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Social Mobility Masterclass Recap: Leadership & Culture – Who’s driving the social mobility agenda in your workplace?

In our latest masterclass on Leadership & Culture, we were joined by Caroline King, Head of People for Head office, Reward and Inclusion and Joanne Mackie, Customer & People Director,  to reflect on their experiences of forging a compelling, shared vision of the importance of social mobility across Superdrug and Savers 18000+ workforce – and the lessons for other workplaces starting their own journey. Catch up on the session below and read our reflections on what Superdrug’s experiences mean for other businesses.


Why focus on culture?

Without a culture that is inclusive of those from a low socio-economic background (SEB), employees can feel unable to talk about their background at work, that they don’t fit in with their colleagues, or even that their background is a barrier to their career development in the organisation.

Not paying due regard to inclusion is a risk to your productivity and reputation – affecting colleagues’, applicants’, clients’ and partners’ perceptions of your business.

Despite this, many employers still have work to do: in a (unscientific) survey of those attending our culture masterclass, only 55% said their leadership teams see the importance of social mobility, while 48% said their colleagues are committed to supporting low SEB colleagues.

Building an inclusive culture in an 18000+ retail workforce

Social mobility is a pillar of Superdrug and Savers “Everyone Matters” D&I strategy  based around the efforts of the organisation’s employee resource group – although the Network prefers  the term “Access all Areas” over “social mobility” – reflecting the belief that “talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not.”

“We started out small. We didn’t have a huge budget” said Caroline King, Head of People for Head Office, Reward & Inclusion, outlining how the business’s social mobility journey began in 2018. “What we did have was a really established and credible apprenticeship programme – and we knew we could build on that.”

 From here, the business focused on making sure that work experience opportunities provided to personal connections of staff were at the same time offered to young people from a low SEB. This grew as the business identified a partner with whom they could work – in this case a care experience organisation – with whom Superdrug then offered  a summer placement programme.

The network is driven by a senior HR leader, Caroline, as Chair with both employees and leaders encouraged to share their experiences and ideas on how to drive forward the agenda within the business.

The approach seems to be working. Feedback shows – in comparison with previous years – more feel that the business is open to talent from all backgrounds and that they are comfortable talking about their SEB with their colleagues.

So what can other employers do to build an inclusive culture?

Demonstrate a clear commitment

While inclusion efforts can start anywhere in your organisation, building an inclusive culture requires leaders to buy in and show colleagues that social mobility matters to the organisation and to them personally.

All organisations should aim to appoint someone senior to own the agenda, drive collaboration, and ensure that social mobility considerations are woven through the entire architecture of the business – from outreach to hiring, progression and beyond.

“You’ve got to have passionate people leading this,” says Joanne Mackie, Customer and People Director; “if you give it to someone as just another part of their job, it’s just another project. That’s how we’ve landed as much as we have, because we’ve got people like Caroline involved”

Ideally, leaders should build trust by sharing their experiences, but if your organisation’s leadership isn’t socio-economically diverse, schemes such as reverse mentoring can demonstrate commitment to inclusion and allyship.

Develop a clear narrative

A clear narrative can help to make sure everyone understands and owns the culture they’re working to build.

An effective social mobility strategy involves collecting data, analysing it and taking targeted action that might include changes to hiringoutreach and progression practices.

Using that narrative along with transparency about what it is you’re doing and why will help to build trust and avoid apprehension from colleagues. For example, employees can report that questions asked around SEB can feel personal. “One store manager told us ‘I don’t understand why we’re asking this question – it doesn’t mean anything’” Joanne explains, “but once we explained what we were trying to do, it made sense – it’s all about creating that narrative.”

Being clear about how information will be used is key; following up by publishing workforce monitoring data alongside targets can show that alongside transparency, you’re keen that leaders be held to account on this agenda.

Listen to your employees

How leaders behave is crucial, but culture should be owned by everyone.

Creating opportunities for colleagues to share their experiences and views on how things could improve can improve your interventions and will normalise the conversation around SEB.

Creating spaces dedicated to having these discussions can help build momentum around social mobility efforts. “The only way we got there was by talking about it relentlessly”Joanne says of Superdrug’s experiences.

An employee network or champion forum can be an effective forum for sharing experiences, coordinating efforts and driving change – particularly if it has the buy-in and attendance of leadership and HR – but 48% of survey respondents say they don’t currently have one.

If you’re just starting out on creating a space for colleagues, try setting up a working group to get the conversation started.

Keep pushing toward more inclusion.

Culture feeds into every aspect of your business. If you want to find out how to ensure that each area of your business is helping to promote social mobility, take a look at our cross-industry toolkit to find out more.