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Is The ‘So-Called’ Poshness Test Blocking Some People’s Career Development?

Published: Monday 6th July 2015

A male mentoring his colleagues whilst he is stand up giving a speech


Could your candidates break through the class ceiling? According to recent reports, high performing companies in professions which are seen as ‘elite’ have been accused of employing so-called ‘poshness tests’.

These tests are subtly being used as an indicator of a candidate’s ability. According to reports, the poshness tests are thwarting the career prospects of talented working-class applicants, reinforcing social division and decreasing opportunities for social mobility within certain professions.

According to the newly published report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions, despite efforts over the past 10 to 15 years to improve social inclusion, top-flight firms continue to be heavily dominated, at entry level, by people from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds.

The commission asserted that 19th Century attitudes to accents and mannerisms were still being employed by elite professions (such as the law and the financial industry) to filter out working-class candidates.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report examined the recruitment processes and activity of 13 ‘elite’ law, accountancy and financial services companies who between them appoint and employ 45,000 of the highest paying and ‘best’ jobs in the UK. The study found that in 2014, 70% of new appointments made by such firms went to applicants from either private or selective schools, though these students make up only 11% of the total student body.

As recruiters are aware, the number of candidates entering the jobs market with a university education has increased so has the perceived value of that qualification as a medium of differentiating candidates decreased to employers. As such, some companies (in the fields referenced) have turned to look at characteristics such as “personal style, accent,  mand mannerisms, adaptability and team working”. These soft skills are often seen as a proxy measure for applicable talent.

Over the period from 1997 to 2014, access to university education and the number of candidates entering the marketplace with a degree-level qualification exploded. By 2015, despite record fees for higher education, UCAS saw a record number of university applicants – rising to 592,290. This is almost 10,000 more than the previous record set in 2011.

The commission is chaired by Alan Milburn, former Labour MP and cabinet minister, who coined the phrase ‘poshness test’ when he 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 continued:“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 goes on to warn top employers that they are potentially denying themselves talented individuals and are facilitating social divisions in the UK. The report stated that while there is an increasing awareness of the need for social mobility, that social class was a ‘relatively hidden category’ of discrimination compared to other forms of diversity.

Among the companies studied, some had adopted a ‘CV-blind’ approach for interview selection wherein candidates’ educational backgrounds were hidden in an effort to increase social diversity in recruitment. However, the study found that this had sometimes led to the unintentional consequence of encouraging a focus on those ‘soft skills’ highlighted earlier at interview stage.

They concluded that some companies were unwilling to acknowledge the problem stating that social class is still a limiting factor in determining access to elite professions and by how much people can progress within the company.

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