‘Poor’ working practices causing negative social mobility, report warns

Employers urged to invest in skills training and flexible working as government research finds one in five workers are falling down the career ladder

One in five employees have slipped down the career ladder, with some trapped in a “vicious cycle of low pay and low self-esteem” partially because of discrimination and a lack of flexibility from employers, research from the social mobility watchdog has warned.

A report from the government’s Social Mobility Commission found that, between 2014 and 2018, 21 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women aged 30-59 experienced downward mobility by dropping down a career rung. While some voluntarily chose to take a ‘lower’ occupation, the report said, for others these moves were involuntary.

The report found women, non-graduates and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were more likely to experience downward mobility.

A “general lack of flexibility” from employers and the stress of combining working and childcare responsibilities frequently led individuals – particularly women – to sacrifice higher-status jobs and instead take “lesser roles”, it found.

Similarly, BAME employees were far more likely to fall down the career ladder, with 38 per cent of black African men and 40 per cent of black African women downwardly mobile. Similarly, 33 per cent Bangladeshi men and 39 per cent of Bangladeshi women were downwardly mobile.

Of those who experienced downward mobility, about 80 per cent remain downwardly mobile – in an occupational class lower than their parents – five years later, the report said.

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The report draws on data from the Labour Force Survey, National Child Development Study, British Cohort Study and Understanding Society survey, as well as qualitative research with individuals experiencing downward mobility.

Sandra Wallace, joint managing director for Europe at DLA Piper and interim co-chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said employers needed to recognise that social mobility was good for their bottom line. “More diverse companies benefit from greater talent pipelines, creative problem-solving and reputational returns, as they turn themselves into destination employers for new recruits,” she said. “When employers don’t engage in inclusive practices, it can harm their culture and their employees.

“This report highlights many examples of individuals who became downwardly socially mobile as a result of poor practices, such as no job flexibility, discrimination, non-inclusive practices in the workplace and more.” 

Responding to the report’s findings, Nicola Inge, employment and skills director at Business in the Community, said employers were a “part of the jigsaw” when it came to social mobility. 

“Practical actions like adult training, flexible working schemes and investment in essential skills such as teamwork, listening and problem-solving all play a part in helping people access the right type, quality and balance of work in their lives – the building blocks of social mobility,” she said.

Dr Duncan Brown, independent reward adviser, added that employers needed to carefully consider how they recruited people. “It’s about testing what’s really required and essential to carry out a job – my daughter, for example, would not have her job in advertising if [her employer] had not dropped their requirement for a degree,” he said.

“HR needs to look and promote from within rather than hire expensively from outside, creating far more extensive skills and career ladders up through their structures.” 

Collecting and analysing workforce data was also key to understanding organisational social mobility challenges, said James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust. Once that data-driven insight is at hand, “the focus must be on building a diverse talent pipeline and making sure recruitment practices are fair”, he said. “Crucially, talent must be nurtured through supportive working environments that reward talent and hard work.

“It is not about penalising those who have had advantages, or giving an unfair leg up in life; it’s about ensuring that we make best use of the talents and aspirations of every single person, regardless of their background.”