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People strategy

The Class Divide Is Still Very Real in Recruitment

Clare Hopping


Job applicants from privileged backgrounds often have an advantage over their working-class peers, but this could mean some companies are missing out when it comes to hiring top talent.

A recent study conducted by the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission suggests that many companies exhibit an underlying bias for middle-class candidates holding degrees from selective universities. A series of interviews with 13 prestigious firms indicated that bright, working-class applicants still need a more impressive array of qualifications than their “polished,” privately-educated peers.

The study also revealed that candidates are often subjected to a “poshness test,” measuring factors such as poise, accent and articulation, and even travelling experience. This puts working-class candidates at an inherent disadvantage, which in turn could mean companies are overlooking some of the top applicants simply because of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

Breaking Through the “Class Ceiling”

Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy emphasised the importance of a fair recruitment process in order to break through the so-called “class ceiling.” According to the Telegraph, establishing an even playing field starts with expanding the pool of targeted universities and focussing on more routes for non-graduates to find positions at quality firms.

A recent survey conducted by GTI Media revealed that a number of companies have already begun incorporating such measures into their recruitment processes. Clifford Chance operates “CV-blind” interviews that don’t take a candidate’s academic or personal background into account when considering them for a position. And firms like Bird & Bird and Allen & Overy host work experience programs for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Increasing Awareness of Social Mobility

HR Magazine did an expose on Rare’s Contextual Recruitment System (CRS), which uses social mobility metrics to measure a candidate’s potential within the context of his or her socioeconomic background. The CRS incorporates factors like education and home life, allowing companies to compare applicants with peers from similar backgrounds.

Rare’s key objective is “to help people find the language to discuss social background” in order to increase awareness about class divides. And although applicants often view questions about their socioeconomic backgrounds as somewhat intrusive, the conversation is necessary to avoid any potential for bias in the recruitment process.

Another solution is transparency. Linklaters makes all of its diversity and social mobility data available to the public. And candidates shouldn’t be ashamed of their backgrounds. Successful business professionals who exemplify high levels of upward social mobility should be highlighted, not cast in the shadows.

Many senior professionals understand that their company might not even hire them today because they didn’t go to a prestigious university or, in some cases, to any university at all. But as Leahy reminds us, “Their success has proved that their business was right to hire them all those years ago and shows that it may now be missing out on future leaders.”

In the words of Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, "Access to graduate careers should be about your skills and ability to do the job, not about the places you've been, the school you went to or the contacts you have.” Indeed, it’s time to source the brightest, best talent from all places and backgrounds — are you ready to help break the “class ceiling”?

(Image credits: King’s College, Cambridge/flickr; Cabinet Office/flickr)

Clare Hopping

Clare Hopping has been involved in the recruitment of both full-time employees and freelance staff for ten years. She specialises in recruiting staff via social media and digital platforms.