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How forward-thinking employers recognize social mobility as an emerging area of DEI

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Differences in social-class origins can be a strong determining factor in an individual’s future success and career achievement, and today more companies are waking up to this fact

US workers from lower social-class origins are 32% less likely to become managers than are people from higher origins, according to a study by Paul Ingram and Jean Oh. Ingram and Oh define “social-class origins” as individuals “who through conditions of birth and upbringing have relatively less access to money, contacts to help promote upward mobility, and the cultural know-how necessary to get ahead in schools and companies.”

And, unsurprisingly, these differences in social-class origins can be a strong determining factor in an individual’s future success and career achievement.

Social-class origins matter in the workplace

Dimensions of social-class origins include family income, parents’ level of education, and parents’ occupations; and these factors and others can be disadvantages for individuals entering into corporate cultures, mostly because of the long-lasting effects of the “cultural imprints” that occur during the formative years of childhood.

Origins of social class impacts social mobility, which is defined as the ability for individuals from one generation to move from one socio-economic strata to the next. And this is crucially important for individuals in the workplace because these disadvantages “materially reduce their career potential and general well-being,” according to Ingram and Oh.

In the legal industry, social-class origin as a structural barrier is most apparent in law school with first-generation law students. According to a recent study by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), students who were first in their families to graduate from law school “fared worse in landing jobs compared to their peers” and lagged 11 percentage points behind those graduates who had a parent who held a JD degree.

NALP’s executive director indicated that one reason for the gap is the lack of social capital, seen as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Without access to social capital, first-generation law school students have to seek out resources, usually in the form of mentors, to learn actively the unspoken rules, norms, values, and trust of how to succeed in professional settings. And this can range from professional attire to knowing how to interact with seasoned colleagues in professional settings. These are resources and knowledge that a law student with a family member or close family friends with a JD would likely learn or know by osmosis.

At the same time, the bar exam is a structural barrier to social mobility at least on a temporary basis. “Not counting law school, it is expensive post-graduation, to live while studying for the bar exam,” says Katherine Silver Kelly, Clinical Professor of Law, and Director of Academic Support Programs at The Ohio State University’s Mortiz College of Law. Indeed, the combination of little costs can add up, such as the fees for fingerprinting or background checks for character fitness, and for the privilege to use your laptop to take the exam, in addition to the normal costs of living while studying between the time law school graduates take the bar exam and their first day of full-time work.

On a positive note, people from lower-income backgrounds that working within organizations may bring a unique set of skills and experience that could help them thrive as leaders and managers. According to the Harvard Business Review, one recent study that analyzed participants from the US military “suggests that individuals with lower social-class origins are less self-centered, which sets them up to be more effective as leaders.” Also, another study from the United Kingdom found that “lawyers from less-elite backgrounds are more motivated and capable than their privileged peers.”

Social mobility as an area of corporate DEI

Social mobility is already recognized as an area of diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) by corporations thanks to the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission, which was created to ensure “the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life.” The UK has one of the worst rates of social mobility in the developed world, which often means that individuals born into low-income families do not have the same access to opportunities, regardless of their talent or hard work.

Internationally recognized companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Deloitte, regularly publish research and content on the topic, which also has made acknowledgement of this issue more common.

How companies are executing social mobility strategies

Forward-thinking employers are beginning to find ways to remove social-class origin as a structural barrier for existing and prospective employees, including:

Offering poverty simulations to develop empathy — These interactive and immersive experiences build awareness among participants of the harsh realities of life that low-income families face on a daily basis. These programs help to expand empathy for new hires, some of whom may come from less-privileged backgrounds, to help them succeed in learning the unwritten norms of communication and behavior and successfully navigate a corporate culture that is very different from anything they have experienced before.

At one company’s recent gathering two participants shared some of their insight. “Poverty is a reality for many individuals and families,” said one participant. “This simulation gave me a whole new perspective and greater appreciation for the choices single mothers/parents are making day to day. I found myself at cross-roads during several points of the simulation, making survival choices against what I consider to be good parenting skills, like rewarding my child and their friends with ice cream.”

Another participant stated: “I consider myself empathetic to those living in poverty, but this brings insights to another level.”

Creating employee resource groups around social mobility — Uber Technologies created the ERG for socioeconomic inclusion to achieve a better reflection of the communities it serves through the promotion of by professional advancement of employees from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Relaxing the requirements for bachelor’s degrees for some jobs — With the high cost of college in the US and the resulting high level of student debt, questioning the value of a college degree is gaining steam. These 15 companies, including Google and Apple, are offering well-paying jobs to those with non-traditional education or a high-school diploma. This becomes even more critical considering the ongoing labor shortage in many US industries, including legal.

“When we understand that nearly 40% of US citizens over the age of 25 have a Bachelors’ degree, there’s a whole wealth of talent that we’re not tapping into,” notes Shane Lloyd, head of DEI at Baker Tilly. “It is important that we continue to recognize the expansion of dimensions of difference as we continue to expand the aperture of inclusion.”

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