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Social mobilty: The Essential guide for recruiters

Social mobilty: The Essential guide for recruiters

The circumstances you are presented within life influence how you move through the social strata of society. Unfortunately, some people have greater access to life-changing opportunities than others — and that’s inequality in a nutshell.

In this guide, we’ll dig deep into the topic of social mobility and how hiring managers and recruiters can help disadvantaged groups break through.


Inequalities in all walks of life have been magnified over the last few years, and the gaps between wealth and deprivation are wider than ever.

Social mobility is the ability to traverse this gap — it’s the degree to which an individual or group’s status can change over the course of their lifetime, through a system of social hierarchy.

🗯 "Social mobility is the ability to traverse this gap — it’s the degree to which an individual or group’s status can change over the course of their lifetime, through a system of social hierarchy."

In sociological terms, the main types of social mobility are:

Vertical mobility

When a change in job role or career impacts the overall social status of an individual, this can be ascending mobilities — their social status is strengthened by a better job title, for example — or descending mobility — their social status is weakened through job loss or filing for bankruptcy.

Horizontal mobility

Not all professional changes lead to a shift in status. For example, horizontal mobility is when a person changes their occupation, but their social standing remains the same.

Upward mobility

This is when a person ascends from one position in society to another.

Downward Mobility

As we’ve seen, it’s also possible to descend in social status. Downward mobility refers to losing respect or reputation and experiencing a dramatic decline in social standing.

Inter-generational mobility

Looking through a more macro lens, intergenerational mobility is the phenomenon of changing social position from one generation to another.

Intra-generational mobility

Conversely, intragenerational mobility is when an individual or group of individuals experiences social mobility over the span of a single generation — between brothers and sisters, for example.

A brief history of social mobility

The phrase ‘social mobility’ was coined by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian-born sociologist. Over his lifetime, Sorokin wrote over thirty books, including Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941), Social Mobility (1927-1941).

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that social mobility was picked up by other social historians and academics. And in 1987, William Julius Wilson built on the concept of social mobility when he presented ‘neighborhood sorting’ — offering one of the earliest views of social mobility in urban settings.

It took longer still for social mobility to be considered within the professional sphere. SMF’s Employer Index was first introduced in 2017, ranking companies for how inclusive and accessible they are for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

PwC was awarded the top position in 2020, with companies like KPMG, Penguin Random House UK, Penguin Random House UK, and Goldman Sachs also making the top 75.

Vertical and upward social mobility — is it open to everyone?

Positive vertical or upward social mobility is the “American dream” in action: you work hard, you stick to your country’s core social values, and you reap the rewards. The opportunity to achieve your own destiny without barriers is positive social mobility epitomized — people can move ‘up’ or ‘down’ the social ladder, based on how they live their life. 

For example, if a child with a low Socioeconomic Status (SES) does well at school and goes to university or works their way up in an entry-level job, they may go on to get a well-paid job. That wealth will elevate them out of the group that their parents are in. 

🗯 For example, if a child with a low Socioeconomic Status (SES) does well at school and goes to university or works their way up in an entry-level job, they may go on to get a well-paid job. That wealth will elevate them out of the group that their parents are in. 

Likewise, that person may meet influential peers who are well-connected and give them confidence and opportunity to succeed. They may get married to someone wealthy, too. So, social status — who your friends are and who you are connected to — is a significant indication of social mobility. 

Making friends, succeeding at school and work, and earning money are all key. And because of this, you could say that some people have a greater chance of achieving vertical and upward mobility than others...

Social mobility and inequality are entirely interlinked

Social mobility is more attainable for some people than others. Certain factors keep individuals “stuck” and underprivileged — poor health and poverty often go hand-in-hand, as do low literacy rates and ethnicity. 

It’s hard to do well at school and make friends if you don’t speak the same language as everyone else. The same can be said if you have a disability or you need to take a lot of time off to care for someone or be cared for yourself. 

Essentially, some people will be held back by their circumstances — regardless of how hard they try. 

These people will find fewer opportunities in life. That is unless we, as societies and organizations, make more effort to include them.

What happens when we consider intersectionality too?

So far, we’ve talked about social mobility in terms of race, nationality, privilege, and financial standing. But social mobility is complex and affects individuals at intersectional levels too, making gender, ethnicity, and disability an equally important part of the conversation. 

You may remarry, for example, change jobs, go bankrupt, get ill…or all of these things at once. The picture is likely to be very different for an affluent white male than a disabled woman of color with a lower Socioeconomic Status (SES). 

Because of these intersections, the complete picture of social mobility and its effects is often more of a prism than a rainbow. You can change, as will people’s perception of you, in big and small ways, but you aren’t necessarily moving ‘up’ or ‘down’. Inequality tends to affect people whose lives are complicated, with various issues that intersect with each other.


What are the 4 main drivers of social mobility?

  1. Wealth

    e.g. income, accumulated wealth, and assets. These are the biggest indicators of social mobility today.

  2. Culture

    Including further education or holding a position of authority within a cultural sphere. This type of social mobility is less well defined and depends on the society that the person sits within — some societies value culture or closeness to rituals and beliefs, over wealth and physical assets.

  3. Human capital

    How you are perceived — if you are a figure of authority, trust, or competence — which can relate to work, family, or social standing.

  4. Social capital

    Your network — opening up avenues to wealth, employment, expertise, and the tools to acquire wealth and status.

Regardless of where you live or your background, wealth is the most prominent marker and allows people to move between religious, educational, social, and political groups fast.

Meaning, wealth (or lack of it) is also the driver that can keep people ‘down’ in a low socioeconomic group.

Social mobility statistics from across the world

According to the Sutton Trust, in the top UK earning professions:

In Britain, people in the top-paying jobs are five times more likely to have attended a private school  than the general population

The gender pay gap averages at £10,000 a year

People with disabilities from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are about three times less likely to be in a job

British people of color from working-class backgrounds earn on average £11,000 less a year

In the legal sector, entry-level employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to be the highest performers in their firms

Nordic countries are showing how it is done

The World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index 2020 provides a much-needed assessment of the current state of social mobility worldwide. And it’s no real surprise that the Nordic countries score highest for social mobility — with Denmark, Norway, and Finland ranked highest, respectively.

This is because of their fair and excellent education systems, good working conditions, and quality social welfare. 

It gets a little depressing after that. Unfortunately, most other countries do not have the right social conditions to foster social mobility — they underperform in fair wages, social protection, working conditions, and lifelong learning. 

Simply put, the lack of social mobility in the US (ranked 27th) and the UK (ranked 21st) means that historically disadvantaged people cannot escape the inequalities that they were born with. 

And that (should be) a huge wake-up call for organizations operating in these markets.

Social mobility in the workplace

We know now that people can move ‘up’ through society away from the cards they were dealt at birth. But what does this look like in a professional environment?

In its simplest form, social mobility in the workplace is when someone progresses through the ranks through hard work, talent, or networking. It can also refer to the professional opportunities people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are afforded in the first place.

Of course, talent should thrive regardless of background. But as we’ve all experienced or witnessed at work, there’s no shortage of barriers preventing people from moving ‘up’ at work or even being hired in the first place. Inbuilt assumptions or discriminations within the system can both be blockers here. 

Understanding social mobility at work

Ever wondered why some of your employees are socially confident and popular... but underperform against expectations? And at the same time, others are hardworking and diligent… but don’t fit into the group dynamic? 

Both people could be equally qualified for the job and yet their background means they interact with the work and the people in entirely different ways. Unfortunately, it is most likely that those with a powerful social network and expensive education behind them will find a path to success. They may also find it easier than those that keep their heads down and just get on with it. 

It’s a hard truth, but it’s true even in 2021. The way we have been brought up, how fortunate we have been financially, with our health, or with our family, plays into our future success at work.

What can managers do?

As a manager, it is crucial to understand these issues and recognize how to keep your work culture fair so that everyone can succeed. 

Are you compounding the UK’s class issue by limiting social mobility in the workplace? Managers need to be trained on and aware of all classifications within diversity, including SES, and recognizing and facilitating social mobility in the workplace. 

As the socioeconomic background is a key part of someone’s identity, it should be treated as a protected characteristic at work.

What is a protected characteristic?

It is against the law to discriminate against someone as a result of their protected characteristics. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, protected characteristics include:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex and gender reassignment
  • Sexual orientation

If you see an employee or colleague or candidate being treated differently because of the above — or, indeed, as a reflection of their SES — you should speak out.

The UK’s Equality Act 2010 and US federal employment law protects people from these forms of discrimination.

Social mobility in recruitment and hiring

Have you reviewed your hiring process recently and spotted any of the following?

  • You only receive applications from people from privileged backgrounds 
  • All of your applicants have degrees or similar academic qualifications 
  • Your senior leadership and interview panel members are all from privileged backgrounds. 

It happens all too often — either as a result of entrenched workplace discrimination or because social mobility hasn’t been given the spotlight it deserves.

But now that we’re aware of the issue, how do you ensure that your organization attracts people from all socioeconomic backgrounds?

How to attract a broader range of candidates

For all new recruitment drives, it’s important to think about how you advertise. People with lower SESs may not have access to regular WiFi to see new vacancy updates. They may not even know about your organization if they move in different circles.

Advertise far and wide

and put information out on social networks, job bulletin boards, and with local job search agencies.

Work directly with schools, universities, and youth organizations

Tell them about your business and the opportunities for early talent within it.

Don’t just hire from elite universities and institutions

— you want to attract people with talent, not privilege. 

Cast the net a little further than your own borough or neighborhood

depending on where that is. Some areas are better served than others with job opportunities and people will travel for a good job — especially if you offer financial compensation to cover the recruitment process and their eventual move, if they get the job.

💡 Use Headstart to find hidden talent

Headstart’s bespoke and bias-free recruitment software features a reliable candidate evaluation tool, Match Score.

Match Score works behind the scenes assigning a ‘score’ to each candidate’s skills, experience, and requirements against the role. It also allows us to estimate a candidate’s socioeconomic background, pulling data from a range of sources such as a parent's education level and their post/area code during their teenage years.

headstart match score - ats tech

A candidate’s Match Score takes into account their hard and soft skills, as well as the journey they’ve been through in life. Let’s say, for example, a new grad “only” got a 2.2 or third, because they supported themselves through university by working three part-time jobs. Does that say they are, or aren’t, capable of performing in the role?

Headstart’s contextualization tools also help reduce bias around poor academic results or lack of professional experience. 

Ask: does this role really need a degree-level qualification?

What is the most important attribute this employee needs to have? Is it a degree in Physics or hands-on experience managing a team? 

If educational background is still a priority, then consider what it is about a degree that adds value to the job. Do hires need subject expertise that can only be mastered in an academic setting? Then that’s a good reason. Are you assuming that if they’ve sat many years of exams then they’ll be good under pressure? If so, you should probably think again. 

Eliminating the requirement for a degree will level the playing field hugely for people from all backgrounds.

Define ‘experience’ for entry-level candidates

It’s not uncommon to see job ads requiring a minimum of 3 year’s industry experience for entry-level roles. What message does that give to less-confident candidates — the ones who have had life turn against them more than once before?

What’s needed here is a healthy dose of realism. Hiring staff need to realize that entry-level means entry-level. And that early talent candidates can show potential and experience in myriad other ways, too.

  • Consider apprenticeships and internships as entry-level placements. Successful candidates can learn on the job and so should be selected on attitude, potential, and the varied experience they have had to date.
  • A candidate from a lower SES may not have had the contacts, time, or financial safety net needed to complete unpaid work experience. Therefore, it’s important to assess all of the candidate’s experience, in whatever form, and look at how it could be relevant to the job.
  • Candidates from more affluent backgrounds will probably have had some work experience and connections, as well as strong academic scores. But this does not necessarily mean they will be better in the role.
  • Don’t judge the candidate’s work experience or achievements during 2020-2021. The coronavirus pandemic unfairly affected people from more deprived backgrounds, who lost out on work and education for many reasons, such as caring responsibilities, bereavement, and illness.

Question the make-up of your interview panel

Inviting a guest panellist can ensure fairness and disrupt unconscious bias. Introduce someone that the other interviewers are not familiar with. Bonus points if this colleague comes from a different background to the other panellists, to provide a diversity of viewpoints.

How to nurture a diverse pipeline

You may find that the drop-off rate for candidates from some socioeconomic backgrounds is high. But the solution is not to drive up the applications from marginalized groups to ‘help rebalance the numbers’.

It’s more important to identify and provide extra support to the candidates that are in the talent pipeline.

DO Ensure that your job descriptions describe the wide range of experiences and backgrounds you’re looking for. This will encourage more people to apply without ‘traditional’ qualifications and be clear about interview expectations. Some people from underrepresented backgrounds may be too nervous about coming without a proper briefing.
DO Set up a support line or contact number and make it available for all candidates if they need it. Some candidates may not have a support network of their own — leaving simple questions unanswered and knocking their confidence to apply. Don’t let this be a hurdle that stops them altogether.
DO Think about the expense of coming to an interview and offer to cover that for all candidates For some people, the embarrassment of not being able to afford the transport costs will stop them from even applying.

🗯 Remember: everyone is their own type of genius and your hiring process shouldn't just cater to one.

Career progression for socioeconomically diverse hires

It’s also worth considering the opportunities for new employees to progress once they have started the job. What happens next? 

An entry-level job won’t always guarantee a promotion at the end of it. But a transparent route to the next level will keep people interested, engaged, and assured — as will opportunities to move ‘sideways’ to new business areas instead.

This is social mobility in the workplace 101 and should definitely be encouraged!

💡 Track your pipeline drop-offs

Track your pipeline drop-offs

Where are you losing applicants and why? We track and review this data with Headstart’s Rejection & Withdrawal Analytics. 

Our tool makes it possible to pinpoint specific areas in the hiring process where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are dropping off. Armed with those insights, you can then step back and redesign a process that’s inclusive for all involved.

Social mobility action points beyond the hiring process

Asides from revolutionizing your hiring process, these are the things you can do to support social mobility at work:

Collect social mobility data

Data is the key to progress and real change — you can’t argue with it, after all! Data will keep you abreast of how your workforce represents the population and how successful you are at promoting diversity within your organization. It is also a legal requirement that makes you accountable. 

If you are serious about your DEI policies, then data is key.

Start to assess the socioeconomic backgrounds of your workforce by looking at gaps in applications and hires

Put together detailed data on where low SES meets disability, gender, ethnicity, and so on.

Assess every level of employee in your workforce from the top down, to see if there is an issue with retention or promotion of people with low SES.

Look at pay gaps between people at the same level.

Continue tracking progress over time.

Provide ongoing support

Employees may need support to build a network and a route to success through your organization. That’ll be particularly true if they haven’t got the experience or confidence to do so themselves. 

You can help them with:

  • Buddy and mentoring systems are easy and effective ways of helping people through a new job, promotion, or difficult time. A formalized system will avoid people from mentoring or championing people from the same SES as them (and suffering from like-me bias).
  • Informal support systems, mock interviews, and coaching for people who want to go for promotions, but don’t have the confidence to do so.

Consider social mobility during internal promotions

Dealing with internal applications is fraught with politics, and it’s always harder to lead a fair interview process when you know the person you are talking to. 

Robust systems and scoring criteria — and a completely transparent hiring process — will make this process easier and give everyone the chance that they deserve.

Make internal job application processes transparent and formal; nothing should be said: “off the record”.

Recognize people’s abilities outside of interviews when considering specific candidates. Psychometric testing, for example, is less stressful than an interview and will give a good overview of cognitive skills and attributes in specific areas.

Be clear about the skills required as well as the experience necessary to do the job.

Ensure interview questions are specific and that they are graded fairly, with the same scorability for all candidates.

Socially aware hiring put in to practice

We’ve spent a lot of time unpacking the theory of social mobility and how it can be encouraged — or restricted — in a professional setting, so now’s the time to upskill and prepare for action.

Lastly, let’s look at answering the questions and uncertainties many hiring teams face when recruiting with social mobility in mind.

How can I assess a candidate’s SES for myself?

Below are the most valuable indicators of SES — plus questions you can ask without stepping out of line and getting too personal. Rest assured, people are getting used to seeing these on applications now, just as they are used to stating their sexuality and religious background.

And if we’re going to push for change, then we need to push our comfort zones too.

Occupation of parents

or more specifically, “What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were around 14 years old?”  What your parents did is closely related to what you will end up doing in the future.

Educational background

e.g. “What school did you go to?”. People generally go to state-run (comprehensive), independent, or fee-paying (private) schools. If the candidate attended a fee-paying school, did they have a bursary to support their education?

Parent’s education level

e.g. “Did either of your parents get a degree?”. If your parents were college- or university-educated, it’s more likely they will encourage you into further education.

Eligibility for free school meals

would indicate if the candidate’s parents qualified for benefits when they were at school. Don’t worry if the question “Did you have access to free school meals as a child?” seems random and even outdated. It is, in fact, a good indicator of low socioeconomic background. And, more importantly, it also starts a tactful conversation around SES — and that’s the most important thing.

What can I do to put social mobility on the map, company-wide?

Some of our partner organizations have signed up to the UK’s Social Mobility Pledge — as have hundreds of companies across the country. Often, using the halo effect of an “organized” movement is enough to make colleagues sit up and pay attention.

How should we manage mitigating circumstances caused by the pandemic?

Some experienced professionals may have been let go from long-standing jobs. University and college graduates sat isolated in their studio rooms. To put it simply: we all deserve a little wiggle room if we don't perform our best. But those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds suffered the most.

For early talent in particular, let go of the academic parameters you have in place when recruiting grads from ‘20 and ‘21 — their final grades simply won’t be indicative of what they can achieve.

Worse still, the attainment gap will be significant

Those who had access to high-quality online education and a quiet space to study in will likely have better grades. And those who share a bedroom with their sibling and only received 2 hours of lecturer contact time a week will appear the lower achiever.


headstart ats Match Score and Rejection & Withdrawal Analytics

It’s time to step up as an inclusive organization

As an industry leader, you need to access that wider talent pool and offer opportunities to people regardless of socioeconomic background. A workplace with a diversity of experience and viewpoints will be reflected in ideas, solutions, and revenue, as well as producing the next generation of game-changing leadership.

Drive social mobility + uncover hidden talent

See Headstart's Match Score and Rejection & Withdrawal Analytics

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