CIPD: Talented working-class applicants are often barred from the UK’s top jobs as elitist attitudes create a hidden ‘posh test’ in the hiring process that they cannot pass, research has found. Recruiters at the UK’s top firms put more emphasis on characteristics like “personal style, accent and mannerisms, adaptability, team working”, which tend to favour people from middle and upper class backgrounds, the research found. It also showed that such soft skills were frequently used as “proxies for talent”.
The qualitative study from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, called ‘Non educational barriers to the elite profession evaluation’, conducted extensive interviews with staff from 13 elite law, accountancy and financial services firms, who are responsible for 45,000 of the best jobs in the country combined.
Study interviewees involved in recruiting and selecting new entrants to the profession were “generally aware of the dangers of recruiting in their own image and nearly all had been trained in unconscious bias”, the report said.
However, data gleaned during the research showed that up to 70 per cent of job offers in 2014 went to graduates educated at a selective state or fee-paying school, compared to just 4 per cent and 7 per cent of the population as a whole. This confirms that the systematic exclusion of bright working-class applicants from these workforces is ongoing.
One successful working class candidate told the study they had covered up their background to help them progress within the company. “When I went home … I could go back to, if you like, my old slight twang. When I’m in this environment I pretend I’m posher than I am,” they admitted.
An employer interviewed for the study questioned whether the time required to consider all the applications from people with working-class backgrounds would pay off. “Is there a diamond in the rough out there? Statistically it’s highly probable but the question is … how much do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?”
Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said: “Elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a ‘poshness test’ to gain entry. Inevitably that ends up excluding youngsters who have the right sort of grades and abilities but whose parents do not have the right sort of bank balances.”
However, the research also found that ‘best practice’ firms were adjusting their recruitment and selection processes to counteract this unconscious bias.
For example, the report said, such firms no longer screen candidates on academic credentials, while other employers are also investigating how to use socioeconomic data to contextualise academic performance at school, giving greater weight to lower grades for students who lacked the privileges and access to higher quality education that their privately educated counterparts enjoyed.
More generally, best practice firms looked to identify a candidate’s potential in ways that do not rely completely on an individual’s past performance. For example, more accountancy firms are expanding their traditional recruitment routes to include apprenticeships and school-leaver programmes.
But this does not apply to all top flight employers Milburn said, warning that for the remaining employers this was “a wake up and smell the coffee moment”.
“In some top law firms, trainees are more than five times likely to have attended a fee-paying school than the population as a whole. [These employers] are denying themselves talent, stymying young people’s social mobility and fuelling the social divide that bedevils Britain.
“It is time for the rest to follow the lead of the best and adopt policies that make access to a top job genuinely meritocratic.”
Dr Louise Ashley of Royal Holloway from University of London and leaders of the research project, said: “Our research finds that recruitment and selection processes which advantage students from more privileged backgrounds remain firmly in place at most elite law and accountancy firms. As such, despite their focus on specific social mobility initiatives, the rate and pace of change is limited.”
Ashley outlined three key recommendations for employers who wanted to access the widest range of talent. “First, amend attraction strategies to encourage higher numbers of applications from students with a wider range of educational and socio-economic backgrounds,” she said.
“Second, ensure that these diverse students have access to similar levels of support enjoyed by their more traditional peers, to navigate the selection process effectively, and third, interrogate current definitions of talent, including how potential is identified and assessed, to ensure that disadvantaged students are not ruled out for reasons of background rather than aptitude and skill.”