‘Poshness tests’ block working-class applicants at top companies

Schoolboys at Eton. The research showed how recruiters favoured certain accents and mannerisms.

Unacknowledged “poshness tests” at elite British companies are thwarting the career prospects of talented working-class applicants and reinforcing social division, according to a government study.

The research by the social mobility and child poverty commission found that old-fashioned snobbery about accents and mannerisms was being used by top companies to filter out working-class candidates and favour the privileged.

The commission examined the recruitment processes at 13 elite law, accountancy and financial companies who between them appoint 45,000 of the best jobs in the country. It found that 70% of jobs offered by those firms in 2014 went to applicants from private or selective schools, even though such schools only educate around 11% of the population.

We need to talk about the way she first chooses words and, second, the way she pronounces them. It will need some polish
Unnamed recruiter
It found that as university education has become more prevalent employers have turned their attention to other characteristics “such as personal style, accent and mannerisms, adaptability, team working”. These “soft skills” were repeatedly found to be interpreted as “proxies for ‘talent’”.

Some successful applicants said they had to disguise their working-class backgrounds to get on. “When I went home … I could go back to, if you like, my old slight twang. When I’m in this environment I pretend I’m posher than I am,” one said.

One employer suggested firms were unwilling to sift through applications from those of working-class backgrounds. “Is there a diamond in the rough out there?” the unnamed recruiter told researchers. “Statistically it’s highly probable but the question is … how much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?”

Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the commission, said: “This research shows that young people with working-class backgrounds are being systematically locked out of top jobs. Elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a ‘poshness test’ to gain entry.”


He added: “Inevitably that ends up excluding youngsters who have the right sort of grades and abilities but whose parents do not have the right sort of bank balances.”

The report warned top companies that they were “denying themselves talent, stymying young people’s social mobility and fuelling the social divide that bedevils Britain”.

The report found that there was an increasing awareness of the need for social mobility, but that social class was a “relatively hidden category” of discrimination compared to other forms of diversity.

One recruiter talked about her doubts after appointing someone who lacked “polish”. The unnamed interviewer said: “I recruited somebody … she’s short of polish. We need to talk about the way that she articulates, the way that she, first, chooses words and, second, the way she pronounces them. It will need, you know … it will need some polish because whilst I may look at the substance, you know, I’ve got a lot of clients and a lot of colleagues who are very focused on the personal presentation and appearance side of it.”

How much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?
Unnamed recruiter
The report also said that companies were unwilling to acknowledge the problem. It said: “Social class, however defined, apparently remains a strong determinant of one’s ability to access the elite professions and, once there, to thrive. Yet still, this study would suggest that within elite firms, awareness of the role played by social background in relation to career progression is quite low, especially compared to other diversity axes such as gender. Further, participants spoke of their reluctance to discuss social class with their colleagues, on the basis that this is potentially intrusive.”

Some of the firms studied had adopted “CV-blind” selection techniques to hide an applicant’s educational background in an effort to increase social mobility. But it found that this sometimes had the unintended consequences of encouraging interviewers to focus on “proxies for quality such as speech and accent”.

Louise Ashley – of Royal Holloway, University of London, who led the research – urged firms to recruit from a wider range of applicants. She said top firms should “interrogate current definitions of talent, including how potential is identified and assessed, to ensure that disadvantaged students are not ruled out for reasons of background rather than aptitude and skill”.

Gloria De Piero, shadow minister for women and diversity, tweeted that poshness tests were a glass ceiling that Labour was determined to smash.


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