How accountancy is opening doors in social mobility

Welcome to the start of our new AATPowerUp campaign on social mobility.

Every person should have the chance to achieve their potential, regardless of the background from which they come.

Improving access to opportunities is not easy. In fact, Government says efforts to make the world of business more inclusive have been slowing down recently.

However, accountancy has been making a difference. What’s more, it’s been leading the way in the professional sector.

So, over the next two months, AAT will be focusing on the achievements, changed lives and opportunities for us all to do even more.

Definition: What is social mobility?
Improving social mobility means enabling individuals to move up the social ladder by advancing professionally or economically. It can encompass equal opportunities regarding education, recruitment, gender and disability.

From bottom to top of the class

10 years ago, accountancy was far from open. A major Government report criticised the profession for being massively tilted towards the well-off. Over 40% of employees came from families with above-average wealth.

Since then, several accounting firms have taken the criticisms on board. They have responded so well that five of the top seven employers for social mobility are accountants.

KPMG claimed the top spot in the last rankings, with Grant Thornton second. Deloitte, PwC and EY all finished in the top seven. 

As the 2018 index has shown, Employers are tackling the issue with innovative apprenticeships, changing recruitment procedures, outlawing unpaid internships and making talented youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds feel welcome. 

“If you’re from a background where going to university wasn’t an option, you might have thought accountancy was something you couldn’t access. Times are changing. The sector is really thinking about social mobility.”
Zoe Pluckrose-Norman, people director at accountancy firm Armstrong Watson.

More work to do

However, inequalities persist. Applicants for accountancy jobs who come from wealthy backgrounds have a one in 18 chance of being hired, compared with a one in 22 chance for those from low-income backgrounds, according to research by the Bridge Group in 2017.

The top 10 employers

  1. KPMG
  2. Grant Thornton UK
  3. Ministry of Justice
  4. Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
  5. Deloitte UK
  6. PwC
  7. EY
  8. Enterprise Rent-A-Car
  9. Civil Service Fast Stream and Early Talent
  10. Baker McKenzie

2018 Social Mobility Employer Index.

Facts and figures

  • In professional occupations, those from working-class backgrounds earn on average 17% less than those who come from professional families.
  • Only 21% of people with disabilities from a working-class background are entering professional or managerial jobs.
  • Graduates earn an average of £10,000 a year more than those who didn’t pursue further education.

Government’s social mobility report, April 2019

Why social mobility works

Accountancy firms aren’t hiring recruits from underrepresented backgrounds because they’re nice people. Social mobility also makes good business sense too.

For a start, diversity broadens an organisation’s talent pool. Ideas and decisions will come from a broader range of sources. This, in turn, can prevent ‘groupthink’ (where people think the same way to conform), which has led to various corporate calamities, such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Customers can also identify more easily with companies that draw their employees from different backgrounds. “We’ve got such a wide range of clients, and it adds great benefit if our workforce reflects that diversity,” says Zoe Pluckrose-Norman, people director at Cumbria-based accountancy firm Armstrong Watson.

“[It] is about bringing people with different experiences and backgrounds to come up with better decision-making.”
“It helps bring in more innovative solutions… Talent comes from everywhere, not just in pockets.”

Jenny Baskerville, KPMG co-head of inclusion, diversity and social equality

Social mobility: the benefits for employers

  • When employers cast a wider net in recruiting, they’ll unearth even more talent. 
  • Employing staff from diverse backgrounds helps companies understand their clients and customers better. If clients/customers see staff who look, act and speak with the same accents as them, they’ll be able to better relate to the organisation.
  • With automation threatening to make many bookkeeping tasks redundant, communication skills are more critical than ever before. Accountancy firms now realise that employing people who can relate to their clients can lead to better business relationships.
  • Social mobility also boosts corporate social responsibility, helping attract new employees and clients. 

What are companies doing right now?

Apprenticeships are one of the most effective ways of fostering social mobility within a company. The KPMG 360 apprenticeship programme rotates placements in different areas of the company while studying AAT qualifications. As Baskerville notes, “It allows school-leavers to progress at the same level as graduates. Some of our apprentices end up being in charge of graduates… It creates a good working dynamic.”

Innovation: EY targets parents
EY developed a parental advice campaign to challenge out-dated careers thinking and explore how the world of work has changed.
EY followed up by chairing panel events with 88 parents, creating a pilot ‘EY Parentaship‘, in London followed by events in Reading, Manchester and Birmingham. The Cabinet Office noted the campaign.

In a bid to eliminate class bias, some companies are changing their recruitment policies too. For example, EY has adopted a CV-blind approach, where the candidate is judged on an interview or test, rather than knowing where they went to school/university.

Other firms, such as Grant Thornton, have dropped academic entry requirements (such as a 2:1 degree). “Being able to pass exams isn’t what the future looks like,” says Richard Waite, head of resourcing and global mobility. “We’re looking for people who can bring passion and a real focus on client work.”

Maybe it’s time to finally scrub out the ‘Hobbies & Interests’ section of your CV too. “We don’t look at that now,” says Waite.

“There’s a correlation between ‘impressive’ extracurricular activities and being from a higher socioeconomic background, so we’ve removed this barrier-to-entry.”

Unpaid internships are also being phased out by some larger firms. These favour people from privileged backgrounds who can afford to work for free (one 2018 survey found that unpaid work experience can cost at least £1,019 a month in rent and travel expenses).

PwC – Social mobility scorecard
In September 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers published its first-ever social mobility scorecard in its annual report. This measured performance linked to social mobility strategy, including recruitment and retention, advocacy and community. New hires from a Free School Meals background rose from 6% to 7% after its introduction.

What should we do next?

The accountancy sector might be among the best social mobility employers in the country but David Johnston, chief executive at the Social Mobility Foundation, argues there’s still work to be done…

“Accountancy firms have done well, particularly with school-leaving and apprenticeship programmes. But they haven’t solved all their social mobility problems.

“For many years, firms have focused on getting people [from less privileged backgrounds] into a company, then assuming that everything will take care of itself. However, once people get into a company, they find their colleagues speak and act differently plus have cultural references they don’t understand. Quite often, many employees feel the organisation isn’t for them. There’ll also be parts of the business – or social groups – where they find it hard to get in. Some people are telling us that [at some firms] it’s still okay to take the mickey out of somebody from the north of England, or make jokes about ‘chavs’.”  

What can these firms do? Well, the social activities hosted by many firms sometimes don’t give thought to people who aren’t interested in sports or don’t drink alcohol.

Also, senior leaders need to find a way to connect with employees from different background. Reversing mentoring, which pairs a junior employee in an organisation with a senior person, can work well.

However, if employers do only one thing, we’d recommend designing a recruitment process that judges potential. Every company says ‘We’re looking for the best people’, but in reality, they’re judging how well they did at school, and not how they’d fare as an accountant. There also needs to be a workplace culture that enables these people to flourish, rather than them being judged on how middle-class they are.”

What can I do?

The takeaway for employers:

  • Adopting some of the recruitment procedures of the big four, such as CV-blind approaches or dropping academic requirements, can help widen your talent pool.
  • Also, consider scrapping unpaid work experience.
  • Look at apprenticeships as a way of supporting people who don’t go to university.

Takeaways for AAT Members

If you feel your organisation is lacking in social mobility, suggest a school outreach programme.

  • You could give a talk on accountancy to local schools and sixth-form colleges. Or perhaps set up a work experience scheme and/or mentorship service to inspire these youngsters on potential career possibilities.
  • After interviewing applicants from a disadvantaged background, make sure you give constructive feedback on their interview technique.
  • And if you notice any of your colleagues feeling isolated in the workplace due to their background or cultural differences, befriend them and perhaps suggest some social activities to your boss that they could enjoy too.

In summary

After having been lambasted in the 2009 Milburn report, accountancy has made big strides to improve access to all levels of society. The larger firms are setting the example. Small medium and sized companies need to follow their example. Moreover, hopefully, the sector as a whole can inspire more businesses to take a much more inclusive approach.

When they do, these firms have discovered, social mobility is enormously beneficial. Not only does it expose companies to new talent and fresh ideas, but it also means they have a workforce that resembles the clients they represent.

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

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