Social mobility – start making an impact now

Jessica Harvey, diversity and inclusion manager at Walker Morris, sheds light on what social mobility really means, why so many of the firm’s clients are asking for help tackling it, and what businesses can do to start their journey towards a more diverse and equitable future.

Social mobility is increasingly at the top of the to-do list for leadership teams who see improving diversity and inclusion as fundamental to the success of their business. But it’s a complex issue and requires far more than simply paying lip service to the idea of opportunities for all.

Hi Jess, can you start by explaining what you mean by social mobility?

Social mobility is a term that carries a great deal of nuance, but to put it simply, it refers to the difference between the life outcomes of yourself and your parents. So, for example if your parents had a working-class occupation and were low earners, but you have a professional occupation and are a high earner, then you’ll have experienced upward social mobility. From a practical perspective, it’s all about breaking down the structural barriers that can hamper professional development. It’s relevant not just in terms of specific roles, but across every industry and sector – where the principles and challenges remain the same. To use us as an example, at Walker Morris we want people from all backgrounds to be able to join our law firm, whether that’s as a lawyer, a marketing or business development colleague, or as a team assistant. It’s about opening up opportunities and increasing diversity amongst our workforce, and when harnessed correctly, it can have a huge positive effect not only on the business, but individual lives as well.

And is that why you think social mobility is such a hot topic at the moment?

Well, yes! 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. It’s a fundamental part of our diversity and inclusion work at Walker Morris, both internally as we consider how we can build a business that truly reflects the diversity of the world we live in, and externally as we support our clients doing the work to ensure they are also moving towards a more diverse and equitable workplace. When you then add in the fact that the UK Labour Party has promised to make it one of their priorities if they are elected, the current government’s Social Mobility Commission, and public pressure to change the status quo, the result is an increasing number of employers looking to improve their social mobility standing. Although the subject is undoubtedly something of a political hot potato, organisations are also beginning to open their eyes to its positive effects – ensuring that we move away from a groupthink mentality, towards a more creative diversity of thought. This in turn leads to more successful outcomes for businesses, as well as driving innovation and change.

If we take the legal industry in the UK as an example, a UK Law Society report in 2022 found that 64% of senior leaders were from a family with a professional background. This is incredibly high in comparison with the general population figure of 37%. Other stats worth mentioning from the same report include the 26% of senior employees who went to a fee-paying school, which doesn’t reflect well in comparison with just 7.5% of the UK population having done so. In the same report, and just as worrying, is that 37% of employees from a working-class background felt that this had an impact on their profession at work. So arguably the issues surrounding social mobility have never been more relevant.

But social mobility isn’t just a concern for law firms, or indeed just lawyers is it?

That’s right, it impacts everyone. Its challenges aren’t limited to any one industry or sector. Traditionally, this kind of thing has been considered a problem for HR to fix, but we now know that it’s something that matters across the whole of an organisation. And because of its positive impact on business outcomes, we are seeing more and more clients (often GCs) coming to us for support with their D&I efforts, and with concerns around improving social mobility in particular. So, if it hasn’t already, it’s likely to land on your desk at some point.

The best outcomes occur when the entirety of a business or organisation takes an active part in promoting and driving change, and the Social Mobility Index demonstrates this point well. You only need to look at the website and the range of organisations across all sectors in the UK, (including government), to see the breadth and potential importance of this issue.

From a practical perspective, what can organisations do to start making positive changes in relation to social mobility?

There’s a variety of things organisations can do to start making a meaningful impact straight away. For example using ‘blind CVs’ to remove any unconscious bias during the hiring process. The same approach can be applied to removing the educational institutions that candidates attended as well. At Walker Morris we also run a mock vacation scheme supporting students from non-traditional universities and from low socially mobile backgrounds. Replicating a traditional vacation scheme, candidates are invited to join us in the office and experience day-to-day activities as well as learn interview skills. We provide them with comprehensive feedback, which they can use to support real world employment applications and work experience.

Our ‘you don’t have to be serious to wear a suit’ value is another key part of our approach to social mobility. We see this as more than just a modern no-tie approach, but as a way to allow everyone to come into the office wearing what they feel most comfortable in, and it removes the barrier of having to invest in expensive business attire, along with all the social etiquette that can surround that.

What would be your advice to someone keen to help their organisation start making improvements to their social mobility?

First of all I’d make the point that although there may be some ‘quick wins’ it does take time to really see results, and that buy-in from the top is just as necessary as galvanising employees on the shop floor. At Walker Morris we take a five-stage approach, considering: outreach (ensuring people know what opportunities there are), access (making our processes for careers accessible to everyone), recruitment (actually recruiting people from different socio-economic backgrounds), progression (are they rising through the ranks?), and evaluation (are we having an impact?). But it’s also necessary to think about any barriers that could hinder your progress. For many organisations this is linked to time and resources, because to achieve the best results and really effect change, you need dedicated people and time allocated to implementation. Ensuring you have buy-in from the top at the very start will make an enormous difference to your outcome.

Can you share three ‘top tips’ for improving social mobility within an organisation?

The first thing I always start with is data. This is key, because you can’t change something you can’t see, so if you’re not doing so already, it’s incredibly important to start measuring your data around social mobility. A good place to start is The Social Mobility Index or regulatory bodies such as the SRA, who can provide guidance on what you can and should be measuring. Key to the success of any data collection exercise is to inform your colleagues about why, and how you intend to use this data. It’s also worth noting that this shouldn’t be a one-off exercise, it should be a regular undertaking with results published in a transparent way and clear actions to ensure continuous improvement.

My second tip is to gain senior leadership buy-in as soon as possible. Start relevant conversations throughout the organisation at the earliest opportunity. You’ll need to have someone from the leadership team to champion your work and this is especially important with projects that don’t always show immediate results. But with the right backing, you’re far more likely to have the time and resources necessary to carry out the project with support and understanding from around the business. It needs to be seen as actual work, not some kind of extracurricular activity.

The third piece of the puzzle is around taking action. There are a wide variety of actions you can take, including the positive changes discussed earlier. You can also consider how you might implement a work experience scheme for students from low socially mobile backgrounds. A good ‘win’ is developing a relationship with a local diverse school or college and offering insights into your industry and the career paths and routes available.

There’s no doubt that social mobility is complex, and making noticeable change takes time and commitment. But achieving it has myriad benefits, both social and economic, and businesses are increasingly alert to its possibilities. To take a deeper dive of both its challenges and ways to make positive change, Walker Morris will be holding a webinar.

Webinar invite: Bridging the gap – navigating social mobility challenges

During this webinar, Tracy Foley (head of people and culture, Walker Morris) and Jessica Harvey (diversity and inclusion manager, Walker Morris) will be joined by Barry Matthews (group dep general counsel, Pennon Group Plc and founder, Social Mobility Business Partnership) to delve into social mobility and discuss how businesses can start their journey towards a more diverse and equitable future.

If you would like to receive the invite, please visit the website:


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