‘It’s quite frankly not fair that social mobility is not a business imperative for all’

Compass Group’s talent, learning and D&I director explores organisations’ role in recruiting and developing those from different socioeconomic backgrounds – and the benefits of doing so

The business case for better diversity has already been well documented and forms a core part of many firms’ strategy. Research suggests that companies with better diversity are more likely to outperform their peers in profitability. Diverse candidates provide different perspectives, which can help with creative thinking and problem solving. Despite this, socioeconomic background still influences career progression and earnings of many people in the corporate world. This doesn’t make business sense and is quite frankly not fair.

The latest State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission paints two contrasting pictures. On the one hand, if you grew up in London, Manchester or Edinburgh, no matter what your socioeconomic background you have the best chance of getting a “professional” job. On the other hand, the chances of unemployment, economic inactivity and employment for people from working class backgrounds in the same areas remain high.

This highlights that on a hyperlocal level, there are many parts of the UK where an individual’s career opportunities are still heavily influenced by where they grew up and the background of their parents. This has for many years been a point of discussion in  large organisations, many of which have historically required a degree. Although this is slowly changing, it has contributed to the current landscape where senior roles in many large UK businesses and public institutions show significant bias towards those from more privileged, privately educated backgrounds. 

This demographic of senior level roles is something we also see in hospitality which typically has far fewer barriers to entry than say professional services. Addressing these inequalities will be key if we are to truly see a change in the makeup of businesses in years to come. 

The business of social mobility

Education is often viewed as the main solution to enhancing opportunities for young people. But it is not the only route and in a post-Covid world, educational attainment levels are falling – particularly among pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Businesses have a critical role to play in being more inclusive in their recruitment and development of people from all disadvantaged backgrounds – and not just those with a degree.  

Professor Lee Elliot Major, the UK’s first professor of social mobility, highlighted recently that organisations can change their mentality in three ways: developing an equity approach; acknowledging people’s personal experiences when mapping development; and recognising that talent comes in many forms.

Getting in

These points are critical to changing the traditional mentality of hiring in business. An equity approach might mean that organisations take into account the challenges individuals may have overcome to get to where they are and the skills and resilience that they can offer as a result of their life experience rather than defaulting to focussing on what grades or degree class they achieved. We need to look at talent and potential through a different lens and move on from the traditional criteria, not only to open up opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds but to get the best talent for our organisations.

Getting on

Inclusion and equity are key in recruitment but also in development, progression and retention. Creating an inclusive culture where people can thrive and bring their whole selves to work means truly understanding that not everyone acts and thinks in the same way. Trying to mould everyone into the same person will have the opposite intended effect on retention as well as limit innovation and growth. So, when it comes to determining career potential and progression, we need to be thoughtful and again challenge ourselves on the skills and attributes we assess, and whether they are biased towards a particular demographic. Progress demands change and that applies to our approach to developing talent.


In customer-facing businesses like hospitality and retail, where people are our greatest asset, representing the communities we serve is a social and business imperative. Hospitality’s reach across the whole UK means there are plenty of opportunities to provide upward career mobility in cities, towns and more rural locations. People in front line roles – such as bartenders, baristas and cleaners – should be able to progress to more senior roles if that’s what they aspire to.

At Compass, we have many senior leaders who started their careers in front line roles, and they bring rich experience to our organisation. To make progression a reality for all means providing transparent career paths, the right development and aligning career progression with the skills and behaviours needed for the job rather than (often unrelated) educational attainment. At Compass we invest in skills and potential through our Career Pathways programme and apprenticeships. Additionally, providing people with early access to the workplace allows for experiences that you can’t learn at school and helps to build the networks that many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have had access to. 

It’s important to identify the opportunity for better social mobility in your organisation and it is critical to understand how that can be achieved in the long term.This is not a short-term fix but with the right intent and a thoughtful and inclusive approach to recruitment, development and career progression – we can make that change. And that can only be good for businesses and society. 

Amanda Scott is talent, learning and D&I director at Compass Group UK & Ireland