The Power of Social Mobility

Alan WalkerCulture2018 04 03
The Power of Social Mobility
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As the son of a preacher man a coal miner, with little in the way of formal qualifications — but having somehow luckily managed to forge a rewarding career — choosing the session I was going to cover at UNLEASH London 2018 was a relatively easy task. Writing about it has been even easier.

Stephanie Hasenbos-Case’s talk on how Grant Thornton is unlocking potential and shaping a vibrant economy by focusing on social mobility and inclusion was powerful stuff.

Importantly, it also had the credibility that comes from an HR leader who led her organisation to the top spot in the U.K. Social Mobility Employer Index for 2017.

Early on there were a couple of platitudes to position the emotional element of the “Why,” such as “nobody should be left behind,” but quickly we moved into the nitty-gritty of the practical “Why” and what Grant Thornton’s approach has been.

That’s when it really started to get interesting.

Why Bother with Social Mobility?

Put bluntly, why not? Many organizations still have their reasons — such as inherent bias, inertia, lack of understanding of the benefits of social mobility and inclusion, or simply not yet figuring out how to tackle it.

Let’s focus on the benefits. Various studies and indexes (including Grant Thornton’s own Vibrant Economy Index) have proven time and again that workforces that are more inclusive outperform those that aren’t.

Yes, there are numerous emotional and corporate-responsibility-based reasons to embrace social mobility and inclusion. But even if there weren’t, there’s the reason that most businesses are striving for — it makes them more successful commercially.

The good news is that things seem to be moving in the right direction. The reasons may be varied, but the fact that more organizations are asking within requests for proposals for evidence of the bidding organization’s own diversity is a positive indicator that we’re moving in the right direction.

Desire vs. Action

Hasenbos-Case talked about creating workplaces where employees, communities and clients thrive — a place where people can bring their whole selves to work, where they can be authentic and be themselves.

That sounds like a beautiful utopian future world of work, but my immediate question was “how,” and what can other organizations do to keep pace?

Since 2013 Grant Thornton has had a policy of broadening its access to talent and looking more open-mindedly at the talent that’s available.

That started with a review of its recruitment strategy, leading to a number of initiatives — of which these were the standouts:

  • A more flexible approach to entry requirements, particularly around academic thresholds and school/university target list.
  • Aligning assessments to measure people’s potential, rather than their polish.
    The creation of candidate communities that give all applicants access to peers — not just those that Grant Thornton hires.

A particular piece that stood out for me was the removal of considering an individual’s previous work experience or extracurricular activities as part of the assessment process, since often these are clearly linked to socioeconomic background.

After all, the chance of a “working class” girl from inner-city Manchester getting work experience at a FTSE100 company because of who daddy or mummy knows are pretty slim. Likewise, joining a rowing or yachting club is unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely.

In addition to looking internally at their processes, Hasenbos-Case talked about how Grant Thornton has led the design on the Access Accountancy initiative. You can read more about that here.

We then heard about Grant Thornton’s drive to create a culture of social inclusion. This goes beyond box ticking, to removing barriers, challenging established ways of working and encouraging a culture where their people can speak and act openly. Most importantly? This is driven from the top down, starting from the CEO, Sacha Romanovitch.

So What?

All that sounds lovely. Stuff for both the heartstrings and the careers site. But what has it resulted in? There were two things that stood out.

First, Grant Thornton discovered — through its research with The Bridge Group, across 20,000 trainee candidates — that there is no relationship between socioeconomic background and performance; nor is there a significant difference between those who were hired using the new criteria and those who would have been screened out.

In fact, some of those who would have been screened out are actually performing better than those who have come from the “top” universities. That is huge.

Secondly, the removal of traditional academic criteria has improved the diversity of the company’s trainee population.

Clearly these are both big. Opening up practices, policies, processes and criteria to be more inclusive will provide a much broader talent pool to hire from — but equally importantly, the performance of that broader pool is no different and it creates a more inclusive culture.

So even if inclusion isn’t important for you from a social responsibility aspect, there are performance and commercial benefits to be gained from supporting social mobility and inclusion.

If you’re on the other side of the fence and inclusion and social mobility is your primary driver, guess what? You’ve now got a highly credible case study to show your organization the business benefits of “doing the right thing.”

There should be nothing stopping all organizations from making these same changes. If a highly successful and commercial (albeit pioneering and progressive) organization like Grant Thornton can do this, so can yours.

In fact, if yours doesn’t you’ll fall behind, quickly.

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