In organisations across the UK, there are conversations about the importance of diversity and inclusion going on at every level, but there’s a strong chance that class and socio-economic background (SEB) isn’t yet being discussed.
However, we know it should be. Research has shown that whether they’re looking to get hired, network, or secure a promotion, employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds can experience barriers in the workplace. As a result, many find themselves struggling to match the progress of their higher SEB colleagues or hiding their background in order to progress.
On 6th July, we were joined by Sophie Hulm, CEO of Progress Together, and Jenny Sandham, Social Mobility Champion at the Ministry of Defence, to explore what a healthy, inclusive conversation about class and socio-economic background looks like, and how you can help everyone in your workplace to get involved.
Don’t worry if you missed it – you can find the full recording below and read on for four top tips on talking about class in the workplace.
Get everyone involved
Jenny believes that it’s important to get everyone involved in the conversation. She says that it is often difficult to have clear definitions of class, and people will all have different experiences. There is as much of a place for ‘allies’ in social mobility activity, as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, she says, and she often doesn’t know the personal background of the people she works with. “I just want them to want to work together to make the workplace better,” she says.
Sophie believes that, to get people involved, it’s really important to be clear about the purpose of these conversations. “It’s not to make individual promotion decisions,” she reminds us, “but to identify patterns of bias.” Those patterns can also help to get people who haven’t previously felt like DEI work applies to them on board! Sophie uses the example that 45% of senior leaders were white men from professional backgrounds, but only 13% came from working class backgrounds – class has an impact on everyone!
Overall, the more we talk about class in the workplace, and the more people we engage, the better the outcomes. Sophie sums it up with, “The more we normalise this in everyday conversation, whether that’s politics or business, the more progress we’ll make.”
Think about language (but not too much!)
Jenny suggests that if you want to engage more people in conversations about class, steer clear of asking narrow or prying questions about their own backgrounds.
The language you use can also be important. ‘I was asked how to talk about people with difficult upbringings,” remembers Jenny, “and I said ‘don’t call them that!’”
“If you don’t know, ask them!” suggests Sophie. It’s simple to ask your employees what language they’d prefer to use in surveys and communications, and use this as a starting point.
However, remember that people may also have very different feelings about the best wording to use when talking about socio-economic background – some may prefer to be described as from a lower socio-economic background, some as working class, and you may find very different preferences within the same group.
You’ll probably never find language that’s perfect for everyone, so don’t let fear of using the wrong words stop you from starting the conversation. Sophie reminds us that you can always explain your choice to people, just say something like “my word for me is this, but I appreciate others may prefer something else.”
Collect your evidence
In Sophie’s previous role as Head of Skills Policy at the City of London, she realised that gender and ethnicity were being talked about a lot, but social mobility was not. Working with The Bridge Group and a number of financial services organisations, they discovered that 89% of senior leaders come from professional backgrounds, and while effort and resources were often being spent on graduate recruitment and working with schools, there was still a 25% progression gap!
This research also showed that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds were spending so much energy conforming to the culture at work that it was impacting their productivity, showing that a more inclusive culture would actually have direct benefits to business outcomes.
This evidence was critical to the resulting taskforce – it was easy to engage stakeholders, including the government and regulators, once they had the evidence to support the initiative, and show leaders why it was important to think about social mobility. In fact, while there were 30 spaces for taskforce members, over 80 people applied!
Think about progression
A lot of work is being done to improve access to the workplace, which is absolutely necessary, says Sophie. However, it’s important to make sure that people who are hired from underrepresented groups don’t feel like they don’t belong and then leave, as this is a waste of everyone’s time and resources, and can have a negative impact on the individual.
Take a look at what might be preventing those from lower socio-economic backgrounds from progressing as easily as others. This might include:
- Feeling like their performance is judged more harshly than that of their peers. In professional and financial services, Sophie says, there is often a sense that performance is linked to ‘polish’, which can lead to those with, for example, regional accents being disadvantaged.
- Not being given the same opportunities to work on challenging projects. Are the most exciting or biggest projects evenly distributed among colleagues, or are they given to those who shout the loudest?
- Not having access to senior sponsors or mentors. Employees from a working-class background are 17% less likely to have access to this! We are naturally inclined to mentor those who remind us of our younger selves, explains Sophie, so we need to put processes in place to override this instinct and ensure that everyone has equal opportunities for advancement.
There is also a lack of data relating to progression for employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which makes it difficult to identify and address issues. Without this data it is difficult to understand the full picture and know where the barriers are.