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Class Inequality Becomes a Priority

Organisational leaders must understand the root causes of internal bias surrounding socioeconomic differences to cultivate change in the workplace.

By Helen Dallimore

Although many may want to believe otherwise, the world is not a meritocracy. In the workplace, socioeconomic background can play a huge role in whether people get in, and how they get on. 

Nearly one in three senior managers in the U.K. who consider themselves to be from working class families have been mocked for their accent at work. Meanwhile, people with working class origins face an average pay gap of 13.05% for doing the same work as their more privileged peers.  

Byrne Dean speaks with business leaders every day, across many industries around the world, about all things related to the dynamics of their workplace. Encouragingly, the company is seeing that acting on class inequality is finally becoming a priority at boardroom level. The topic is increasingly being referenced and discussed as part of the organisation’s sessions, and Byrne Dean’s leaders are working with clients to support a focus on this. It’s set to be one of the top workplace trends this year. 

Huge firms like PWC and KPMG have introduced social mobility targets to increase the representation of people in the company from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and many organisations are moving away from traditional selection methods that look at grades and the school or university. Instead, they’re using contextualised recruitment tools and skills-based hiring to help identify and onboard the talent needed from a wider pool. 

Why is This Happening?

Business leaders are beginning to realise the strategic rationale for dismantling socioeconomic barriers. This endeavour goes a long way to helping with ESG objectives, and serves to mitigate skill deficiencies in a fiercely competitive global landscape. Fostering a diverse pool of talent is also known to be crucial to business’s bottom line and helps avoid groupthink. McKinsey & Company has shown that more diverse companies are 36% more profitable than their non-diverse peers. 

It’s becoming increasingly recognised that diversity needs to be looked at holistically, and intersectionality needs to be recognised. Socioeconomic background can also be a strand of diversity that helps some groups feel more able to engage in the ED&I conversation than was previously the case. 

There’s also growing regulatory pressure. The U.K. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) recently released a consultation proposing that all regulated firms should gather data on the socioeconomic background of their employees. This is voluntary for now, but does show a clear direction of travel that the wisest leaders are getting ahead of the game on.

Taking Action 

Most importantly, action must be genuine—not performative. Outreach programmes and recruitment quotas alone can only really scratch the surface if they are not accompanied by cultural change. 

In most businesses, leaders need to go back to the root cause, and address the internal biases held around class and socioeconomic background. Human brains are wired to gravitate towards similarity—familiar people who have been seen being successful in these roles previously. This manifests quite clearly in recruitment, promotion, and even work allocation. Organisations need to acknowledge, reflect on, and question these biases. And have proper individual training that provides people with tools to challenge them. 

This internal introspection should be done in tandem with more organisational introspection, reflecting on the factors that enable bias across the entire employee timeline. Organisations can look at how recruitment, pay, promotions, and work allocation are all handled, and where more checks can be introduced to enable more equitable outcomes. 

2024 promises to be the year this topic finally rises to the forefront, and getting ahead of it will create opportunities for more talent to thrive. Those organisations that aren’t talking about and taking action to try and tackle this issue should know that their competitors probably are. 

Helen Dallimore is principal consultant at work behaviour and culture specialists Byrne Dean.  

Tags: Current Features, EMEA April 2024, EMEA News

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