May 12, 2015 | Simon Barrow

Too many Etonians maybe toxic for a one nation Tory cabinet but why should employers care where their talent comes from?

Toffs And Toughs
Photo credit: Jimmy Sime/Getty

Simon Barrow makes the case for welcoming broader participation by revealing the facts.

Social Mobility is a high profile issue on both sides of the Atlantic because it is getting more difficult to move through the gears of society than it was. I believe that your views as an employer and the facts you share, should reveal how you stand on this most sensitive of UK issues. It will help you appeal to a wider range of excellent candidates who otherwise may think you are not for them.

You need to do much more than trot out statements on being a meritocracy as if there were still companies that did not hire and promote on merit. Nobody gets into a successful company, let alone gets on unless they have what it takes.  You probably say you are blind to background, education, parental occupation and connections and indeed you are. And you may not think it’s your job to be a social engineer.

However, it IS your job, just like the Chancellor of a Russell Group or Ivy League university to make sure that all the sources of the brilliant talent you need really feel that they will be welcome, that they will fit in and prosper with you. They need to feel that there are people like them already there.

Universities have got the message

The Oxbridge elite dominates UK business, politics and the media and university leaders would love to broaden their intake. Oxford entrants are currently 43.2% private sector and Cambridge 39.0% though parental background maybe just as important as school. I heard the present Vice Chancellor of Oxford say that one of his three top concerns is that thousands of students who are well capable of getting in do not even apply because they think that Oxford is not for them. A leading Durham source told me that they could fill every place with bright applicants from the north east but they do not apply. Small wonder the percentages of privately educated students in universities like these remain so high. Yet a first class University surely needs to attract brilliant people from all walks of life. That is why Tom Levinson, Head of Widening Participation at Cambridge, states that wider participation will increase excellence not reduce it.

And the business world needs to

The business world also needs to attract talent from all sources but nobody yet goes public on the facts which demonstrate that. A well known City business has a distinguished record for innovation, customer service and financial success. It is an up market player yet in its executive group of eleven all but two had a state education. That would surprise many of its audiences. Is that not an interesting and relevant ingredient in their reputation as an employer?

Another City firm, Cazenove, had an old school reputation as an independent before becoming part of JPMorgan in 2010. I recall stories of all men having to wear lace up shoes! I wonder what the make up of their executive group was then and is now? A look at their career website shows the usual multinational, gender balanced array of bright bushy tailed young people but no detail to overtly demonstrate range in social mobility terms.

I wonder how two great UK retailers – John Lewis and Tesco – compare on social mobility? Who has more Russell Group graduates? What is the percentage of state educated execs in the top team? Which groups of talented candidates are particularly attracted to each and how do they differ? Are these not important employer brand ingredients?

The Economist (Jan 24th 2015) did a brilliant piece on the decline in social mobility in America: “America’s elite is producing children who not only get ahead, but deserve to do so: they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers and are thus worthy of the status they inherit.”’ The feature highlights as reasons the better education of women and the power that results, the increased family stability of the elite and the local taxes in prosperous areas which improve the state schools they attend.

In the UK it’s a more intractable problem. In America, the rich support the local high school so their children, in cultural terms, buy into one nation. The few East coast private ‘prep schools’ are a mere pin prick in US life. In the UK the rich tend to go private but in both nations family background has a major correlation with later high achievement, whatever the school.

However, only in the UK does the media highlight the vast percentages of leaders e.g. FTSE 100 CEOs, lawyers, judges, senior clinicians, MPs, journalists etc who emerge from the 7% who had a private education. Only in the UK would two Oscar nominated actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, get media headlines about where they went to school.

Indicated action?

Employers who measure these dimensions and use the information to demonstrate a broader range are likely to enhance their ability to attract brilliance from all backgrounds. It will be harder work and they will need to change graduate recruitment attitudes and stop fishing in the same gene pool. Many will still lurk behind meritocratic statements that tell you nothing. What have they got to hide?