Alan Milburn, chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has called on businesses to “break open Britain’s elite” by declaring the social mix of their staff. Is there merit to his suggestion?
YES The idea of this course of action would be to shame companies into seeing how unrepresentative they are, and force them to look at their recruitment, retention and work practices to ensure they can attract and retain talent from as wide a pool as possible. So what would be the downsides?
While big business will bleat about the procedure being overly bureaucratic and difficult to execute, the only way to tackle any inherent bias in organisations is transparency – for the rest of the world to be able to peer in and see just how bad the problem is. Data, of course, is crucial to this but that’s just the beginning. Data in and of itself won’t solve the unconscious bias that is deeply entrenched in so many of our corporate institutions, and the obstacles facing people from less advantaged backgrounds – but it’s a start.
The key questions are: Is diversity being locked out from the top, and would this information help unlock it or not? Well, the answers are, yes it is, and yes it would help to identify the scale of the problem and where the particular hotspots of elitism lie. The hope would be that the bad PR for companies that aren’t getting it right would force them to
re-examine themselves in order to be perceived as responsible employers and ethically sound firms worth investing in, buying from and so on.
Sara Robinson is managing director of PR agency Cake Communications
NO Alan Milburn highlights that there appears to be an imbalance in relation to the social backgrounds of our leaders which needs to be addressed. But the proposal that this be achieved even in part by employers releasing data on the social backgrounds of staff is unlikely to resolve such issues. Staff are entitled to their privacy, and so publishing information about their social backgrounds is likely to entail data protection issues unless such information can be anonymised.
The idea of social background affecting a person’s future has always been a hot topic for debate, so reporting such data isn’t actually going to tell us anything new or help unlock diversity. Rather, it could become a distraction, shifting the focus to the statistics rather than a way to tackle the underlying issues.
We should be focusing on improving education and finding alternative means by which individuals can access various sectors (non-graduate entry schemes and apprenticeships, for example). This would give those who want careers as leaders the best chances possible. More work experience schemes can also help here. Employers may want to look at reviewing their recruitment by having blind (or partially blind) hiring processes – maybe considering only grades and achievements rather than the institution where they were attained.
Sarah Burke is an employment specialist at law firm Thomas Eggar