disadvantaged backgrounds still struggle to progress to senior roles. Just 18% of the Senior Civil Service come from a low SEB.

Based on a survey of over 300,000 respondents and over 100 interviews, the report identified a series of unwritten rules to advancement that negatively affect those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, including:

  • Access to career-enhancing roles favours those from high SEBs: those in high-profile policy roles with increased visibility and access to senior colleagues are more likely to progress, but these roles are disproportionately held by people from a high SEB
  • Geography: proximity to Ministers and Whitehall is critical for visibility and the most senior roles are disproportionately London-based, yet London has the lowest proportion of civil servants from a low SEB
  • Race and gender: black civil servants routinely battle offensive stereotypes of ‘Blackness’, while women from low socio-economic backgrounds felt they had to conceal their background at work.
  • Embedded behavioural and cultural norms: relationships with ‘organisational guides’ were forged on shared cultural touchpoints and behaviours associated with those from a high SEB

On the day the report was launched, Social Mobility Commissioner and report author, Sam Friedman spoke about the findings in a session chaired by SMC Interim Co-Chair Sandra Wallace. Sam introduced the report before joining a panel session that included speakers from the Bridge Group, The Institute for Government and the Civil Service. Watch the video below to catch up on this session.

It’s not just the civil service. Talented individuals from a low SEB are often overlooked for advancement and there’s a long way to go across all sectors to close this ‘progression gap’. In general, employees from a low SEB progress 25% slower than their peers, with no link to performance.

So what steps should you be taking to create fair progression policies within your own organisation?

1. Understand your workforce and the barriers to progression

No strategy for opening up progression opportunities in your organisation will be effective without data on the socio-economic background of your workforce.

Before taking steps to address perceived issues, it is vital to introduce workforce-wide reporting on socio-economic background. Asking employees about their background, then taking time to analyse and understand the data can help to pinpoint where barriers may exist.

Unsure of what you should be asking your employees? Read our measurement toolkit for employers to find out which are the most useful indicators of socio-economic background.

2. Formalise the informal

The SMC’s latest report found that in the Civil Service, although official guidance on job applications and promotion may be clear and readily accessible in staff guidance, in practice many of the traditional routes for advancement are seen to be lacking in transparency.

Opportunities to progress frequently extended beyond formal application and interview processes. Often, these relied on temporary promotions made using less codified interview processes, or expressions of interest from civil servants.

Informal practices can make it harder for employees to understand how they progress to more senior positions within the organisation. Formalising progression opportunities into a clear progression framework makes it much easier for all employees to understand the options available.

Starting a conversation about talent and merit with your employees can help them to engage with this framework and make it clearer how they can progress in the future.

3. Ensure equitable access to learning and development to support employees progression

With a clear understanding of the skills required for each role, offering learning and development opportunities to employees can help to equip them with these skills.

Previous SMC research found that training opportunities can play a significant role in helping people working low paid jobs to earn more, thereby encouraging upward social mobility.

Access to these opportunities should be equitable. Using the data you hold in your workforce, you can take steps to ensure that L&D opportunities are not disproportionately offered to employees from a higher socio-economic background.

4. Using Fast-track progression schemes or mentoring?

Fast-track progression schemes are a common route used in many organisations to advance star performers with leadership potential.

As these routes provide younger staff access to senior leadership, learning opportunities, and even an accelerated career trajectory, it is essential that access to such opportunities are equitable and transparent.

Employers seeking to embrace social mobility should consider how they can use these schemes to meet social mobility goals – such as by reserving a set number of places on each for employees from a low SEB.

5. Talk about socio-economic background

Finally, it’s important to talk to your workforce about socio-economic background.

Starting a conversation about social class can help employees to understand why you are taking certain actions, such as introducing reporting and reserving places on L&D or fast-tracking progression schemes for employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable talking about their own background will help to improve employee engagement and wellbeing.

Are you interested in finding out more information on how your organisation can ensure that progression opportunities are open to all? Join our Employers Masterclass on Progression next Wednesday 26 May, and learn what steps you can take to support your employees throughout their careers.