How to put social mobility at the heart of future talent strategy

Mar 21, 2024 | Diversity, Home Featured, Webinars

An ISE webinar explored how employers are putting social mobility at the heart of their future talent strategy, explains Jayne Cullen, freelance consultant at 106 Communications.

ISE’s EDI sub-committee on social mobility hosted a webinar with three employers to explore the key business drivers, challenges and successes of putting social mobility front and centre of their talent strategies.

Rosalind Goates, Head of Advocacy and Campaigns at The Social Mobility Foundation kicked the session off with a state of the nation presentation around social mobility.

Dave Payne, Head of Access and Volunteer Programmes at ICAEW, ably directed the panel conversation with Jenn Barnett from Grant Thornton, Phil Sartain from AON and Tom Lyas from Browne Jacobson.




State of the Nation

Rosalind made the case for employer-led social mobility – “It matters because of the billions of pounds of wasted economic value and reduced productivity.”

Both the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have had a significant impact on social mobility with a decline across almost all measures. The educational attainment gap between those from poorer backgrounds compared with those more privileged has increased and it is disproportionate across the country.

The cost-of-living crisis has meant that lots of students are opting to stay at home to attend university thereby reducing their choice of institution, often selecting non-Russell Group universities closer to home.

Living at home also reduces students’ ability to network, to engage with careers services and can lead to a reduced sense of belonging; all contributing to higher drop out rates.

“But change is possible; the workplace is as good as the classroom and we can all be part of the solution,” according to Rosalind. The panel shared a wide range of examples of the approaches they have taken to drive greater representation.

The wider market context also gives us hope for change in the future. Regulated markets such as financial services are looking to the possibility of mandating data collection on social mobility with the FCA having just launched a consultation on the subject.

As social mobility is not a protected characteristic collecting data is not mandatory and it’s also an objective measure.
The four key questions to ask are:
1. What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were about 14?
2. Which type of school did you attend for the most time between the ages of 11 and 16?
3. If you finished school after 1980 were you eligible for free school meals?
4. Did either of your parents attend university by the time you were 18?

For more detailed information on data collection from applicants, read the Social Mobility Commission’s guidelines.

Read How Nestle uses data to shift the diversity dial

Making the business case for prioritising social mobility

For Grant Thornton it was a two-pronged approach; both head and heart.

The ‘heart’ was about having a senior sponsor– a leader who is very passionate about social mobility. The ‘head’ is all about data – Grant Thornton started small by removing the academic requirement for a small group (work experience programme). Now they have over nine years of data as a proof point.

The importance of data provided by the social mobility index in internal business casing cannot be underestimated.

Browne Jacobsen explained that there was enough representation at Partner level – one in five had a 2:2 back in 2016 and therefore wouldn’t have passed the process at the time. It was a powerful narrative at the Board meeting to get that internal backing.

They also found learning on experiences and data from previous jobs helped in telling the story to get support.

Initial steps after buy-in

AON launched an 800-strong work experience programme. From its success they learned:
• Engaging your employee networks early on in the strategy/programme ensures they will be key advocates for change.
• Make the work experience programme repeatable and off the shelf so it’s easy to roll out (globally)
• Have a strong communication plan to share stories and engage the wider firm in volunteering

Overcoming resistance to change

Initially Grant Thornton had lots of resistance around the removal of academic requirements to entry criteria, so they ran a pilot to achieve proof of concept.

Over 10 years they have collected sufficient data to show zero correlation between degree classification and professional qualification or in-role performance.

To support the removal of academic requirements they revamped their recruitment process to focus on potential and to ensure that the quality of those joining was not compromised.

The support of a strong leader and other senior role models telling their stories helped the business to understand the importance of social mobility.

AON echoed the importance of having allies around the business. Ensuring that the employee network was involved in both concept development and programme roll out built advocacy and sense of excitement.

Furthermore, as a business AON has a focus at a global level on the need for greater diversity of thought. Therefore, the new work experience was positioned as increasing the size and diversity of the talent pool rather than changing/watering down standards.


Since 2016 Browne Jacobson has driven significant change in their diversity statistics as a direct result of focussing on social mobility. Tom explained, “The halo effect of leading on social mobility is intersectionality; we have moved our BAME representation from 7% to 48%!”

Trainee recruitment has moved from 11% to 41% LSE background representation.

In 2016:
• 100% of all trainees studied at a Russell Group university, compared with only 35% today.
• None of the work experience placements were paid, now 100% are.
• 965 of all trainees had some connection to Partners or a client of the firm. Now 85% don’t.

And by focussing on social mobility the firm’s ethnic minority trainees make up nearly half of all trainees, compared with only 7% in 2016.

Thank you to all the panellists for their insights and to Dave for expertly guiding the discussion.

You may also be interested in…

How to use data to drive inclusive recruitment

4 ways to break down the barriers to social mobility

How HSBC leveraged technology to engage students from low-opportunity backgrounds

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