Avoiding class discrimination in the workplace

What role does socioeconomic background play in career progression without protection from the Equality Act? Tania Goodman and Olivia Barrett report

Getty Images

A KPMG study from December 2022 found that class and socioeconomic background had the greatest effect on career progression than any other diversity characteristic. A year on, despite these statistics, the Equality Act 2010 fails to recognise class/socioeconomic background as a protected characteristic and there does not appear to be any reform on the horizon.

Consequently, it has arguably become the moral duty of the employer to promote change and encourage class inclusivity in business. The following (influenced by the government’s employer’s toolkit for socioeconomic diversity and inclusion) summarises key dos and don’ts to aid employers with some proactive changes they can implement to support socioeconomic inclusivity.

Data collection

Collection of data will be crucial for employers to combat class discrimination.  Without fully understanding the scope of the impact class/socioeconomic backgrounds have in their own businesses, how can they tailor their actions specifically to the problems that need resolving? Some may need to prioritise challenging their recruitment criteria, while others may need to focus on equal promotion opportunities. As the government’s toolkit suggests, data publication creates a sense of accountability, similar to the publication of gender pay gap data.

Without legislation acting as an enforcement tool, employers are under no legal obligation to recognise socioeconomic background as a protected characteristic; the publication of data may encourage organisations to collaborate in tackling the problem, placing some accountability on themselves and other companies to promote inclusivity. Data will allow progress to be tracked and assess areas in need of change.

Hiring process and outreach

Employers can make a real difference in recruitment to improve the relationship between class and career progression. A 2019 TUC report found that “even when those [with] working class backgrounds attend university, they still enter the job market earning less than those from middle class and private school backgrounds”.

Despite qualifications, those with higher socioeconomic backgrounds have greater access to work experience opportunities (and extracurricular activities) that make them stand out in the hiring process, contributing to socioeconomic discrimination.

Employers can spark some societal change via outreach programmes, providing opportunities to those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds by reducing practical limitations, such as subsidising travel costs and using digital platforms to reduce the costs of applying to high-paying roles.

Some employers are beginning to promote class inclusivity by removing qualification barriers. In January 2023, Santander announced it was dropping the requirement for a 2:1 degree, which was expected to increase the intake of those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds to senior roles. This is indicative of a greater focus on competency, rather than a blind obsession with qualifications, illustrating an open-mindedness to a candidate’s potential and unlocking the talent pool from a wider group of socioeconomic environments.

Promotion

Informal promotion procedures can give an unfair advantage to those with higher socioeconomic backgrounds, who are more likely to have the necessary contacts to help them in progressing faster and further in their career, indirectly discriminating against others. Employers can make a difference by continuing to support those at a disadvantage beyond the hiring/outreach stage, providing consistent training and networking events to ensure talent from all classes is supported in career development.

Because of the absence of legal protection, those who are subject to biases and employment practices that indirectly discriminate against them cannot rely on this as a legal cause of action. Rather, the onus is on companies to take pragmatic and proactive steps to reduce the detriment experienced by the less well off. Employers can focus on creating inclusive cultures, with informed anti-discrimination policies within their business that include socioeconomic background, as well as the protected characteristics from the Equality Act.

Ultimately, it is hoped that a more level playing field at entry level, especially in aspirational careers, will create greater diversity within the workforce, breaking down the class barriers that have for too long held back those with great potential just because their families could not afford to send them to the best schools or universities.

Tania Goodman is a partner and head of employment and Olivia Barrett a trainee solicitor at Collyer Bristow