Socio-economic background continues to weigh on career progression in the UK. Despite this, a new Accenture study finds that employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more loyal and less dissatisfied with their rate of advancement than peers, a phenomenon dubbed the “progression paradox”. But by adopting five workplace practices, companies can mitigate this challenge while boosting both employee engagement and profitability.
Employee loyalty is not always a good thing. If someone blindly sticks with their employer without developing or progressing, neither party is likely to benefit in the long term.
Yet, as recent Accenture research on UK workers has shown, despite advancing less quickly than their peers, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds (SEB) are no less loyal to their employer and no less satisfied with their career progression than others.
We call this the “progression paradox”. It’s one of three major challenges (alongside socio-economic taboo and cultural inertia) stifling social mobility in the UK that are explored in Accenture Research’s recent report, A fair chance to advance: The power of culture to break socio-economic barriers in the workplace.
It’s worth a closer look. The UK workplace is not a level playing field. The higher someone’s SEB, the faster they tend to progress up through the ranks. For example, people from a lower SEB are 28 per cent less likely to hold management roles.1 Our survey of 4,000 UK employees confirms this trend: we found that, on average, 20 per cent of employees from a lower SEB are promoted at least every three years, compared with 26 per cent of their peers. And employees from a lower SEB are a third less likely to be on a career “fast track”.2 These figures mean that an estimated 700,000 people from this demographic have missed out on promotion opportunities with their current employer.3
Employees from lower SEBs do recognise the issue. More than one in five told us they feel they don’t have the same chance of success in the workplace as their colleagues. One of our interviewees, Darren*, described the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to fit in: changing his hairstyle, saving up to buy expensive suits and watches, and even paying for elocution lessons. “My parents asked me why I was changing the way I spoke and looked,” Darren told us. “But I would never be where I am now if I hadn’t have taken those steps.”
So what explains the paradox? Why are employees from a lower SEB slightly more loyal and slightly less dissatisfied with their career progression, compared with their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds?
One possible explanation is that these employees appear to have lower expectations for promotion than their colleagues. We find that just 38 per cent aspire to be promoted, compared with 50 per cent of their peers. And just 15 per cent aspire to a senior leadership position, compared with 22 per cent of their colleagues.
Another interviewee, Zoey*, offered an explanation: “I felt out of place, I guess; I was never really accepted. I was made to feel less qualified than I actually was.” What we don’t know is whether these employees enter the workforce with lower expectations – or whether their ambitions get diluted as they realise the odds are stacked against them. The issues may often compound each other.
The paradox could also be explained by differences in employees’ appetite for risk. The lack of a financial safety net – perhaps savings or family wealth – may weigh on the likelihood of looking for a new employer.
A third reason may be that employees from lower SEBs tend to have fewer senior-professional connections in their social networks. This reduces their exposure to advice on careers options and techniques for getting ahead. And as Helen* noted, this issue goes far deeper than the obvious advantages of exposure to a broad range of higher-level jobs. “If your parents didn’t work in certain professions, [but] instead in mid-level skilled jobs, then you might not have the basics, like how to do interviews.”
Clearly, promotion is not the only measure of success at work. Indeed, some executives may debate the urgency for change. If employees from a lower SEB are happier, and not planning to jump ship, why mess with the status quo? We see two critical reasons:
- All else being equal, it’s not fair for employees from a lower SEB to have fewer opportunities to advance than their peers.
- The lack of leaders from a lower SEB deprives the organisation of their diverse perspectives and may have an impact on performance.
A blueprint for change
How might companies resolve the progression paradox? To uncover some answers to that question, we studied a group of employees from a lower SEB who are thriving in the workplace – the most aspirational ones, those who love their jobs and are advancing at their preferred pace. And when we homed in on what their employers are doing differently, five practices stood out.
These companies all offer their workers role models and flexible work arrangements. They are markedly committed to providing an open and transparent environment where it is safe – and even encouraged – to bring your “whole self” to work. They adopt and embed robust anti-discrimination policies. And they all work hard to build trust and give employees the support and autonomy they need in order to build confidence and feel safe taking risks and driving change. Collectively, we call these five practices the “Blueprint for socio-economic workplace inclusion”.
Consider how two of these practices address the progression paradox. Firstly, anti-discrimination policies can help to mitigate the bias that breeds discrimination and weighs on progression. This might be underpinned by collecting and analysing promotion data through the lens of socio-economic background. As Clare* told us, socio-economic background doesn’t get the “airtime it should”, compared with race and gender. This means “many people don’t even seem to recognise [socio-economic stigma] exists,” she continued.
Secondly, role models can boost aspirations, showcase career paths to emulate, and even become mentors. This should help to create a virtuous cycle in which progression equality becomes normalised, breaking the pattern that Norman* has experienced, where higher-level positions are held by individuals who appear to be typecast for those roles. As he explained, from his perspective it seems that “certain people have certain jobs”.
The potential impact of adopting the blueprint is clear. In the most socio-economically inclusive organisations – where the five practices are most strongly embedded – 93 per cent of employees from a lower SEB feel they have the same chance of success as their peers. This compares to 69 per cent on average, and just 30 per cent in those organisations where adoption of the blueprint is weakest.4 Employees from a lower SEB are also promoted more frequently in the most inclusive environments; one in three go up a level at least every three years (compared to one in five on average).
And the benefits stretch beyond the individual. We find that the profits of organisations most focused on boosting social mobility are 1.4 times higher than those of their competitors. What might underpin this correlation? Companies that prioritise inclusion are clearly enhancing their talent pool. They broaden it, by bringing different attributes, skills, and mindsets into the organisation; and they deepen it, by allowing more of their people, for more of their time, to be more productive.
As Helen Redfern, Group HR Director at Kier, told us: “If you create inclusivity, then the diversity follows, [and] there is huge value creation from diversity of thinking. You don’t get diversity of thinking if you only recruit one type of person.” Her words complement the findings of another Accenture study, which has linked inclusion with stronger innovative potential among employees.
In short, by creating a more inclusive workplace culture, employers reciprocate the loyalty of their employees. They can stop the cycle of people from lower SEB backgrounds getting left behind. And thriving people drive thriving organisations.
About the Authors
Simon Eaves is the market unit lead for Accenture in the UK and Ireland with responsibility for all industries and services in the area. He is a member of Accenture’s Global Management Committee and was previously Accenture’s chief strategy officer.
Camilla Drejer leads Corporate Citizenship for Accenture in the UK and Ireland, working with its leadership to embed social and environmental sustainability into the DNA of the business and its client work. She set up the business-led youth charity Movement to Work and was its first CEO.
Dominic King is a senior principal in the Accenture Sustainability Research team, where he explores the benefits of responsible business practices. He also leads the UK & Ireland Research team.
- Chartered Management Institute (2022): “75th Anniversary: Socio-economic background in the workplace” https://www.managers.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/cmi-discussion-paper-socio-economic-background.pdf
- Fast-track” refers to employees that reached at least managerial level by the age of 37
- Calculations use ONS estimates (https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/january2022)of UK workforce size (30m) and Social Mobility Commission estimates (https://socialmobilityworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Summary-report-on-measurement-changes_FINAL-Updated-May-2021.pdf)of the proportion of the UK working population that comes from a lower socio-economic background (39 per cent)
- This analysis compares the top 10 per cent (where the practices are most common) with the fiftieth percentile and the bottom 10 per cent (where the practices are least common)