Start asking employees about their class background, businesses told

New guidance on socio-economic diversity says better data is key to ending ‘old boys’ network’ style recruitment and promotion

Employers have been told they should start asking employees and job candidates details of where they went to school, their parents’ jobs and qualifications, and even whether they received free school meals as part of plans to change the “old boys’ network” of professional jobs.

Guidelines released today by the Social Mobility Commission, part of the Department for Education, said a lack of data on socio-economic diversity was often the biggest barrier employers faced when it came to recruiting and retaining talent from poorer backgrounds.

It said asking just four questions about an employee’s upbringing was enough to give HR departments enough insight to start monitoring the socio-economic diversity of their workforce, with the aim of “breaking through the traditional ‘old boys’ network’, where recruiters can favour candidates they know, or those with more privileged social status”.

This data could then be used to help HR build more diverse recruitment tools and create a benchmark – such as the relative success rates in recruitment, performance and promotion of workers with different socio-economic backgrounds – that can help employers set more effective diversity policies.

The guidance was put together by the Bridge Group, and includes sample questions that can be used in employee surveys by HR departments.

Sandra Wallace, one of 12 government-appointed social mobility commissioners, said improving socio-economic diversity was “just as important” as other workplace diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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“When I was starting on my legal journey, I was told I wouldn’t become a lawyer because I didn’t go to the right university and I didn’t get the highest grades. Overcoming these barriers has not been easy,” said Wallace, who is also joint managing director of DLA Piper.

The toolkit, which also studied the performance of staff at some of the UK’s largest law firms, found state educated employees were 75 per cent more likely to be among the top performers within a firm. Despite this, 60 per cent of employees in professional-level jobs – such as accountants, solicitors, medical practitioners or engineers – had a professional-level background, with just over a third (34 per cent) having a working class background.

Steven Cooper, another social mobility commissioner and CEO of C. Hoare and Co, said: “Some of the best talent, particularly talent that develops over time, comes from less obvious places. The challenge is how to find that talent in the first place, and then nurture it to ensure employees’ potential is fulfilled.”

Separately, Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Foundation – a charity not affiliated to the Social Mobility Commission – called earlier this week for the use of traditional CVs in recruitment to be scrapped.

Writing in The Times to mark the launch of a new campaign by the foundation, Milburn said CVs only worked for candidates with wealthier backgrounds, who were already 80 per cent more likely to be working in a professional job than those with a working class background. He said part of the reason was that big employers placed too much emphasis on which universities candidates attended and whether they went to fee-paying schools.

“Britain’s stagnant social mobility problem will never be solved unless employers change their outdated recruitment practices,” Milburn said.

“It’s welcome that social mobility has become a common concern of the political parties and that the prime minister has made it his mission to address these divisions. But politics cannot do all the heavy lifting… Employers, not ministers, are in the best position to change recruitment practices.”