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Social Mobility Awareness Day 2023: the legal and practical issues of class in the workplace

15 June 2023

The second national “Social Mobility Awareness Day” takes place on 15th June 2023. In this article, we explain some of the legal and practical issues around social mobility in the workplace.

What is Social Mobility Awareness Day?

Social Mobility Awareness Day is an initiative organised by Making The Leap, which exists to help raise awareness around social mobility.

Put simply, social mobility is about the link between where a person starts in life and where they end up. It is still the case that in the UK your socio-economic background has an impact on your opportunities in life. Improving social mobility is about trying to break that link and create an environment in which people from low-income backgrounds have the same opportunities to succeed.

The theme of this year’s Social Mobility Awareness Day theme is “Speak More”. Employers and employees are being encouraged to share their experiences. With this in mind, we’ve set out our thoughts about the legal and data issues with social mobility in the workplace.

Class as a protected characteristic?

Class or socio-economic status is not a protected characteristic under equality law in the UK. That makes us an outlier in Europe, where in 20 out of 35 countries provide protection from discrimination on grounds of socio-economic status.

Although the TUC has advocated for “class” to be a protected characteristic, UK politicians have previously been reluctant to legislate. In their campaign to break the “class ceiling” launched today, Co-op is calling on the government to make socio-economic background a protected characteristic and for other parties to make this a priority for their next election manifestos.

In Ireland, there is a private member’s bill which would make socio-economic disadvantage a protected characteristic, which is (so far) meeting with cross-party approval.

One issue, however, is how “class” should be defined in the legislation. A previous bill in Ireland failed partly over criticisms that the definition lacked precision or clarity. Similar issues arose when the UK government consulted on making caste discrimination unlawful. Despite acknowledging that caste discrimination was a problem in the UK, the government rejected the idea of making caste a protected characteristic partly because of divisions over how to define caste.

The Labour Party has proposed a small legislative change around class. The party has said that it intends to enact the “socio economic duty” in s.1 of the Equality Act 2010. This would have relatively limited impact. It would require the public sector to have due regard to the impact of their strategic policies on socio-economic disadvantage. It wouldn’t apply to the private sector, nor to the employment of staff within the public or private sector. The socio-economic duty has already been implemented in the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland. Research suggests that it may have had some impact, but it is unclear how much.

Socio-economic status and positive action

Because class is not a protected characteristic, does this mean that employers have more freedom to act on socio-economic diversity, compared to, for example, race or gender? Could employers looking to bring a greater degree of class diversity simply start having an overt preference towards hiring and promoting socially less advantaged workers?

Positive action vs positive discrimination

Positive action refers to lawful steps taken by employers to address existing disadvantages or underrepresentation faced by individuals with protected characteristics (such as race, gender, disability) and promote equality in the workplace. The purpose of positive action is to level the playing field and create equal opportunities for all employees. The legal framework for taking positive action in the UK is heavily restricted, and the government’s recent guidance shows no appetite for changing this as we’ve written about here.

Positive discrimination, on the other hand, refers to treating individuals more favourably based on their protected characteristic. Positive discrimination is generally unlawful.

Indirect discrimination

An employer with low levels of ethnic diversity cannot simply choose to hire people of one ethnicity over another. This would be a straightforward case of direct race discrimination. However, class, or socio-economic status, is not a protected characteristic. A middle-class applicant who was chosen over a working class applicant cannot bring a claim that they suffered “direct class discrimination” since the law does not prevent this. This means that employers could, for example, have policies for quotas on shortlists or offer paid apprenticeships and work placements targeted at people from lower socio-economic backgrounds without facing the same legal restrictions that are in play when seeking to improve ethnic or gender diversity.

But this approach would not be entirely without risk. There is a well-documented intersection between class and ethnicity. Among those of a working-class background, people from minority ethnic communities tend to be over represented. This means that if an employer chose to favour lower socio-economic status applicants, it might give rise to an indirect discrimination claim by unselected middle class white applicants. Such a policy would therefore need to be objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Monitoring of employee social mobility data

Employers need data to understand the socio-economic demographics of their workplace, in order to identify problem areas, and work out how to address them.

Problems with collecting social mobility data

As we’ve discussed above, class is a difficult thing to try to define. It is subjective. Employers seeking to build a picture of the socio-economic diversity within their organisation cannot simply ask “are you working class”. Different people in substantively the same situations will give different responses, with people often underestimating their real “class”. Research in 2015 found that when people are asked to self-identify, 60% of people believe they are working class.

The Social Mobility Commission’s employers’ toolkit says that the most important indicator of socio-economic status is parental occupation. It recommends asking that employees provide information on the occupation of the highest earner in their household when they were aged 14. In its view, this is the best estimator of “class”.

It goes on to list three additional questions that can be asked in order to gain provide additional insights. These relate to whether someone received free school meals (according to the Social Mobility Commission, this is a measure of “extreme disadvantage”), the type of school they went to (a measure of “extreme advantage”) and whether their parents graduated from university. An employer looking to do the most it can on social mobility should aim to collect all four data points.

The private member’s bill in Ireland discussed above adopts a slightly different definition of socio-economic disadvantage, which does not explicitly refer back to an individual’s childhood or the type of school they attended. Taking account differences between the two countries, it is sensible for UK employers to adopt the Social Mobility Commission’s approach, even if that means that a standard approach cannot be taken across countries.

How to collect social mobility data

Many employers looking at social mobility issues will be starting from a very low data position. Getting a high response rate will take time, persistence and ingenuity. But it is a crucially important first step to identifying and tackling social mobility issues. Below are a few ideas to improve data collection.

  • Communication: Mass emails to the workforce asking employees to “please provide your data” are generally not an effective way of getting individuals to provide their socio-economic data. Employees need to understand why an employer needs it and what they are going to do with it. Making sure the data is processed in a legally compliant way is also vital.
  • Social mobility advocates: Advocates for social mobility at all levels of a business can motivate engagement and help with data collection. Employees are more likely to respond to a request to provide their social mobility data if the request is coming from a peer that they know.
  • Behavioural economics: Once people start providing their data, using a behavioural economics inspired “nudge” can be helpful. For example, telling people “X% of people in your team/department have provided this data so far”, or “xxx people have provided this data in the past week”.

What employers can do with social mobility data

Collecting data is not an end in itself. Employers must interrogate the data about their workforce and understand what it is showing about the challenges that workers from different social backgrounds face.

  • Recruitment. In graduate roles that require employees to go through a number of stages, do applicants from less advantaged backgrounds tend to fail more at any particular stage? For example, if 30% of applicants are working class, but only 15% of those are interviewed, then the selection, sift and any pre-interview assessments may be unfairly filtering people out. If even smaller proportions are then successful at interview, interviewers may be also demonstrating bias towards “people like us”. Any employer encountering these issues might decide to change their recruitment process, potentially removing some stages, and/or provide training to interviewers.
  • Retention and progression. Do people from more advantaged backgrounds progress at a faster rate than those from working class backgrounds? If the most senior levels are skewed towards privately educated middle/upper class people, there may be an issue with progression. Employers may also want to look at the turnover and average length of service. Organisations might find that they are good at recruiting from a wide range of backgrounds but they have a “stay gap” meaning that employers from disadvantaged backgrounds tend not to stay.

Class pay gap reporting

Although in 2019 the TUC called for mandatory class pay gap reporting to address “institutional discrimination”, and this policy also featured in the Labour Party’s short-lived 2019 general election manifesto, there are no proposals to require employers to carry out class pay gap reporting.

That said, this is likely to be an area of increasing focus in the years to come. The Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index asks employers a series of questions about their class pay gap. The expectation now is that pay gaps are something that employers focussed on social mobility should be calculating, monitoring and publishing on a voluntary basis.

We have written previously about class pay gap reporting (and also recently published our first social mobility pay gap report, looking at social mobility across four main identifiers of “class”).

Social mobility and workplace culture

As mentioned above, the theme of Social Mobility Awareness Day 2023 is “Speak More”. How can employers encourage employees to be more open about social mobility?

  • Shares blogs and stories. Employees may be reluctant to “speak more”. To encourage this, employers could identify senior figures within their organisation and encourage them to share their social mobility stories. This might be via an event or through a series of blogs. Having senior individuals do this may prompt others to feel able to do the same.
  • Run a perception survey. Besides quantitative demographic data, employers should gather more qualitative data. What do people think about social mobility within their organisation? Whether employees are able to progress and whether they feel like they can are not necessarily the same thing. Perceptions of the meritocracy of the workplace can different between class groups. People from more advantaged backgrounds may assume that the workplace is class-blind, but working class people may have a different experience.
  • Avoid nepotism. According to KPMG, social class and nepotism are impacting early career opportunities for young people. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of those surveyed felt that certain professions – such as becoming a lawyer – are easier to get into if you have family connections. To avoid perpetuating this, employers should consider how work experience is offered in their organisations. If there are informal work experiences for employee or client connections, consider adopting a “1 for 1” scheme, offering a similar experience to young people who do not have such connections.
  • Have a “social mobility week". To demonstrate the importance of social mobility to their organisation, employers could consider clustering initiatives into a social mobility week to increase engagement. This might include events, the sharing of employees’ social mobility stories, and other initiatives aimed at increasing social mobility.

As part of Co-op’s campaign to “break the class ceiling” mentioned above, it commissioned research into its own organisation and developed a 9-point business plan for further action, which you can read about here.

We are starting an event series aimed at those responsible for social mobility in their organisations. We will be hosting our first event later this year. Register your interest here.


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