Social class preventing progression at work

KPMG UK recently conducted an analysis of the biggest progression gap within organisations, in an attempt to identify what inhibits an employee’s career development and why. Research was conduct over a five-year period and examined the career paths of over 16,500 employees and partners. Specifically, it assessed the average time it took individuals to be promoted, with consideration given to their sex, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic background (in this case, socio-economic background was measured by parental occupation).  

The research found socio-economic background had the biggest impact on an employee’s progression opportunities, revealing that those from a lower background took on average 19% longer to progress to the next level.  

Further analysis of the results identified the points at which employees faced particular difficulty to reach the next stage in their careers. This was found to be when moving into middle-management positions. Generally, junior roles and groups of senior colleagues were found to have a good diversity of social-economic backgrounds. However, there was poor diversity within middle-management, suggesting there was a blockage when moving up from a junior position.  

As a result, KPMG has implemented targeted action to alleviate the problem and ensure better progression of junior colleagues, regardless of their socio-economic background. It’s hoped that doing so will boost social equality which in turn will contribute to better physical and mental health for employees, as well as improve productivity and engagement for organisations. 

Other employers are encouraged to follow the example set by KPMG and conduct a similar analysis of their own organisations. Where a progression gap due to social status is identified, steps should be taken to remove it. This can be done by utilising positive action tools in recruitment and promotion strategies; introducing diversity and unconscious bias training; and communicating a clear zero-tolerance approach to any form of bullying, discrimination, and harassment. Ultimately, this will enhance the working environment and provide a well-rounded staff force which businesses can leverage to optimise success. 

Some industry leaders have called for social class to be introduced as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Whilst there are no current plans to do so, this does not give employers the green light to treat workers differently. Whilst class alone is not a protected characteristic, employers may bring claims of constructive dismissal if they feel they are pushed out of the organisation due to the actions and behaviours of their employer. Should their treatment relate to other protected characteristics, such as gender, race or age, they may be able to raise a claim for discrimination.  

Recent research has shown that a quarter of workers are mocked at work due to their accent; whilst this may seem like harmless fun, employers must clearly communicate with their workforce that such behaviours can instead create an offensive and humiliating environment, so be considered as bullying or harassment. In the same way, employers should not assume an employee’s socio-economic class or background because of their accent or where they come from. It’s important to never base a recruitment or promotion decision on how well they perceive them to be because of their accent, or other factors relating to their perceived class (e.g. where they live etc.) as this may amount to unfair treatment. All decisions should be made solely on the individual’s abilities, qualifications and experience.  

Suggested Resources