Research recently carried out by KPMG indicates that class and socio-economic background have a greater impact on someone’s career progression than any other diversity characteristic (including race, age, gender etc.). The research concluded that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds take on average 19% longer to progress to the next grade and that more than 70% of board-level individuals come from a professional background, with only 15% coming from working class backgrounds.[i]
The COVID-19 Pandemic led to an exacerbation of socio-economic inequality in England and in early 2021 calls were made for the government to extend the Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’) in England by activating Section 1 of the Act, known as the socio-economic duty.
What is the socio-economic duty?
Under the Act, social class is not a protected characteristic and does therefore not protect job applicants and employees from being treated less favourably by their prospective employers and employers based on their class. The socio-economic duty appeared in the drafting of the Act and provides the power to put in place a public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequality (with socio-economic disadvantage being treated as low income, low wealth, material deprivation and area deprivation). The aim was to deliver better outcomes for those who experience this disadvantage. Whilst the duty would not prohibit such discrimination, it would act as a potential first step to addressing class discrimination and highlighting such inequality in a way that may lead to a greater focus on this area by employers. A possible next step would be for class to be made a protected characteristic, placing obligations on employers to not treat applicants and employees less favourably due to class.
What is the position in Scotland and Wales?
The socio-economic duty came into force in Scotland in April 2018 and in Wales on 31 March 2021. In March 2021, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (‘EHRC’) published a report which evaluated the socio-economic duty in Scotland and Wales.[ii] The report concluded that there was some positive impact in that most public bodies felt that the duty already ensured, or will ensure, that inequalities resulting from socio-economic disadvantage are considered as part of strategic decision-making. Some Scottish public bodies reported that the duty had begun to influence and change the outcomes of decisions. It was felt that providing real and measurable improvements to people’s lives was considered a long-term aspiration for the duty in Scotland and Wales. However, the report also identified that measures were needed to ensure future success and effective implementation such as having clear success criteria and measures, consultation with those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage, mechanisms to hold public bodies accountable, a collective responsibility among all staff members within public bodies and greater focus on changes to outcomes rather than the decision-making process. Therefore, whilst the socio-economic duty has come into force in Scotland and Wales, it seems that there is a long way to go before it makes any real difference. It’s clear that further improvements need to be made in this area.
There is no intention by the government to introduce the socio-economic duty in England although some local authorities have voluntarily adopted the duty.
How can we improve the position in our organisation?
Awareness of workplace social inequality has risen in recent years and many employers are taking steps to address discrimination based on class. Employers are starting to see the importance and benefit of having a diverse workforce and this is not limited to those characteristics that are currently protected under the Act. Employers can consider introducing the following:
- Ensure that anti-bullying and harassment and diversity, equity and inclusion policies stipulate that both applicants and employees will not be treated less-favourable based on socio-economic status.
- Remove school and university names from CVs during the recruitment process to reduce the risk of conscious or unconscious bias.
- Include training on socio-economic discrimination in diversity, equity and inclusion training and, more specifically, unconscious bias training.
- Consider recruitment criteria when drafting job advertisements and assessment criteria to ensure that there is no reference to criteria that are associated with privilege. Further, unconscious bias can occur based on an applicant’s accent so steps should be taken to ensure awareness of this to reduce the impact.
If you require any advice on this topic generally or on taking steps to improve the position within your organisation, please contact a member of our HR and Employment Team.
Disclaimer: this post has been produced for Napthens’ website blog and does not constitute legal advice.
[i] Faragher, J 19 December 2022 KPMG research shows the biggest barrier to progression. Available at: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/kpmg-class-research/ Accessed on 31 January 2023
[ii] Equality and Human Rights Commission March 2021 Evaluating the socio-economic duty in Scotland and Wales. Available at https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/evaluating-socio-economic-duty-scotland-and-wales Accessed on 31 January 2023