Britain’s new prime minister has put meritocracy at the heart of her government’s agenda. It’s a noble goal. This idea of allowing those with the most talent to rise to the top of society and occupy the best jobs must surely be good for society. Similarly, attracting and promoting the best talent has to be good for business.
Rising wealth inequality, however, suggests that the UK has a long way to go to becoming a meritocratic society. If Theresa May wants to make Britain a place where people have “the chance to go as far as their talents will take them”, businesses need to look very carefully at how they recruit and select their future leaders.
Recent research we’ve worked on for the government’s Social Mobility Commission, into the workings of professions such as law, accounting and investment banking in the City of London suggests that the way meritocracy is discussed can actually curtail opportunities for social mobility. The findings show that new, more formal recruitment techniques offer the illusion that the City is “fiercely meritocratic”.
Yet it remains significantly more difficult for hard-working, talented people from lower socio-economic groups to gain access to these top jobs, compared to their more privileged peers. In particular, there is a disproportionate number of people working in the elite professions who have been privately educated. Research by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust recently found that while 7% of the general population attends a fee-paying school, 34% of new entrants to the banking sector were privately educated, rising to 69% of those working in private equity.
Appearances can be deceptive
Organisations certainly cannot be blamed for looking to recruit the most talented students to work for them and in many ways the recruitment and selection processes adopted by elite firms appear to be meritocratic and fair – everyone is judged by the same yardstick. The difficulty arises when trying to assess what is meant by talent.
Elite professions largely equate talent with good A-Level grades and a degree from a narrow range of the “top” universities. At first glance, pre-screening of applicants based on A-Level results may seem a fair way of dealing with large numbers of recruits. But A-Level performance is strongly correlated with social background, which serves to disadvantage certain groups. Similarly, focusing on students who have gained degrees at elite universities might appear sensible, but those universities are themselves more likely to recruit students from privileged backgrounds.
Less objective aspects of the recruitment process can further disadvantage those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For example, final stage interviews with senior staff are often used to judge whether the applicant would fit into the firm. We were told repeatedly in interviews we conducted with staff across law, accounting and investment banking how important it is that candidates are “polished” and give off the “right” impression.
This may seem logical in a competitive, client-facing environment, but, as our interviewees explained, applicants who have the necessary intellect and aptitude can be rejected purely because they are wearing the “wrong” tie. Plus, an increasingly early start to the recruitment cycle involves applying for internships either before or in the first year of university study. This means that if applicants lack the social networks which provide knowledge about opportunities they are likely to miss out. Thus, the status quo is maintained and it is difficult for those from less privileged backgrounds to access elite professions.
So what can these firms do? Some are clearly working on this and the increase in apprenticeships and post-18 entrance schemes in accounting has been one response. Other leading firms have introduced the use of contextual data, which allows them to see how applicants compare to peers at their school, to help them judge A-Level results. And many firms engage with third sector organisations such as the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation to offer outreach programmes and work experience. These have been successful up to a point, yet change appears slow.
In order to facilitate further change it is important that firms measure and monitor the social background of both new recruits and current employees; examine all aspects of how they attract and select applicants and consider ring-fencing opportunities for internships from non-traditional candidates.
They should also think critically about how they define merit. Should a candidate’s background be taken into account when making judgements about how they present themselves? If Britain is to be the “world’s great meritocracy”, firms need to focus on selecting applicants on the basis of their potential to develop the attributes of a good professional, not the polish that comes with a more privileged background.