Employment discrimination on the basis of class? Can we do anything about it?

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I’ve worked in quite a few different workplaces and researched and consulted in a lot more. In pretty much all of them, when you first come in from the outside you tend to notice a type. One workplace might be made up pretty much entirely of blond women called Emma. Another is stuffed to the rafters with check-shirted blokes called Steve.

Some of this is a fairly inevitable tendency for birds of a feather to flock together and for similar types of people to be drawn to similar types of jobs. One of the problems with this situation is that once we’ve been in an environment for a while we tend not to notice the similarities so much and to focus on the differences. Of course all of the Emma’s aren’t the same – eventually we come to mainly notice the fact that Emma A rides a bike, while Emma B is a bell ringer and Emma C is always ten minutes late back after lunch.

The challenge is that people tend to forget that they are in homogeneous environments and feel that they mix with a very diverse group of people. One of the problems comes when we start talking about ‘organisational fit’ as a criteria for recruitment. A desire for  organisational fit comes from a desire to ensure that people get along and that new hires will be able to work effectively with the rest of the team. But, if you take a step backwards organisational fit/culture fit takes on a fairly sinister twist. The organisation is vetting new recruits to ensure that they are similar to the majority culture within the organisation.

This kind of organisational replication is pretty obvious when you are talking about gender or race, but other characteristics are even easier to view through the lens of ‘culture fit’. Is someone too political or too religious, or not political or religious enough in the right way? Are organisations being prejudiced or just ensuring a harmonious culture? This is not just a question of outright discrimination, in the sense of people being fired or not hired for not fitting in, it is also a question of how the prevailing culture limits and constrains the identity of those who are hired. If some people can be who they really are at work while others have to constantly self-regulate it puts them at a disadvantage.

The issue of socio-economic class sits right at the heart of these complex issues of organisational culture, diversity, prejudice and self-regulation. Now, I’m old fashioned. I believe that class is, at least in part, a set of relationships that people have with money and power. Class is not just about whether you eat your peas off the knife or listen to opera, it is also defined by where you sit in the social pecking order and how much of the world you own. Access to money and power in turn open up opportunities to accumulate high status qualification and mix in elevated circles that take you closer to even more money and power.

But, of course this talk about objective material conditions isn’t the whole story. People also have strong class identities which shift how they relate to each other and to themselves. These identities are signalled in a host of ways including accent, interests, dress and affiliations and networks. Bourdieu’s complex web of social, cultural and financial capitals are all in play.

So what does all of this mean for recruitment and employment. Well, firstly and fairly unequivocally we can say that class does matter. The Sutton Trust’s Leading People report regularly reminds us of the amazing ability of the top 5-10% of the UK population to dominate the professions, politics, entertainment and the arts. ‘Class’ clearly opens a lot of doors, but we also have to recognise that many of these are opened long before someone drafts a CV or turns up for an interview. Getting to the top of a profession is the culmination a thousands of tiny moments when someone has chosen you over someone else. It is easy to feel that you’ve got to the top entirely on your own merits and not even notice the number of times that very marginal decisions have gone your way.

For many employers the issue of socio-economic diversity is either invisible or pretty low down the list of priorities (see this article by Emma Pollard from the IES). Even where there are some concerns, there are also a number of strong counter-weights within organisations where most people are from privileged background, where the signifiers of privilege (high grades, Russell Group universities and certain types of cultural capital) are viewed as symbolic of intrinsic merit and where there is little impetus for change.

Despite this somewhat gloomy picture there are a few organisations and sectors that have tried to deal with this. For example, reports on Socio-Economic Diversity in the (Civil Service) Fast Stream, Socio-Economic Diversity in Life Sciences and Investment Banking signal a desire to do something about this and highlight a range of elements to the problem which can be described as follows.

  • Opportunity awareness and social marketing. Social groups share opportunities amongst themselves and keep them from those outside of the group. What is more the opportunities are actively presented in ways which (often unconsciously) are designed to appeal to the social group that currently dominate that occupation or sector e.g. ‘not just anyone can get in’ / ‘its very competitive’ send out complex messages.
  • Recruiting through networks will inevitably keep socio-economic diversity to a minimum.
  • Pre-filtering. Setting high academic entry points disproportionately filters out lower-socio-economic groups. Recruiting from certain schools or universities accelerates this process.
  • Disadvantages built into the selection procedure. For example requiring extensive unpaid work experience, culture fit or the demonstration of certain types of social or cultural capital. Interviews are very likely to raise these issues but quantitative selection techniques are not necessarily social neutral.
  • Creating an organisational culture where some people don’t fit and others do.
  • Promoting the ‘right sort’ of people over those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

So what can we do about this?

Well obviously first and foremost we could try and make our society a bit more equal so that the social distinctions wouldn’t be so clear cut. For example we could narrow income inequality through a host of the kinds of policies that are advocated by the Equality Trust. Or we could increase educational equality by phasing out independent schools or taxing them more heavily and re-investing the returns in the state system.

But these kinds of radical social changes are probably outside of the immediate scope of a hiring manager or other concerned actor in the employment system. So what else could be done.

  • Firstly employers need to decide to do something about socio-economic discrimination. Secondly trade unions, professional associations and ultimately government need to try and hold them to account on this issue.
  • The next step is probably monitoring by socio-economic background. This isn’t straightforward and has some dangers attached to it. But, without this we won’t be able to figure out how big the problem is, where it is worst and at what stage of the process it really kicks into being. KPMG has published data on the socio-economic backgrounds of its workforce and other organisations should be encouraged to follow suit.
  • Inevitably I’m also going to talk about career guidance and employer engagement as forces which can improve access to information and opportunities to build work-relevant social and cultural capital.
  • Companies could also spread the recruitment net wider and be particularly careful about how existing staff use their networks to inadvertently reproduce the social mix of the organisation.
  • Consider alternative pipelines for ‘talent’ which might attract different sorts of people. Do all employees have to be graduates or would an apprenticeship pathway provide a viable alternative route.
  • Use different selection techniques which are less likely to reproduce socio-economic inequality. For example, does it really make sense to use UCAS points or degree grades?
  • Consider whether there are socio-economic differences and cultures within the organisation. Could there be greater opportunities to second people between departments and functions and progress people through different parts of the organisation.
  • Examine promotion criteria and the values and vision of the ideal employee which are held by management and senior staff. Does this help to explain why certain people get hired and promoted.

As is often the case when I think about these kinds of issues I start from a pretty structuralist position, concerned that any reforms to processes will just be tinkering round the edges. But, the more I think about it the more prejudice and discrimination works in bold, obvious and easy to rectify ways. There is clearly a lot that could be done.

The problem however remains as to whether anyone wants to do it. And this question returns us once more to structural issues of wealth and power.

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting article Tristram. Shame that the diverse Careers/Connexions service has been destroyed. This gave a route for a working class HND student from a Poly like myself to get a professional job.

  2. Excellent article.

    Whilst working for IBM in the early 90s I did research on the use of Belbin’s team roles at IBM as part of my MBA dissertation. With 9 team roles, you would expect an even split across the 9 roles of 11% each, but from what I recollect 15% were Shapers (task masters) and only 4% were Plants (thinkers) based on 100s of staff who had completed the Belbin questionnaire. Managers were recruiting in their own or company image/culture (Clones?). IBM now of course hire school leavers and apprentices rather than just graduates.

    Organisational Diversity is essential for competitiveness and survival, just as it is in natural selection and evolution.

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