Over the last few years, it has become increasingly popular for employers to ask questions about an individual’s socioeconomic background during recruitment.

These can range from what type of school you attended to whether you received free school meals (FSM). It may also include asking about your parents’ highest level of education.

Initially, it can be unclear as to what these questions seek to achieve — however, they are a useful measure for organisations to understand the demographic background of applicants and to gauge whether they appeal to a broad proportion of society. In recent years, companies such as KPMG have added these data points to their internal staff survey to assess the make-up of their staff, which are shared externally. This has helped businesses to understand whether they are doing enough to retain talent from underrepresented backgrounds.

But why does it matter what school you went to? Or whether you received free school meals? Or whether your parents went to university or not?

Those who are ‘better off’ are 80% more likely to make it into professional careers than their working-class peers.

In a society that increasingly recognises the value of diversity in the workforce, social mobility and representation across all backgrounds across the UK currently are low.

meaning that large populations across the country are not afforded the same opportunities as others and do not accurately represent the workforce in the UK. The Elitist Britain 2019 report, created by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, revealed that 39% of the elite were privately educated, with 24% graduating from Oxbridge. The document shows that these people are most likely to find themselves in professions such as politics, the media and public service — all careers that represent the public as a whole. The State of the Nation 2018–19 report states that those who are ‘better off’ are 80% more likely to make it into professional careers than their working-class peers, showing that the socio-economic diversity is greatly lacking. The report recognises this as the ‘sticky ceiling’, acting as a blocker for social mobility in the UK. This shows how employers that still favour privately- or Oxbridge-educated candidates are 

maintaining the barriers for those who were not from making their way into these roles.​This is not limited to the educational institution that individuals attend, but also their financial circumstances when they are in school. For instance, only 5% of children who were eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend the most selective universities, compared to 12% of all admissions. This inequality persists through into employment for this group, as they are more likely to be unemployed following graduation and, in the subsequent five years, were paid on average 11.5% less than those the same age. This illuminates a lack of social mobility, particularly for this group, and the persistence of barriers that can follow these people throughout their lives. However, by exposing this inequality, we allow employers to address the issue and to work towards closing the gap.


In 2017 the Social Mobility Employer Index was launched; a voluntary and free survey that determines how much employers are doing to increase social mobility across seven key areas: working with young people, routes into work, attraction, recruitment and selection, data collection, progression, culture and experienced hires and internal/external advocacy of social mobility. Businesses are given the option to remain anonymous and receive feedback and a ranking for the work they have carried out to close the gap. Participants include well-known banks, government departments, and law firms. The index has revealed that employers have already been actively asking questions about socio-economic background, with 53% of employers asking about what type of school you attended. They also found that 30% of employers now remove school and university names and school grades before reviewing candidate applications. Asking these questions helps companies understand the types of people they are attracting, as well as those they have hired and have within their workforce. Using this insight, they are then able to identify problem areas and alleviate them.

By exposing this inequality, we allow employers to address the issue and to work towards closing the gap.

Additionally, in May 2018 the Civil Service published a guide on ‘Measuring Socio-economic Background in your Workforce’, which was consulted on with several UK employers, academics, and experts to create a standardised way to measure class diversity in the UK workforce. As one of the UK’s largest employers, the Civil Service not only recognises that there should be equal opportunities for all, but also that to create policies and services that are truly fair for the whole of society, the Civil Service needs to employ a workforce that evenly represents the UK’s population.

In the guide, it is suggested that to understand the background of incoming and current employees, four main measures are to be asked so that employers can examine their socioeconomic demographics. This will empower companies to assess whether they are actively attracting and retaining employees from diverse backgrounds, as well as highlighting barriers to attraction and retention so that they can take action. It is important that once individuals are recruited, they need to be properly onboarded, policies and processes ensure people are appropriately supported, and that everyone is eligible for fair promotion and progression opportunities.

The Elitist Report 2019 also recommends that to move forward, we should consider the practice of contextual admissions and recruitment. This is where universities and employers place attainment and achievements in the context of the background of the applicant, i.e. if they are from an underperforming school, less advantaged neighbourhood, or received FSM. This would enable a student who worked incredibly hard to attain BBB at A Level at a school where the average was DDD to gain a place either at a more selective university, on a school-leaver scheme, or access to more prestigious career paths later down the line.

Moving forward, I encourage businesses to take a broader look at the diversity of their workforce and to consider the backgrounds of those they attract and retain.

Diversity of thought is a great asset to a business and by understanding the makeup of the backgrounds of individuals within your company, you may find that there is a gap within your representation. As research shows, these gaps are noticeably present within our workforce and, through initiatives such as the Social Mobility Employer Index, there is guidance available on how to address the problem and to make a difference.

There is still a long way to go before the socio-economic gap is closed and more diversity of thought is brought into the workplace, but this is a great place to start the new decade.

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