How can recruitment drive social mobility?

Former Labour minister Alan Milburn recently urged professions to extend their recruitment efforts to attract a more diverse talent pool. But some are making greater progress than others, says Justin Kopelowitz of DMJ Recruitment.

Professions such as law, medicine and journalism really must do more to widen their intake to include individuals from a diverse background. That was the message from Alan Milburn in his recent report on social mobility.

Without doubt, the subject of diversity is a newsworthy one, so it is perhaps no surprise that the issue is firmly on the political agenda. But are those making the most noise instituting meaningful change, or simply engaging in nothing more than a PR campaign? In many cases, I suspect the latter.

Commercial imperative

Opening up any type of business to all individuals – regardless of their background – ought to be a commercial imperative. Car maker Ford learnt that lesson the hard way several years ago when it attempted to target an ethnic-minority market for a newly launched van. The problem it faced was that no member of its marketing department came from this minority. Yet when its head of diversity stepped in and deployed a project team made up of individuals who did, the resulting campaign worked.

This simple case study proves why diversity is so important when it comes to selling a product, and in today’s global economy it’s just as vital to the selling of professional services.

Changes to the media in recent years have resulted in the profession being dominated by experienced freelancers rather than the Oxbridge alumni of Milburn’s university days, so perhaps it could be argued that the profession is more diverse than Milburn implies. And if politicians wish to really diversify the medical profession they should perhaps be the ones to take the lead. After all, almost all doctors trained in the UK will do so within the NHS, and not the private sector.

Improving diversity

So, what can the private sector do about improving diversity in highly sought-after and well-rewarded professions such as accountancy and law? The accountancy profession is one of the most advanced when we talk about a diverse workforce, and this achievement appears to stem from the international nature of the profession. Diversity initiatives were spearheaded in the US many years ago and have been rolled out across the large accountancy firms the world over. PwC, for example, has a programme known as Minority Circles – including women’s networking circles, parenting circles, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) circles – and has clear and enforced diversity policies as an integral part of its recruitment strategy.

The legal profession is clearly taking steps to diversify, yet I believe it to be far behind its accounting counterpart. When we recently opened up the social-mobility debate to some of the UK’s most senior lawyers and education experts – during a panel discussion with international law firm King & Spalding – the consensus was that, while some firms were spreading their nets more widely at graduate level, they needed to engage with a potentially diverse workforce further down the education pipeline. One panel member, Suzanne Rab – a partner at King & Spalding – had first-hand experience, coming from a background where access to careers in a profession was far from easy, and shared her views on what the legal profession might do to promote greater social inclusion.

“Closed” culture

Rab attended Oxford University – something she was able to do via grants and scholarships – but she still believes that the “closed” culture inherent in many firms today is a major problem. “The harder part is tackling a culture that may be pre-disposed to people from more traditional backgrounds or ‘people like us’,” she says. “While some firms have shown a willingness to adjust their recruitment policies – to screen for innate intellectual capabilities as well as paper qualifications – eroding this culture requires those in senior positions to speak out on the issue and to be advocates of change in what they say and do.”

True diversity in any profession may only come when the “commercial imperative”makes its impact, adds Rab: “Perhaps one factor that could contribute to eroding this culture would be if a firm’s social-mobility policies and practices were more prominent when clients were seeking to establish a law firm’s credentials when making hiring or panel selection decisions. We are increasingly asked in requests for proposals about our track record on corporate social responsibility and diversity in other areas such as gender representation, so already issues beyond technical legal skills and experience can be a competitive differentiator. Ultimately, if firms can prove that having a more socially diverse workforce can increase revenues and the firm’s performance, this can only contribute to elevating this issue among the more sceptical.”

Justin Kopelowitz is director at DMJ Recruitment

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