Levelling the playing field

Levelling the playing field

How Professional Services firms can drive socio-economic diversity.

Why is socio-economic inclusion important to Professional Services firms?

Professional Services firms are making progress to promote socio-economic diversity, but there is still lots of work to be done to ensure people from disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t excluded.

As evidence of positive change, just over a third (34%) of the organisations on the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) 2022 index of top 75 employers are law firms, with other professional services firms also featuring strongly.

So inclusion is so very important in the boardroom and across firms today. And it really starts with leadership. It's essential that clients evolve and companies evolve to have it core to their agenda. There's no good thinking about it as an afterthought and needs to be central before it starts in the corporate governance of a firm and works all the way through the organisation.

And so it needs to be part of hiring. It needs to be part of the commercial analysis that clients undertake and just endemic through the firm. I think first things first, education and awareness building is incredibly important to the mission. You can't move forward if you don't know what mission you're fighting for. My top three recommendations for professional services firms will be: number one, host those internal conversations of colleagues. You will be absolutely amazed the stories that colleagues can share and how infused colleagues are about this agenda. Number two is around creating an internal group of colleagues and employee resource group who can help drive the colleague engagement piece internally forwards. My third recommendation importantly is around data. Data will be probably the most important aspect in terms of driving this agenda forward as well.

You can't drive something forward if you haven't got the numbers and stats and the facts to back it up. One of the most successful DE&I strategies we have is our apprenticeship program. It's been running for many years and it stretches from our branch network all the way into head office, and actually in areas that you might not expect, like for example, finance and technology.

That's proved to be a fantastic way for us to grow future leaders, perhaps from very different backgrounds. And bearing in mind we support 20 million customers in the UK, it's really important that we reflect the full diversity of the communities that we work in. Professional services firms make up a significant part of the UK economy. People rely on us and the GDP significance of the profession shouldn't be underestimated and therefore we have to make sure that we represent the communities that we're serving wherever they might be and if we don't look or talk or come from the same backgrounds as people that we are trying to serve, we are not representative of them. There's also a moral position. It really is important that as a sector we are for fairness.

There's equity to access. And again, if we're not looking at socioeconomic background and what we can do to encourage people from all backgrounds into our organizations, then we'll be the poorer for it. Too many organizations think that you need to throw money at something to make a difference, and that isn't right. We are the number one employer on the Social Mobility Foundation Index, and we've done that by making a lot of changes.

But those are changes that have been around the way we think about things. So I would say to people, the things that you could be doing: Looking at contextualised recruitment, then look at anonymising CV’s. If you anonymize CV’s - and I mean proper anonymisation - because without that you're not going to get the candidates coming through that are going to change the diversity within your business.

The index measures how employers perform on areas including the extent to which firms reward ‘potential over polish’ and remove barriers to people from less affluent backgrounds being selected. At Barclays we face many of the same challenges as Professional Services firms. We are working hard to ensure equal opportunity for diverse talent to develop and grow within the bank.

Making progress, but still work to do

Strong business case

A growing body of research reveals the lack of socio-economic diversity across professional and financial services. For example, according to the Social Mobility Commission’s findings, 52% of employees at all levels of seniority in these sectors have at least one parent from a professional background.

But why does socio-economic inclusivity matter so much? As an important part of the ‘S’ of firms’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts, it is not only seen by many as ‘the right thing to do’, but also clearly makes good business sense as something that employees, clients, outside investors and regulators are increasingly focused on.

All the evidence suggests that teams of people with different backgrounds deliver greater diversity of thought and solutions – leading to higher performing and more resilient businesses. 

Benefits of a wider talent pool

Firms naturally want to employ the best talent and helping people from under-represented groups to achieve their career goals can clearly give firms a competitive edge when it comes to hiring.

Caroline Green, Senior Partner at law firm Browne Jacobson, ranked the UK’s leading employer in the Social Mobility Employer Index 2021, says her firm, like many others, began its socio-economic inclusivity journey by “realising we weren’t getting the right people into our business”. 

Ryan Makuku, Assistant Vice President at Barclays and Co-Chair of our Inspire Employee Resource Group, believes socio-economic disadvantage is “the most exciting, untapped source of talent for firms to work with”.

Reflecting the clients we serve

Tapping into the views and ideas of employees from a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds, with different life experiences, helps professional services firms to better understand their clients and provide for their needs.

It also enables firms to have a much wider positive impact on society. As Richard Iferenta, Partner and Vice Chair at KPMG LLP, says: “As big firms we have the opportunity to create real impact for individuals and the broader community. For example, I went to the wedding of one of our apprentices [from a less affluent background] and his dad pulled me aside to tell me we had changed the life of the whole family.” 

Time to act

Socio-economic disadvantage isn’t always something that will be obvious, compared to, say, race or gender inequality, which are in some ways easier issues to identify because they are simply more visible. 

Perhaps as a result, socio-economic inclusion is a newer item on the diversity agenda for many organisations. 

However, as Ryan Makuku of Barclays Inspire says: “For many firms, the arguments for diversity have already been made through programmes for race and gender and so on, so the door’s already wide open for socio-economic inclusivity.”

What’s on the horizon for Professional Services firms?

There are a number of hurdles which Professional Services firms need to navigate to progress their socio-economic diversity strategies. Being aware of these and putting in place the correct action plan will help them accelerate their plans.

Having a diverse set of colleagues in place should support the sector’s plans to see the bigger picture.

I think we're going to see increasingly three types of firm emerge, those firms where there's going to be high hours, high demands. On the other hand, we're going to see lifestyle firms emerge where they'll check whether you’ve had your holiday, they’ll offer you sabbaticals and they'll look after you.

Then have a third type of firm, which is neither. And they don't quite know what they're doing. So the high demands or lifestyle, and if you're confused in the middle, that is something you can have to wrestle with.

So to realise the advantages of technological innovation, I actually think the answer isn't about tech, it's about people. People are the primary ingredient to success. And if you don't factor in your people, your culture, their ways of working and their needs, you can buy the best piece of technology, but it's never going to work. So don't forget the end user.

I think when it comes to being a trusted advisor for our clients, one thing that I've really learned through running GROW Mentoring is engaging the client beyond just your initial activities.

So if a client has got on board with us for a six month relationship, we then might do an exclusive event with them to the wider GROW community. We then might invite some of their team to come and join our events, to speak on our panels and get involved with our activities. 

I think we see those relationships grow beyond that six month period now to being a year long, two years long, because we're constantly involving themin our activities, in our communities and they trust us a little bit more.

So Corporate Banking, I think, over the coming years faces a number of challenges.

Challenge number one really is we have to automate more. Clients don't want to talk to us about operational issues. They want to talk about bigger strategic things.

So those operational day to day things, we've got to automate as much as we possibly can. The second is that both in our personal lives and on our business lives, we expect to be able to do more ourselves.

So, you know, online platforms, mobile apps that actually enable our clients to do more themselves, that perhaps they have to contact the bank to deal with today.

I think this year I don't expect a big bang or anything like that. But in the technology space, I think there are two trends that that people need to watch out for. The first, at least in the legal technology space, is a move towards consolidation. There will be a need for some, I guess, consolidation in that space and really kind of finding the key players for various technologies.

I think the other thing that I expect to see this year is a change in the use of how artificial intelligence is implemented by professional services firms, in particular law firms.

I think now we're at the point where these kinds of technologies have developed to the extent that they can be used at the front end of the legal process and actually be used to draft documentation, to do some analysis.

And I think that's a big change, but exciting to see how it develops.

Understanding the barriers

Role models and ‘fitting in’

It can be difficult for someone from a disadvantaged background to imagine themselves pursuing a career in professional services. This is why positive role models are so important.

Now an Assistant Vice President at Barclays, Ryan Makuku’s career journey reflects some of the challenges facing aspiring professionals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Growing up in east London, Ryan says a lack of positive role models was a significant barrier to a professional career: “I didn’t know anyone who worked in a profession and it would have been much easier for me to follow a bad life path than a good path.”

Sandra Wallace, Joint Managing Director, UK and Europe at DLA Piper, says she had to overcome the feeling that she didn’t ‘fit in’. She reveals: "People said I didn’t speak the right way or look the part. There are so many people that give up for similar reasons and that’s the talent that the professional services sector is missing out on.”

Financial barriers

With the current cost-of-living crisis, financial barriers are particularly challenging for people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, so employers should be doing all they can to ensure equal opportunities for all. 

Sandra Wallace at DLA Piper says financial factors could easily have blocked her career path. She was the first in her family to go into higher education and her mother was worried that Sandra’s studies would mean less money coming into the household.

“I convinced her I’d earn more in the long run if I did something ‘posh’ like a law degree – something I’d never thought of before because I’d had no role models – but I nearly had to drop out because I didn’t have the finances to support my studies.”

Workplace obstacles

Another potential barrier to opening up professional services to more diverse recruits is failing to ensure people from all backgrounds feel comfortable in the workplace.

As Richard Iferenta, Partner and Vice Chair, KPMG LLP, says: “On my first day at the office I realised there was no one else like me there – the first black people I saw were working in the restaurant at lunchtime.”

Sandra Wallace adds: “Even if people get through everything else, you will still lose them if they don’t feel at home in your organisation. I spent a lot of time thinking I was not the typical lawyer and so I kept my head down and just worked really hard to avoid anything else about me being questioned.”

The attitude of colleagues is critical. Ryan Makuku of Barclays Inspire says accent bias can lead to unfair assumptions about a person’s abilities. “It’s so important that we don’t paint everyone with the same brush.” 

Slower career progression

A key factor in career progression is giving an individual work that allows them to demonstrate both their ability and value. 

All too often, trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t get that opportunity – perhaps because certain clients are considered too blue chip for someone with a working-class accent.

However, Richard Iferenta at KPMG says that approach is already proving costly to some firms because of the changing attitudes of clients, who are increasingly more likely to ask for a diverse make-up in the professional services teams that advise them.

“Sometimes we’ve learned the hard way and been told that the reason we didn’t pick up new business with a prospective client was because our bid team was, say, all male.”

Strategies for success

Use these five tips to help your professional services firm to embrace socio-economic diversity.


Leadership from the top

Buy-in, ownership and accountability from leadership teams is a prerequisite if socio-economic diversity is to be incorporated into a firm’s business plans and culture.

DLA Piper, for example, has put socio-economic diversity at the top of its agenda, says Joint Managing Director Sandra Wallace: “It’s a cornerstone of what we think will make this business better.” 

This doesn’t need to involve a significant financial commitment, says Caroline Green, Senior Partner at Browne Jacobson. Her firm’s high ranking in the Social Mobility Employer Index is a plaudit Caroline says the firm earned by “committing a lot of time but not huge resources – changing the mindset was the key to this achievement.” 


Data and targets

Accurate data on employees’ parental occupations, as recommended by the Social Mobility Commission – enables firms to get a better picture of their staff make-up and to measure their progress in promoting socio-economic diversity.

Richard Inferenta at KPMG believes setting targets publicly makes leadership teams more accountable: “Leaders have to take responsibility and put processes in place to drive diversity forward – and that means a much better chance of succeeding. Setting targets galvanises people into thinking, are we giving everyone opportunities and how can we support them?”

Sandra Wallace at DLA Piper agrees: “Don’t be afraid of targets – they drive intention. After all, you wouldn’t operate any other part of your business without targets.” 


Broadening access to careers

Forging links with colleges and schools in disadvantaged areas is an important step in tackling the barriers to social mobility. “People talk about hard-to-reach areas – but that often means they’re just not looking,” says Sandra Wallace. “Remember also that disadvantaged youngsters may not have good internet connectivity or funds for travel to interviews – so firms might have to pay to help provide a ‘level playing field’. 

Browne Jacobson is one of several firms using contextualised recruitment: no longer automatically requiring A-level grades or degree passes and asking recruitment agencies to anonymise applications, removing mentions of academic qualifications and hobbies, and flagging applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds.


Professional apprenticeships

Several law firms, such as Linklaters, Farrer & Co and Wilson Solicitors, have recently announced that they are now taking on solicitor apprentices to broaden access to the profession. 

The first four years of the Linklaters apprenticeship, for example, combines on-the-job training with time spent studying for a law degree. In the fifth and sixth years, apprentices will join the trainee solicitor cohort and complete the Solicitors Qualifying Examination.  

Richard Inferenta says that apprenticeships aimed at people from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been an important part of KPMG’s social mobility initiatives: “Apprentices tend to show more loyalty to the firm and really flourish in their careers.”


An inclusive workplace culture

Promoting social mobility is also about creating a workplace environment and culture that allows people from all types of background to flourish.

One way to do this is to provide opportunities for staff to ‘shadow’ colleagues, giving them insights into different work challenges and more confidence that they can thrive at a firm. 

Firms also need to tackle unconscious bias – such as how a person’s accent can be perceived to be connected to their intelligence – but they should try not to dictate to their workforce and instead encourage staff to present their own ideas on how to increase social mobility.

And finally, being open and honest about the need for greater socio-economic diversity includes confronting the potential consequences for all employees, including those from better-off backgrounds who have traditionally dominated the professions.

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