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Recap: Employers Masterclass – Social mobility, hiring and recruitment

In our latest masterclass (16 September), we put the focus on hiring and recruitment – exploring the common practices that can create artificial and unnecessary barriers to potential applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We were delighted to be joined by Danny Matthews and Hazel Remeika from Co-op, who shared their approach to hiring in a way that helps those from lower socio-economic backgrounds  fulfil their potential.

Read the recap below, download the slides and catch up on the recording of the session here.


“It’s important we keep our fingers on the pulse to make sure managers are thinking inclusively – both when setting requirements and thinking about hiring decisions too.”

Right at the heart of any organisation’s people strategy is a question of how it should bring new employees into the workforce. Understandably, you want to know your hiring policies are designed to bring on the best person for the job.

And yet many organisations find that not only do their hiring practices fail to bring in the best talent, they actively serve as barriers to applicants with huge potential but whose backgrounds don’t match what you’re (often unnecessarily) asking for.

The benefits of a diverse workforce to your organisation are by now well-proven: your business should be looking to take on talent from low socio-economic backgrounds, and here, hiring is key.

Here are the things you should be looking at when designing inclusive hiring practices:

1. How you attract applicants is as important as your hiring decisions

Simply put, one of the best ways to ensure you’re hiring a diverse workforce is to attract a diverse applicant pool.

This means making sure opportunities within your organisation are targeted at those from a low socio-economic background (SEB). Forming partnerships with local state schools and further education colleges (where the student body is likely more diverse than universities or private schools) can be an effective way of doing this.

Next, your opportunities should be presented in a way that doesn’t act as a barrier to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may not have had the opportunity to gain certain qualifications.

Make sure to use inclusive language and, wherever possible, ask for skills rather than qualifications. When writing job descriptions, ask whether qualifications are genuinely necessary for the role. If the answer is no, remove the requirement.

Be upfront about what the recruitment process involves, what the eligibility criteria are and how this will be assessed. Try to make sure you are assessing suitability for the job in a structured way – so that candidates can be assessed consistently.

Finally, try to not make assumptions about the audience you’re trying to reach. When the Co-op started out, Danny Matthews, Co-op’s Apprenticeship and community resourcing lead told masterclass attendees, they “learned the hard way” that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds often did not have the same digital skills that those from privileged backgrounds have. These skills are often easy for people to learn once hired, but can become a blocker to applying if no support is offered to learn them.

2. Aim to diversify the routes into your workforce

Reviewing the potential entry routes into your organisation can help to shine a light on where you could bring in more diverse candidates. If you’ve tended to only offer graduate entry routes, you could be overlooking low SEB talent that may have been less likely to have gone into higher education.

Consider whether there are opportunities to introduce non-graduate internships or trainee opportunities and develop a strategy for creating both graduate and non-graduate opportunities within your workforce – then be sure to communicate these effectively so that applicants are aware of them,  and understand the best entry route for them.

Apprenticeships can be a useful tool for improving socio-economic diversity, offering starters training within the business and opportunities for progression once completed. However, SMC research has shown that those from a low SEB face barriers at every stage, so make sure that you’re taking steps to remove these barriers.

If you choose to offer apprenticeships, we recommend that you offer them at different levels and provide starters with training in ‘soft’ skills as well as technical ones. Make sure that your higher-level apprenticeships are targeted at those from a disadvantaged background to ensure that they’re reaching their full potential as tools for social mobility.

3. Place matters – are you set up to hire in social mobility ‘coldspots’?

“Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.”

When looking at socio-economic background, place is crucial. Those from a privileged background are more likely to be both willing and able to move to take advantage of areas with better labour market opportunities, compared to more disadvantaged peers –  meaning inequality persists in these areas.

Employers looking to reach the most disadvantaged should consider offering vacancies outside of typical urban centres wherever possible.

The Co-op’s Danny Matthews recognised that, with 60000 colleagues across the UK, “from the islands of Scotland to the corner shops in London,” Co-op is in a “position of luxury to have that  national footprint,” but smaller businesses can consider alternatives, such as assessing whether flexible working practices are set up to offer remote working to those in coldspots.

4. Take a strategic approach, apply it consistently and work collaboratively

“There’s always improvements to be made and lots of things still to learn”

A strategy that works for you may or may not include all of these considerations, but what is important is that your hiring approach is strategic.

Collecting data on the socio-economic background of your applicants and employees can help you to better understand what’s working and what isn’t and target your interventions in a strategic way.

Once you have a plan and set of targets for how you will promote socio-economic diversity in your hiring, make sure that your policies are applied consistently to every candidate, and that you evaluate the results regularly to make sure that you’re achieving what you set out to achieve.

Reflecting on the Co-ops’ evaluations of their own efforts, Danny highlighted three key learnings:

“Ensure the full colleague lifecycle is engaged and onboard with this piece of work”: It was important to recognise that, with about 5000 people within Co-op currently in a hiring manager role, the organisation naturally has an abundance of viewpoints on diversity. Danny stressed the importance of securing buy-in throughout the organisation and making sure everyone is bought-in – particularly where they have responsibilities around hiring.

“Small changes can have a big impact”: although there are major changes you can make in your processes, the smaller adjustments, such as removing degree requirements and offering candidates choice in whether they interact with you online or offline can have a massive impact by themselves.

“Collaborate with others”: One organisation cannot solve the problem of social mobility by themselves.

Your organisation needs partnerships to get to the root of these issues. Start with those schools and colleges you work with to attract a diverse talent pool, then look to work with others to drive changes in the way your industry hires, not just your organisation.

If you want to diversify your talent pool and remove the barriers to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds in your hiring processes, read more about how to get started in the ‘hiring’ section of our cross-industry toolkit

Read our ‘hiring success stories’ to find out more about different organisations’ approaches on our ‘success stories page.