Building socioeconomic equity in the workforce

Is meritocracy a myth?

In the UK, economic inequality is endemic, but we often make peace with that by convincing ourselves that it is okay because equality of opportunity exists.

But is that really the case?

To unpick this question, FleishmanHillard UK convened a lively and insightful panel with Saeed Atcha MBE DL, CEO of Youth Leads UK, Deputy Lieutenant and Former Social Mobility Commissioner; Sarah Waddington CBE, Co-founder of Socially Mobile; and Dr Louise Ashley, Senior Lecturer at RHUL and Research Fellow, The Bridge Group.

Three key questions emerged from the discussion.

When socioeconomic status is a ‘slippery’ concept, how do we measure and evaluate an organisation’s socioeconomic diversity?

Because people’s position in society can change, and our social class tends to comprise a range of more subjective factors (our hobbies, interests, or tastes) the socioeconomic diversity of a workforce can be trickier to measure than that of other characteristics – particularly given the significance of its intersections.

Companies need to be asking the right questions – such as those around schooling and parental occupations growing up – to be able to understand their workforce.

Only then can they really begin addressing its socioeconomic diversity. The danger of companies not knowing where they stand is that management teams continue to hire in their own image (read white and wealthy if you will).

What’s it like getting into PR, and crucially, getting on in PR, if you come from a lower socioeconomic background?

There are several barriers excluding those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds from entering competitive professions. While offers of work experience are great for many, if an individual doesn’t live near the office, the costs of moving to a city far from home are often prohibitive.

This barrier is felt even more acutely as many of these opportunities don’t, unfortunately, pay a living wage.

While the pandemic has increased the possibilities for remote working, many socioeconomically disadvantaged young people may simply lack the right tech or the internet connection to take advantage of our newly formed hybrid working world. And, even if they do gain entry, with many agencies having a privileged demographic makeup, the psychological impact of feeling different, of sticking out, may take its toll on those individuals.

Why should our industry be taking notice?

PR, quite rightly, has the reputation of being the career of the “elite”. Without a workforce that is representative of the communities we serve, we run the risk of not just being tone-deaf in campaigns but actively contributing to factors that further the marginalisation of underrepresented people.

Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not, so we need to be putting in the work to find it. For organisations, this means:

  • Asking the right questions to properly understand their workforce
  • Outreach to schools to increase awareness of PR as a career option
  • Ensuring socioeconomically disadvantaged young professionals have access to role models and mentorship.

At FleishmanHillard UK, we’re conscious that our industry is dominated by people who are privileged in many ways, often very overtly through their education.

We are proudly a member of the PRCA’s Schools Outreach Programme and are a founding sponsor of Socially Mobile, a Community Interest Company that delivers free training courses to PR practitioners from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as under-represented and under-served groups.

As part of our annual census, we also collect data on the socioeconomic diversity of our UK workforce, so we can measure our progress year-on-year.

All our recruitment and hiring policies have been audited by EY as part of the National Equality Standard Accreditation to ensure they represent diversity and inclusion best practice. For example, to mitigate bias we do not ask applicants to our graduate scheme for CVs. Instead, selection for an interview is based entirely on the quality of the applicant’s submission.

Balancing the scales will require long-term thinking, and long-term investment, but companies that do not recognise the value of diverse talent, and do not make efforts to level the playing field, will ultimately be left behind.

FleishmanHillard UK D&I Socioeconomic Subgroup: Eleanor Clarke, Natasha Fallon, Louise Fathers, Ben Levine, Connor Mahon and Christina Peach.

Contact us