How-to improve social mobility through recruitment

May 9, 2019 | Diversity

ISE CEO, Stephen Isherwood explains how student employers can help to improve social mobility through their recruitment processes.

A recent Bridge Group report highlights that across eight leading law firms, 14% of state schooled lawyers got the best performance rating at work compared to 8% of those independently schooled. And those whose parents didn’t go to university were more likely to receive top performance ratings, compared to those whose parents did.

In the last five years the proportion of graduate recruiters focused on improving social mobility has tripled to more than 70%. Universities now spend over £700 million on widening access. However, the privately educated still dominate top jobs in law, politics, the media and to a lesser extent business. Only 57% of the average ISE member’s graduate intake went to a state school. 


What are employers doing?

Although relatively new to employers, the idea of contextualised data has been around for more than a decade. Research has shown that pupils out-performing their peers is a good measure of potential. So a candidate from a poor background and who gets three Bs from a school where the average is two Cs and a D should get just as much attention as someone with three As from an elite private school.

With some law firms hiring as much as 25% of an intake using contextualised data, intakes are changing. Many organisations have ditched minimum requirements as technology has enabled recruitment tools, i.e. testing, to be used much earlier in the process. The old shortcut of ABB minimum is a) no longer needed and b) seen as a barrier to talent. Only 25% of ISE members now use UCAS points to screen applicants. 

However, a centuries old system doesn’t get changed overnight. The Bridge Group found that the privately educated are more likely to be promoted at the end of their training contracts. “The ideal of a successful lawyer has been hundreds of centuries in the making”, says Miller, “ambiguous definitions of talent such as gravitas, confidence and extroversion are traits that can be overemphasised at promotion time.”

Individual stories can be just as enlightening as the data. A case study in the Bridge Group report highlights a student in a top-tier law firm who felt trapped between the community he grew up in and the middle-class environment he now works in.

“Our brains function like the Hogwarts’ sorting hat, they signal to us where we belong”, says Alice Scott of DBL. This effect can deter applicants from applying in the first place and is also a call to employers to ensure they create a sense of belonging. Alice goes on to say that, “research shows we perform better where we feel we belong”. If organisations are going to recruit and retain more diverse candidates, significant attention must be paid to recognition systems and an organisation’s culture.


Employer action list

  • Increase the range of universities you target. If you interrogate your previous hiring data the range of institutions that you have hired from will probably surprise you.
  • Add social mobility questions into the diversity section of your application process. Students are used to answering these questions.
  • Stop using A-level grades to reduce your applicant pool. More robust testing methods exist.
  • If A-level grades are a predictor of success in your organisation, consider using a contextualised data system.
  • Remove school and university names from the information that recruiters, interviewers and assessors see. It’s proven to remove bias. 
  • If you are using contextual data, using school percentile (a measure of school quality) can help you put assessment centre performance into context.
  • Track what happens to your diverse candidates as they progress through the selection process to make sure your approach isn’t unfairly rejecting candidates.
  • Making an offer isn’t enough. Give your new hires a buddy or a mentor. Keep in touch with candidates until their start date.
  • Keep track of how all your candidates progress. Who is or isn’t doing well, who is getting promoted, are your diverse candidates leaving?
  • Close the loop: use your diverse hires as ambassadors back on campus to share their tips for success and act as role models.
  • Make a long-term commitment to creating a diverse workforce. Change will take years to work into your organisation’s culture.
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