Starbucks, Harry Potter and Tesco don’t have a great deal in common with one another, aside from one key thing: they all provide great examples of ‘rags to riches’ tales.
Howard Schulz (Chairman and CEO of Starbucks) began life as the son of a destitute truck driver. In the early 90’s, J.K. Rowling was living on benefits as a single mother. And Sir Terry Leahy (ex. Chief Exec of Tesco) grew up on a council estate. Yet all of them went on to achieve outstanding success in their fields. They are the very definition of triumph over adversity.
Of course, this is the real world, and we can’t all be the next Rowling, Leahy or Schulz. But the fact that stories like theirs (and indeed many other more ‘ordinary’ success stories) are so unique demonstrates that industry still heavily favours the socially advantaged.
There are significant business, economic and moral gains to be made from recognising and advancing the case for social mobility. Yet, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (October 2013), “Class remains a bigger barrier than gender to getting a top job. Senior professionals are still more likely to be privately schooled, privileged men.”
Indeed, elitism is entrenched in many professions: 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 55% of Whitehall permanent secretaries and 50% of members of the House of Lords were schooled privately, compared to 7% of the population (Guardian: Elitism in Britain, 28th August 2014).
Even starting out at the bottom of the career ladder, work experience is a geographical lottery: one in five firms in the East Midlands provide work experience, compared with one in three in London (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, October 2013). And this matters greatly as it is widely accepted that graduates who have completed internships are much more likely to get a job offer than those with no work experience.
But perhaps the tides are shifting slightly. The last general election saw all the main parties focusing on a greater mix of women and ethnic minority candidates in key roles. In a business that is all about connecting with the people that they represent, it seems only a matter of time before politicians realise that social mobility and eliminating classism are just as important.
Here are just a few ways in which employers can take a more socially inclusive approach to hiring and developing their people.
1) Audit the talent pool
Monitoring diversity isn’t only about race, gender and disability. Whilst socio-economic status isn’t as overtly measurable (at least, not without some fairly intrusive questions), by gathering basic data such as education history or parental occupation, employers can help to build a socio-economic profile of their workforce.
2) University of Life
With university tuition fees at crippling levels, a degree is simply not an option for everyone. Yet, so many employers place emphasis on hiring ‘graduates’. Back in the days of government funded university tuition, it was widely understood that graduates represented the cream of the employee market. But the playing field is now far from level, and it’s no longer a fair assumption that the graduate pool singularly represents the best of the potential out there. More enlightened employers are looking towards apprenticeship schemes, school outreach programmes and youth support schemes to run alongside traditional graduate recruitment, thereby opening up opportunity for equally able and ambitious, albeit less affluent, candidates.
3) Break out of the mould
The hiring process itself can easily fall foul of the temptation to recruit ‘PLU’ (‘people like us’). From unconscious bias in the interview (favouring a candidate who went to the same school) to fundamental flaws in the route to entry (summer work experience for the MD’s best friend’s daughter), it’s easy to see why companies slip into the habit of recruiting to a ‘type’. Simple measures can be put in place to avoid such bias. Removing names of schools and educational institutes from applications forms, for example, would go some way to ensuring that the focus rests firmly on talent and potential. Defining (and committing to) robust policies on fair sourcing procedures and selection criteria for paid work experience and internships would banish the emphasis of ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’, as well as avoiding excluding those who cannot afford to take unpaid work.
4) Create pathways to success
Hiring ‘new blood’ is, of course, both necessary and beneficial for any business. However, employers can so often overlook the skills and ambition right under their noses. Nurturing talent from within is not only a cost effective strategy which can boost staff retention, but it also rewards the hard work and commitment of existing team members at the grass roots level of the business. That’s not to say that investment isn’t required to make it work, but whether that’s putting in place robust mentoring schemes, introducing internal work experience programmes, or offering financial support for skills training and CPD, investing in an existing team can be less costly than embarking on endless rounds of external recruitment.
So, before stepping forth to shake hands with your next candidate, or conducting your next performance review on a team member, take a sip from that Starbucks takeaway latte, and remember where it all began for Henry Schulz. For, if he hadn’t broken through the class ceiling, right now you might be sipping something only bearing a passing resemblance to coffee, from the office vending machine down the corridor!
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