Monthly Archives: June 2015

Internships, poshness tests and the “class ceiling”

A couple of stories on similar lines in the last few weeks have me thinking about the extent to  which the law can really address some of the most important social barriers to people achieving their potential when it comes to work and pay.

The first story was a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which found that employers in banks, and large law and accountancy firms use recruitment practices that are skewed towards those who have been to selective or fee paying schools, had the right accents and had travelled extensively. (I know. I fell off my chair too.)

The second story was that a BBC employee had been found to be in breach of internal BBC standards by engaging in “intern swapping”. Despite sounding like a complicated form of workplace sexual harassment, intern swapping transpires to be well connected parents offering each other’s children cool internships with each other’s employers or businesses. This is brilliant if your dad is a barrister or media producer, but possibly less useful if your mum works on the supermarket checkout.

Is it any surprise that parents do what they can to get their kids the best opportunities? Of course not. And is it surprising that large business use indicators such as schools or universities and internships as a sort of shorthand kitemark for quality? Not really. Obviously, using these indicators is thought to save time and money. There is little doubt that your chances of a good career are greatly improved if your parents are wealthy and well connected. That’s not their fault of course, but it may mean that it could push other worthy graduates further down the queue – though the owner of the intern swapping website insists that it is not a “zero-sum game”.

The other issue is – for those who do get through from “other” backgrounds, how do they feel when they get to the corporate environment and the prevailing accent and background doesn’t match theirs? If you didn’t have massive reserves of confidence to start with, it’s an easy matter to lose heart and decide that you don’t belong somewhere.  So even if you get through the recruitment phase, it doesn’t end there.

Is this a legal or an HR issue? Maybe both. From a legal perspective, the Equality Act contains the public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities, as yet unenacted by the government. Is it time to do so? While I can’t imagine it troubling the social pecking order in the graduate market any time soon, it might be good to get the issue of redressing socioeconomic inequality more firmly onto the public agenda, which might make jobseekers better equipped.

It’s an HR issue because if you’re just relying on recruiters appointing people like themselves, is this really getting the best of the market that’s out there? What if the cure for cancer (or, if you prefer a more obviously economics-based example, the formula for making lots of money for an investment bank) is locked inside a kid who didn’t do a gap year in the Gambia? That’s not just an issue for the kid, it’s an issue for the employer and society too.

So should we care? I would argue that it’s in everyone’s interest that we do. We should confront our prejudices for everyone’s benefit and try to address them with more creative ways of digging down to find the right candidates. I’m going to put myself out there with some ideas.

  • Legislating for payment for internships where the length exceeds 1 month or where not required as part of an education course
  • Public speaking to be emphasised in the state school system (maybe it is these days, but it wasn’t when I was at school)
  • Mentoring, mentoring, mentoring – at school, at university and on the job

Do you have any to add?

Alison Humphry
(given that this blog is more than usually opinionated, I thought I should make clear that these thoughts are my own and not necessarily those of Workwise Legal or any of my colleagues)