7 top tips to encourage social mobility

Looking to start your social mobility journey? We’ve looked at what works and what doesn’t to provide you with 7 top tips to set off in the right way.

Jessica Harvey, Diversity & Inclusion Manager, Walker Morris
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Social mobility is increasingly becoming a hot topic for leadership teams, especially within the legal profession. As early trendsetters in this field, legal professionals play a crucial role in addressing social mobility. While social mobility is often linked with diversity and inclusion, it’s essential to recognise that they’re distinct fields. Understanding this is vital for achieving real success with any social mobility initiatives.

What is social mobility?

Social mobility is a term frequently used in boardrooms, meetings, and events, but it’s rarely explained in detail.

In simple terms, social mobility refers to the difference in life outcomes between an individual and their parents. For instance, if your parents were low earners, but you now have an occupation with a defined career path and earn significantly more, you’ve experienced upward social mobility.

Taking the legal industry in the UK as an example, a 2022 UK Law Society report revealed some striking statistics:

Senior leaders: 64% of senior leaders came from families with professional backgrounds, much higher than the general population figure of 37%.

Educational background: 26% of senior employees attended fee-paying schools. This was much higher than 7.5% of the UK population who did the same.

Challenges: 37% of employees from working-class backgrounds felt their social background had an impact on their career.

These findings underline the relevance of social mobility issues across all sectors.

Breaking down these barriers is essential for professional development, opening up opportunities, and increasing diversity in the workforce. When done right, social mobility positively impacts both businesses and individuals.

What can you do to help?

If you’re just starting your social mobility journey or are already underway, focus on these 7 fundamental principles:

Tip1: You can’t improve something if you don’t know where you’re starting from

Understand your baseline by examining data. Look at the work conducted by the Social Mobility Commission to standardise how social mobility is measured. Define what constitutes “socially mobile” and what doesn’t. Armed with this knowledge, you can take practical steps to collect information that’s relevant to what you’re trying to do.

Tip 2: Get buy-in from senior leadership

Senior leadership must fully grasp the importance of social mobility. Engage in honest discussions, and make sure everyone’s voice is heard and considered. Social mobility should be integral to the business, not an optional activity.

At a simple level, the business case for social mobility is like all other employee characteristics. If you don’t focus on it, you may be missing a raft of talent who either aren’t aware that opportunities exist in your organisation – or who might not be confident that they’ll be welcome when they join you. Fish in a pool not a puddle!

Tip 3: Tell people why they should care about social mobility

Effective communication is key, but it’s often overlooked. Be open about social mobility initiatives, progress, and challenges.

If you’re asking for data, tell people why you’re asking for it and how you’re going to use it. You’ll find people much more willing to volunteer both their data and their time.

Tip 4: Look for quick and impactful wins

In your organisation, there may be policies, procedures, and ‘unwritten rules’ that inadvertently hinder your social mobility initiatives. These are what we commonly refer to as “structural barriers.”

For instance, at Walker Morris, one of our core values is “You can be serious without wearing a suit.” This value extends beyond a mere “smart casual” dress code. In fact, we have no uniform or dress code policy at all.

We encourage our colleagues to wear what makes them most comfortable and is appropriate for their workday and avoid singling out those without the financial means to invest in expensive office wear. This is an example of a social mobility initiative put into practice.

Tip 5: Adopt this one simple recruitment tool

While there’s extensive literature on various recruitment methods, removing academic requirements, and embracing non-traditional routes (such as apprenticeships) – consider a straightforward yet impactful step: “Blind CVs.”

This approach involves removing not only the candidate’s name but also details about their educational institutions. By doing so, you mitigate unconscious bias and focus on what truly matters — their qualifications and suitability for the job.

Tip 6: Don’t do it alone

Chances are, other organisations within your industry are already undertaking or contemplating the same things as you.

Reach out to them, learn from their experiences, share your own stories, and seek to collaborate to share the operational burden of setting up an initiative.

At Walker Morris, we took part in a series of round table discussions with law firms across the UK under the banner of “Breaking Down Barriers to Law.” We found the exchange of ideas, success stories, and challenges really worthwhile and helpful.

Tip 7: See social mobility as a process, not an event

Finally, like diversity and inclusion, social mobility isn’t a destination where you stop working.

Instead, you need to see it as an ongoing process — one that requires continuous improvement, reassessment, and work.

Just as diversity and inclusion is becoming “business as usual”, let’s integrate social mobility. No-one’s social mobility initiatives will be perfect, and we’ll all face challenges along the way. But it’s important to keep the momentum going.

Barry Matthews, GC, and Founder of the Social Mobility Partnership commented:

I continue to be impressed by Walker Morris’ approach to addressing the issues experienced by individuals from low-income backgrounds seeking to find a career rather a job. You can’t aspire to a career unless you know it exists and without firms demystifying themselves access can seem like an impossibility. Walker Morris’ own efforts and willingness to share best practice is the blueprint to creating a fairer and more productive workplace”.

We recently held a webinar, including Lucy Gordon (Partner), Tracy Foley (Head of People & Culture), Jessica Harvey (Diversity & Inclusion manager) to delve into the key points surrounding Social Mobility and how businesses can start their journey towards a more diverse and equitable future. Click here to watch.

“Social mobility impacts everyone and because it’s not restricted to a particular group or industry, it’s something that every organisation should be considering.”

Jessica Harvey, Diversity & Inclusion Manager