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Social Mobility

Navigating the Class Ceiling for Socially Mobile Candidates

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By Grace Osborne – 13th March 2024

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In a candid conversation, Grace Osborne of Browne Jacobson (previously PwC), a beacon of thought in the social mobility sphere, sits down with Adam Williams of Zero Gravity. They unpack a brewing cultural crisis in businesses, dissect what Gen Z seeks in an employer, and reveal the overlooked psychological demands of onboarding that could cost you stellar candidates.


What should early career teams be aware of that's preventing an inclusive onboarding experience for socially mobile students?”


The Hidden Cost of Getting Hired


Early careers teams need to be aware of finance questions, which is particularly pertinent for candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 91% of graduates expect their employer to contribute in some way to the recruitment process and the costs involved in that.


Materially, careers teams need to really ask, ‘What does my attraction and onboarding experience cost an individual?’.

There's tons of research into how much a recruitment process costs a business, how much it costs to hire one person, etc. But I can't find any research at all into how much it costs an individual to get hired.


There are so many different points where you personally invest in the recruitment process: spending money on clothing to fit in with company policy, or obvious things like travel. But there's also the time invested. For many students, going through lengthy onboarding questionnaires is absolutely fine because it's time they had free anyway. But if you're coming from a lower socio-economic background, that might be time that you would have spent working a part time job in order to fund your study.

How an innocent onboarding question be psychologically damaging for socially mobile talent


In a financial services firm, it is common to be asked a lot of detailed questions about your history of finances during the onboarding process.

If you come from a background where you've experienced poverty or debt, or if you have current credit card debt, the psychological process of approaching those questions is really, really challenging.

As an employer, you might be expected to ask those questions by the financial conduct authority or other regulators. But how can you soft launch that questioning so that individual doesn't feel isolated and potentially drop out of the process because they feel uncomfortable. It was a huge wake up call for me when students started telling me that these questions feel really isolating.


“Penny by penny”: Why socially mobile candidates struggle in salary negotiations


There is a lot of research which shows that those from a lower socio-economic background have a lower appetite for risk, so they're much less likely to make big claims (i.e. “I'm not going to join you unless you pay me XYZ”). Furthermore, they're much less likely to lie in the negotiation - when you ask someone about their salary, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are going to tell you penny by penny what they are currently earning - but you cannot guarantee that from those from other socio-economic backgrounds, further widening the pay gap.


How do you measure the impact of inclusive onboarding practices on the retention and success of socially mobile candidates?


Forget what’s working - what isn’t working? How employers measure if their onboarding process is actually working for socially mobile talent.


Employee engagement is really undervalued, especially at that early stage of onboarding. You need to ask them for feedback, not just after the recruitment process, but after the onboarding and the induction. Ask people what was challenging about that experience. If people are reneging offers and are comfortable to answer feedback surveys, find out why. You really need to think about how you ask those questions as well. Maybe in the past, it’s just been a “1-5: How did you enjoy your experience?”. But that's not going to give you the level of detail that you want.


If you have the resources, there are ways in which your recruitment process can feel a lot more personable and people can develop relationships with their recruiters, whereby they'll actually be open about why they are reneging on that offer, or pinch points for them. So think about how you can add that level of trust into your process.


Research about Gen Z indicates that this is going to become easier because they are going to be much more open about the real challenge in the process. But if you don't give them the opportunity to answer, you're not going to get that data.


Creating an inclusive workplace culture? You need to be honest about your numbers.


Having the data of your own recruitment process is really, really important. Knowing the socioeconomic background of your candidates is really helpful, because otherwise you might be making assumptions about who's coming into the process without even knowing what it looks like. It's not good enough to say, “Oh, we don't have that many candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds anyway, we don't need to worry about this.” Why don't you have them? So collecting that data is a really good place to start.


Measuring Success: Is my onboarding practice working for socially mobile candidates?


At businesses I've worked at, we've collected feedback surveys from recruits and cut the data by socio-economic background, and found that there wasn’t a huge gap between the employee experience. But I wonder if we're asking the wrong questions. We need to be really specific about these areas.


If you're seeing that the diversity of your recruits is changing, that's a really good sign that the impact you're having is working. Equally, you should measure employee engagement later on down the line, such as having a social mobility network and talking to them about their experience. Constantly reviewing that, and asking the newer recruits about how they found their experience, can be really, really useful. Lots of businesses do ‘lived experience’ focus groups where they get employees in a room to talk about the challenges of working in that workplace to date. So if you can focus those groups on your early careers and look at different socio-economic groups, you'll start to see some of the gaps, and hopefully over time, be able to address them.


The importance of mentorship for socially mobile candidates


Mentoring is really valuable, because you can talk about things which aren't necessarily obvious. If lower socioeconomic candidates don't have the networks of others going through recruitment processes in a graduate professional space, they have no idea what the process looks like, and they don't have anything to compare it to.

They might walk out of an interview and think, “That was awful”, and actually it wasn't - but they don't have any comparisons.

So mentoring can be really, really, really good to give them that experience that they wouldn't have with their inside networks.


Old boy networks prevail strong: the lingering power of sponsorship


Mentors can be great to give candidates insight and experience, but sometimes sponsors are even more valuable:

They're the ones saying, “Actually, I know someone great who would be fantastic for this role, let's give them an interview”.

Those from higher socio-economic backgrounds tend to have more sponsors than mentors because they've already got the networks. They've already got Dad's friend who works in the company that they're interested in, who can tell them all about what the recruitment process is like. But what they also have is sponsors: Dad's friend who says, “I know someone great, he's my mate's son, let's get him in for an interview”. So mentors can be really good, but how can businesses think about using sponsors; getting people from your business to support people through the recruitment process and advocate for them as well. Lots of recruitment processes really eliminate that bias now which is good, but there's still a lot of sponsorship going on that those from lower socio-economic economic backgrounds are missing out on.


What happens if early career teams make their attraction and onboarding process inclusive for socially mobile talent?


How hiring socially mobile talent changes the face of company culture and client experiences


Your workplace culture will change when you hire socially mobile talent because you will be bringing in diverse talent who bring different perspectives.

Diversity is not just what a group looks like or sounds like, it's also about the diversity of thought: bringing in totally different perspectives.

If you work in a people-centred business, your whole proposition to your clients is the people that work for them. If your business is one group that thinks the same and acts the same, it’s not going to be an innovative group. So bringing in lots of diversity of thought is going to create better problem solvers and it will make your existing employees better problem solvers as they bounce off ideas from the diverse thought. From a value proposition, it’s immense because you are providing your clients with a better service.


On the verge of a cultural crisis: How Gen Z’s morals are changing the workforce

I have a theory that we're reaching a cultural crisis (and the data that I've looked into is really backing it up). In Bright Network’s most recent graduate survey, data showed that the highest factor graduates look at when choosing where they're gonna work is workplace culture:


88% of graduates consider diversity and inclusion when they're choosing an employer

So they're wanting to go for a company culture that fits them, and they're also considering diversity and inclusion.


Well, if your culture isn't inclusive, then the moment they get started there, they're going to think, “This is not a good fit for me”. Gen Z have developed a reputation for being the generation that isn't gonna put up with things that they don't like in the workplace. They put boundaries up and they stick to them. They're not gonna come in, see that your company culture is un-inclusive, and conform to it, like perhaps us millennials used to do:

They’ll say, “This isn’t for me”, and leave.

And businesses are going to reach a crisis point where they realise that without having an inclusive company culture, we're not going to continue to hire great talent.



Thanks Grace!




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