Breaking the Class Ceiling
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issue of social inequality into sharp focus. Employees in low status, low paid jobs have been disproportionally affected by the economic downturn and are less likely to recover financially in the aftermath – hardships that may affect generations to come.
The current UK government promotes the benefits that increased social mobility can bring to society and the economy, and many companies already recognise that a diverse workforce creates a healthy and creative corporate environment relevant to modern society.
Despite this, people from working-class backgrounds (whose parents were in low pay, low skill jobs) face reduced incomes over their lifetimes. Statistically, employees from professional, middle class households are likely to earn over £25k a year more than their working-class peers, and professionals from working class backgrounds earn on average £6,800 less than professionals from higher classes (Social Mobility Commission Report 2017). At the recruitment stage, employers often favour candidates who have undertaken unpaid internships or gained experience through family connections – both of which options are out of reach for those from low income households. Working class employees can sometimes face hostile work cultures and lack of promotion opportunities.
In the context of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda, what can be done to help remove this “class-ceiling”?
The original Equality Act (2010) included a duty on public bodies to take account of socio-economic inequalities in decision making, but it has never been implemented. Now many are calling for that duty to be put into effect (as it has been in Scotland) and for “class” to be included as a protected characteristic.
Previous campaigns to extend the nine “protected characteristics” included obesity (which was rejected by Government) and more recently, caste. The Government’s consultation on caste and equality law (2018) which included reviews on the ET decisions in Naveed v Aslam and Tirkey v Chandhok, concluded that an important element in “caste discrimination” was the perception that an individual was of a lower class or status. If class were to become a protected characteristic, therefore, caste might be brought within its purview. However in their report the Government deemed any class based protections to be “too divisive” – an argument that has been used in the past against other equality campaigns.
We may be a long way off from legislation on this issue, but there is a great deal that employers can do to promote a more positive attitude towards class. The first step is recognising that bias exists, before reviewing how best it can be addressed – every workplace is different. Sometimes it’s as simple as being aware, for instance, that team activities should be affordable and welcoming for everyone. Seeking anonymous feedback on workplace culture ensures all employees have a voice. When it comes to internal promotion, mentoring can help develop social skills and confidence.
The Social Mobility Foundation offers employers free assessments of their socioeconomic diversity (anonymously if required) and produces a ranking of those companies with the best policies and outcomes https://www.socialmobility.org.uk/index/The data they collect helps to focus attention on areas that need to be addressed at government level.
Whether the Government decides to move forward with these amendments, or not, there is a great deal that employers can do to improve socio-economic mobility, with clear advantages not just for working class employees and society at large. A more diverse workforce means a healthier corporate environment, a more creative outlook and wider connections to an ever changing world.
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This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.