Breaking through the class ceiling – how employers should improve recruitment practices

19 January, 2017

This week saw the publication of report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social mobility, following its inquiry into access to leading professions such as law, finance, medicine and journalism.


A key recommendation from the report is that a prohibition on unpaid internships should be introduced. Unpaid internships are viewed as a significant financial barrier to accessing professions, particularly the most competitive and those primarily concentrated in London.  This is in addition to those situations where the use of unpaid internships would contravene minimum wage legislation.  The report recommends that employers should ensure that all internships, and any other work experience opportunities, are advertised publicly, with recruitment based on merit rather than networks.

Access to internships and work experience is a critical issue where increasingly recruiters favour experience as much as aptitude, and tend to recruit particularly from those who have already had work experience with their organisation. For example recent analysis found that over 55% of law vacancies and over 50% of banking and finance vacancies are filled by graduates who have already worked for the employer in some capacity.

Research by the Sutton Trust in 2014 found that 31% of university graduates working as interns were doing so without pay. In some sectors such as the media and creative sectors over half of advertised internships were unpaid, which inherently made it difficult for those who could not rely on family support to enter those professions.

The report observed that the networking effect on recruitment contributes to a clustering of affluent people in top professions, especially the privately educated elite, exacerbated by a tendency of recruiting managers to recruit in their own image and to focus unduly on perceived “cultural fit”. The interaction between networking, clustering and organisational culture was for example identified as a particular challenge to access into investment banking.

Contextual recruitment

The report also advocates the use of “contextual recruitment”, in which employers look at the achievements of candidates in context to their social background, for example taking into account the reduced opportunities for extra-curricular activities which candidates from disadvantaged neighbourhoods and under-performing schools may have. They should recognise that skills such as resilience and self-motivation can be difficult to acquire for those who have had minimal exposure to extra-curricular activities, work experience or mentoring.

Other recommendations

The other key recommendations of the report are:

  • Developing a strategic approach to social mobility in order to solve the issues preventing fair access to the leading professions
  • Adopting fair and transparent recruitment practices, encouraging best practice with regards to widening access and breaking down the barriers which graduates face when transitioning from higher education to employment 
  • A significant improvement to the quality of careers advice for young people
  • Within schools, the encouragement of pupils to develop “soft skills” beyond their core curriculum which are keenly sought after by employers, such as resilience, confidence, social skills and self-motivation.

The report makes a number of recommendations specific to the professional sectors which the inquiry had looked at. It also comments on wider issues which impact on social mobility such as educational attainment and access to higher education.

An overriding message from the report is that there is a clear business rationale for employers to improve diversity through their recruitment practices. Employers ultimately stand to benefit from harnessing the broader experience, skills and potential of the country as a whole and not just their established recruitment pools.