7 ways to tackle barriers to social mobility at work

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Despite women making up nearly half of the US workforce, they hold only a third of executive roles in the S&P 500. [1] Ethnic minorities are also greatly underrepresented in leadership and executive positions, and there’s hardly any data on how many leaders come from a low socioeconomic background. [2]

This information alone highlights that social mobility at work needs some serious work. In fact, only 9% of companies think about it at all in their diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) initiatives. [3]

Opportunities for career advancement shouldn’t be reserved for a select few privileged groups. But barriers exist within the world of work that prevent talented individuals from growing and often shut them out before they’ve gotten their foot in the door.

Tackling these barriers is key to a more inclusive and equitable workplace – which is beneficial for your employees and your business.

In this article, we'll look at these barriers and offer seven actionable strategies to tear them down.

The difference between equality, equity, and inclusion

Nurturing social mobility at work involves promoting equality, equity, and inclusion, so it’s essential to understand what each term means and how they differ. 

Here’s a simple way to look at them:

  • Equality means treating everyone the same way and providing them with the same resources, regardless of their unique needs.  

  • Equity is about giving individuals the specific resources they need to have the same opportunities or achieve the same goals as others.

  • Inclusion involves ensuring everyone feels seen, heard, valued, and welcome where they are – no matter their background, differences, or the support they need.

Let’s look at an example to put the terms into context. 

Imagine a wall that a group of people wants to see over. Equality gives everyone the same box to stand on, but not everyone can see over the wall. Equity gives shorter people more boxes, so everyone has the same view. Inclusion involves making everyone feel included and okay with needing more or fewer boxes. 

So, what exactly is social mobility?

Social mobility refers to an individual’s ability to move up in their career or economic or social status, independent of their background. Low social mobility means people’s futures are closely tied to their starting points, while high social mobility means they have a fair shot at success based on their talents and efforts, not their circumstances.

In other words, using our previous example, social mobility is about removing the wall so nothing is blocking the view for anyone.

Unfortunately, despite employers’ best intentions, the workplace is full of walls. These walls represent the challenges, biases, and inequalities that hold people back based on where they come from. 

Social barrier examples

Common social barriers include:

  • Socioeconomic backgrounds - People from less affluent backgrounds often struggle to get the same job opportunities and promotions as others because they lack connections, experience, and resources.

  • Educational access and work balance - Accessing quality education or having to work while in education is a challenge that can stall career progress from the start.

  • Lack of representation, mentorship, and networking - Without seeing people like themselves in leadership roles or having access to mentorship or networking opportunities, individuals from underrepresented groups may feel out of place and unsure of their potential. 

  • Discriminatory hiring practices - Both overt discrimination, such as bias against ethnic-sounding names during hiring, and subtler discrimination, like recruitment tests that disadvantage people with disabilities, can close doors for candidates before they even open. 

  • Unconscious bias – Automatic assumptions about someone’s abilities based on their background or personal circumstances can unfairly limit candidates’ and employees’ potential for success. 

  • Personal health and caregiving responsibilities – Individuals managing physical or mental health conditions can struggle to maintain or advance their careers. Likewise, those who must care for family members or loved ones often face challenges balancing work with their caregiving responsibilities, making it hard to move up the career ladder.

7 strategies to encourage social mobility in the workplace

As an HR professional, it’s your duty to help knock down the barriers to social mobility. Below, we’ll discuss seven strategies to level the playing field and ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in your workplace.

  1. Address and minimize unconscious biases

  2. Go beyond surface-level statistics

  3. Use mentorship – but not how you think

  4. Cast an even wider net during recruitment

  5. Be ultra-transparent with salaries and benefits

  6. Refine your hiring and assessment approaches

  7. Make employees feel welcome from day one

1. Address and minimize unconscious biases

The first step to fostering social mobility in your workplace is addressing and minimizing unconscious biases that you and your colleagues have. 

These are the subconscious, automatic attitudes and stereotypes – good or bad – that people hold about certain groups based on their characteristics or social identifiers. 

For example, you might unconsciously favor or disfavor people based on their: 

  • Age

  • Race

  • Gender 

  • Religion

  • Marital status

  • Educational background

  • Socioeconomic status

  • Physical appearance

  • Accent

In recruitment, unconscious biases act as an invisible barrier. They can skew decision-making in job interviews, promotion review meetings, pay discussions, and even who to put forth for the next big project or learning opportunity. 

Here’s what you and your colleagues can do to figure out your unconscious biases and begin eliminating them:

Learn about the types of bias

This way, you and your team can self-reflect and see if your actions align with any biases. For example, you might realize you’re prone to affinity bias. This is where you favor individuals with similar backgrounds, experiences, or characteristics – such as those who attended your alma mater. 

Or, perhaps a colleague demonstrates the halo/horns effect, favoring or disfavoring people based on their physical appearance. (Read our guide on the different types of bias for more information.) 

Check for bias in your job descriptions

Using biased or discriminatory language in your job descriptions can discourage diverse candidates from applying for a role in the first place. Take this sentence, for example: “We’re looking for a young and dynamic team member to join our startup.” This will instantly deter “older” candidates from applying, including those who could have been an excellent fit. 

Similarly, look out for gender biases such as “Need a strong sales leader,” where “strong” can imply “male,” and cultural biases such as “Must be a native English speaker” instead of simply specifying the need for verbal and written fluency. 

Finally, while it’s not a bias per se, being too specific with requirements such as an “Ivy League degree” can be needlessly limiting. Screen your job descriptions carefully and ensure they focus on the skills required for the role rather than social identifiers. 

Roll out bias awareness training

Training is the best way to learn about the biases that affect hiring, promotions, and day-to-day interactions at work. Many companies make the mistake of only training their senior leaders and decision-makers. 

However, an individual’s direct reports and peers also play a key role in helping them grow. For instance, promotion decisions are often made using feedback from the entire team. At TestGorilla, we believe that it’s important for every employee to learn about biases to truly eliminate social mobility barriers. 

Consider rolling out the following bias awareness training to your workforce: 

  • Unconscious bias training: This helps employees learn about the different unconscious biases and includes exercises to reveal their own preferences and prejudices. It also provides strategies to mitigate biases and microaggressions. 

  • Diversity and inclusion training: Here, employees learn about the value of diverse and inclusive teams. Case studies and live team-building activities can provide first-hand insights into how different perspectives can lead to better business outcomes.

  • Bystander intervention training: Help your workforce learn how to intervene safely and professionally if they witness acts of bias or discrimination. This type of training empowers individuals to act in support of coworkers and helps create a safe space for everyone. 

2. Go beyond surface-level statistics

High-level statistics about social mobility – like women holding only 10.9% of senior leadership positions in tech – tell you that there’s work to be done. But they don’t tell you what work needs to be done at your company

To make meaningful progress, get granular with statistics. Data at the organizational and team level can help you understand specific social mobility barriers and create evidence-backed action plans to improve DE&I in your workplace. 

Here are some statistics to dive into. 

Segmented representation analysis

Break down employees’ demographic data across different parameters. For instance, view representation across different levels – such as leadership, middle management, and entry-level positions – to spot areas of concern. 

Additionally, you can see how diverse employees are spread across different departments. This information can help identify which areas need more attention in hiring or retaining diverse employees. 

Employee lifecycle analysis

Analyze your diversity metrics through different stages of the employee lifecycle. 

Examining representation during hiring might highlight a lack of diversity in your initial applicant pool, encouraging you to reassess your job descriptions. Or, you could find that diverse candidates tend to be rejected in the resume screening stage, perhaps due to unconscious biases

In our discussion with HR expert Yashna Wahal, she also suggested looking at years of service metrics as an indicator of employee satisfaction. “If you find that certain groups stay longer than others, you must revisit your inclusion strategies,” Wahal said. 

Finally, evaluate data from exit interviews to spot any themes around diverse employee exits. 

Pay equity audits

Conduct thorough pay equity audits to identify any differences in compensation that can’t be explained by role, experience, performance, or other merit-based factors. In doing this, many companies are already working toward reducing the gender wage gap. 

At TestGorilla, we don’t think it should stop there. Extend this to include age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and other factors so every employee is paid fairly.  

Employee surveys

Employee engagement, satisfaction, or pulse surveys are excellent ways to capture employee sentiments for different demographics. You may find, for example, that more women report low mental well-being and work-life balance compared to men. This insight can spur you to create strategies that better support women through flexible work policies, mental health benefits, etc.  

Learning and development metrics

A recent study found that employees from low-income backgrounds have to learn new cultural norms as they move up within their companies, as there’s a mismatch between their backgrounds and expected work cultures. 

If you don’t provide adequate training and coaching to these individuals, you’re perpetuating the cultural mismatch and setting them up for failure. 

Therefore, it’s critical to study participation rates in your training and development programs and ensure that you provide your diverse groups with leadership training, skills development workshops, and even mentorship or sponsorship opportunities that can help them succeed. 

Individual level data

Track the career progression of employees from underrepresented groups to understand their mobility within the company. 

Look at statistics on promotions and the average time between promotions. Also, analyze internal moves, including expat work opportunities. One study, for example, showed that internal job moves – particularly moves to other locations – improved career advancement outcomes for employees. 

Fixing issues at an individual level will help you improve overall social mobility statistics within your company. 

3. Use mentorship – but not in the way you think

Read any “How to Improve Diversity in the Workplace” article, and it’s likely that one of the methods will involve mentorship. While mentorship can be positive, you have to do it right if you want to promote inclusion and social mobility. 

For example, partnering a young, ethnic minority intern from a poor socioeconomic background with a CEO who comes from a wealthy family and owns three homes simply won’t ‌work in the traditional sense. 

The CEO is unlikely to be able to relate to the intern’s workplace experiences and the barriers they might face. This isn’t the CEO’s fault – they’re a product of their socioeconomic background, too. However, their lack of lived experience of the other person’s struggles may lead them to give unhelpful or even damaging advice.

As HR expert Yashna Wahal explains, “A mentor might tell an employee to ‘speak up more assertively during meetings’ to be recognized. While well-intentioned, the mentor may not realize that in the mentee’s cultural background, speaking assertively might come across as aggressive or disrespectful.”

Instead of a traditional mentoring program, use reverse mentorship. This is where younger or less-experienced employees mentor senior colleagues on topics such as emerging trends, cultural shifts, and the challenges of being underrepresented in the workplace. 

This promotes knowledge sharing and empowers individuals from underrepresented groups to take on leadership roles, fostering a more inclusive workplace. 

4. Cast an even wider net during recruitment

The reality is traditional sourcing methods often reinforce the barriers you’re trying to break down. To truly champion social mobility, you must look farther and wider for potential candidates.

Take inspiration from the legal sector, which legal writer Kate Stacey states is shaking up the “old boys’ club mentality” and finding candidates from more diverse sources. 

“One of the most effective ways law firms can support social mobility is through measures targeting universities,” she explains. “These include broadening their locations for on-campus interviewing, forming partnerships with underrepresented law schools, and participating in seminars and career fairs to promote post-graduate hiring programs more broadly.”

Here are some steps you can take to widen your recruitment net and promote social mobility:

Go beyond online job boards

Posting open roles exclusively online excludes the 43 million Americans who don’t have access to the internet at home. While this may be a choice for some, it may be an economic barrier for others. 

Cater to these individuals by partnering with local community centers, libraries, and educational institutions to advertise job openings. You can even use local radio stations and newspapers to share details about your open positions.

Rethink your job requirements

Determine whether listings for your open roles inadvertently favor candidates from more privileged backgrounds or who have had more opportunities or access to resources. For example, does your ideal candidate for a particular role truly need a four-year degree?

Set up virtual job fairs

Socioeconomic status and physical location can prevent many job-seekers from gaining employment with companies in larger, more connected cities. Consider creating an online career fair targeting individuals in regions with limited access to traditional job markets, such as rural areas of southern and midwestern states. 

Participate in outreach programs

If you’re posting your job openings on the same portals and getting your employees to share with friends and colleagues, you’re likely not reaching underserved communities – and will miss out on a huge pool of talent as a result. 

To get in front of STARs (individuals who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes) and those from low-income backgrounds, connect through outreach programs.

For example, partner with Mi Casa Resource Center, Per Scholas, the National Urban League, local chapters of UnidosUS, or even Goodwill, which serve minority communities and people from less affluent backgrounds. You can offer free resume-building sessions and classes on improving interviewing skills, for instance. 

Doing so bridges the gap between talented individuals and the opportunities they need to succeed professionally. It also exposes your company to more diverse potential candidates.

5. Be ultra-transparent with salaries and benefits

You should always be transparent about the salary for your open positions – and especially when you’re looking to hire talent from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. 

When you’re upfront with this information, prospective applicants know for sure that your company pays everyone fairly regardless of their gender, race, class, or religion. This encourages them to apply – facilitating social mobility and, in the long run, making your team more diverse.

It’s also a good practice to share and explain benefits in the job posting because many individuals, particularly those from minority communities, might not feel comfortable negotiating. 

Ingrid Cruz, a Latinx pop culture writer and first-generation American, explains this idea: “First-generation immigrants are taught to be grateful for the job. We’re not taught how to negotiate the way that white men do. I had a green card for the longest time, and then, when I became a US citizen, I had no idea that I could get many more benefits. Companies should explain all the benefits we’re entitled to and what they are because working-class people don’t even know our rights for most of our working life.”

6. Refine your approach to hiring

Attracting diverse candidates isn’t enough to ensure they’re hired. Traditional screening tools like resumes are prone to unconscious biases, reducing candidates’ chances of progressing to the next round. Consider the below strategies to eliminate social barriers in hiring and assessments. 

Skills-based hiring

Skills-based hiring means assessing candidates based on their skills and competencies rather than their work history, educational background, socioeconomic status, name, age, or other identifier. 

For example, you can use a talent assessment platform like TestGorilla. Our library includes hundreds of scientifically backed tests that enable you to assess and compare candidates based solely on their skills, reducing the potential for unconscious bias.

This approach removes walls for talented individuals with diverse life experiences to give them a real chance at career advancement. In fact, according to our State of Skills-Based Hiring 2023 report, 66% of workers agreed they “gained access to new employment opportunities through skills-based assessments.” That stat jumps to 73% for workers of Asian or Arab descent and to 75% for Black employees. 

A word of caution: Employers often assess the same soft skills for most jobs. For example, they might look for “polished” communication skills and make hiring decisions based on this. While important, this is a skill that individuals from lower socio-economic or varied cultural backgrounds might fall short of without additional training and support. 

We recommend taking a step back to evaluate exactly which skills are essential for each role – and practicing what’s known as multi-measure testing. HR expert Yashna Wahal shared her experience with this when we spoke with her. “I’ve seen many technologists and even traders, for example, who are geniuses in their field, despite needing additional soft skills support, and I don’t regret hiring them,” Wahal said. 

Blind recruitment

Blind recruitment methods include eliminating identifiable information about candidates during the initial stages of the hiring process – such as where they went to school, their graduation year, and their name. 

While this may seem trivial, research proves that individuals with “ethnic-sounding names” receive fewer interview invitations, employment offers, and promotions – especially for leadership positions. A nationwide study also found that candidates with “distinctively Black names” were less likely to be contacted for an interview than those with distinctively white names. 

Removing this information forces you to focus on candidates’ skills, qualifications, and experiences during the screening process.

Fair chance hiring

Fair chance hiring builds on blind recruitment by offering opportunities to people with non-traditional backgrounds, specifically those with criminal records. To adopt fair chance hiring at your company, start with eliminating automatic rejections based on a candidate’s criminal history – or, better yet, don’t require candidates to disclose this information in their application.

7. Make employees feel welcome from day one

You can use an unbiased hiring process and recruit from diverse talent pools, but to encourage social mobility, you need to make these hires feel included. This means preparing your offices and your team to welcome people from different backgrounds. 

“It can be as simple as saying, ‘These are the places you can go out for lunch, but there’s also a kitchen with a fridge if you like to bring your food,’” explains Katie Thomson-Greene, managing director at Creative Mentor Network. Not everyone can afford to go out to lunch every day, and they might prefer to bring a packed lunch. Alternatively, they might have a different attitude toward money and would rather save it than spend it.

Making people feel included also means providing additional information about social gatherings. For example, you can disclose how much things cost at a local coffee shop before a team outing or share if the company will pay for a business meal. 

You can also subsidize social events or make them optional to consider employees from lower-income backgrounds.

As Ingrid Cruz explains, “We [people from poorer backgrounds] might not have the same types of relationships with our co-workers that others do. I didn’t know that I was expected to hang out with my colleagues or go to happy hours.”

We people coming from poorer backgrounds

Social mobility is a business advantage

Embracing a workplace that promotes equity, inclusion, and social mobility isn’t just morally right – it can also have a big impact on your business’s success.  

Research by McKinsey shows that companies in the top 25% for cultural and ethnic diversity are 36% more profitable than those in the bottom 25%. Additionally, Forbes highlights that an increase in diversity can increase your Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA) by up to 33%

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) adds to this by reporting that companies with diverse management teams generate 19% more revenue than those without.

While much of the data speaks to diversity from an ethnic or cultural perspective, ​​broadening your hiring to include people from various socio-economic backgrounds also pays off.

Individuals from less affluent backgrounds tend to be more resilient, dedicated, and loyal to the business they work for. For you, this can mean more adaptability, more robust and creative problem-solving within teams, enhanced morale, and lower turnover – all of which boost your bottom line.

Moreover, having a diverse and socially mobile workforce can be a major boon for your business’s reputation. It attracts top talent from a broader pool and customers who value equity, inclusion, and social responsibility. Plus, with a diverse team, your company is better able to understand and meet the needs of a varied customer base, enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty.

The bottom line on breaking down social mobility barriers

Ensuring social mobility at your workplace can increase profit, improve your EBITDA, boost your revenue, and make your teams more adaptable, creative, and loyal. However, it requires more than just “hiring more minorities.” 

Instead, you should focus on addressing your unconscious bias, digging deeper into data, and using reverse mentorship. Importantly, you must revamp your recruitment to focus on skills-based, second-chance, and diverse recruitment. 

Although demolishing barriers to build a socially mobile workforce takes time and dedication, it’s more than worth it to unlock your organization’s full potential and ensure everyone has the same shot at success.

Sources:

  1. ​​https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-07-28/women-soldify-a-third-of-s-p-500-boards-seats-with-june-gains

  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/interactive/2021/black-executives-american-companies/ 

  3. https://www.cipd.org/en/views-and-insights/thought-leadership/cipd-voice/barriers-social-mobility-workplace/

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