PRACTICE GUIDE: Are informal codes of behaviour, rather than ability, defining talent?

A new book exposes how class based cultural codes act as a barrier to diversity. On the day The Government’s Social Mobility Commission announced that class privilege remains entrenched in Britain and social mobility has stagnated, I attended a powerful presentation from Sam Friedman, Associate Professor of Sociology at the LSE and author of a new book The Class Ceiling, a searing analysis of how self perpetuating privilege works in the UK.

Their analysis (of data from Britain’s Labour Force Survey) finds that not only are people born into working-class families far less likely to get an elite job, but even when they do they find it harder to progress, earning 16 percent less on average than those from elite backgrounds in the same fields of work.

The authors analyse how the mechanisms of privilege actually work. Their findings are really important for any employer who wants to make their workplace fairer.

Through interviews with 175 people in four elite occupations – television, accounting, architecture and acting – they found people from elite backgrounds receive a “fair wind” through the operation of important “hidden mechanisms”.

One is the Bank of Mum and Dad. Money acts as an important career lubricant allowing the privileged to manoeuvre into more promising career tracks, develop valuable networks, resist exploitative employment and take risky opportunities while also being able to live in London.

Another is informal sponsorship. Those at the top often benefit from a senior leader identifying them as a junior protege and fast tracking their career by brokering job opportunities, allocating valuable work or advocating on their behalf. The connection is often formed through similarity of social backgrounds.

Most interesting and perhaps of most impact, because it is hard to define and yet seems to control the very way that talent is being defined, is dominant behavioural codes.

The rigged rules of the game

These codes are informal “rules of the game” that are used to decide “merit” and “fit” in different professions. However, they are really social and cultural signifiers of background and class.

They operate in subtly different ways in different workplaces, yet they all include aspects gained through elite education and socialisation –  accent, inflection, gesture, posture, style of dress, etiquette, manners, elaborate vocabulary, “correct” grammar, familiarity with abstraction and theoretical ideas and “a particular detached, knowing aesthetic orientation to culture and taste”.

They explain why diverse and working class employees are concentrated in more technical jobs. Senior professional, creative, managerial and client facing roles are less clearly defined and are seen as more dependant on cultural “fit”.

The authors give fascinating examples from the companies they researched and they unpick the particular behavioural codes at work.

In television they found a culture of “studied informality” which functioned as a subtle, intricate and highly knowing code. They found a lack of formal dress codes and explicit expectations that worked against working-class employees who could feel excluded by subtle acts of elitism. “There’s a particularly intellectual and highbrow way of talking about television to drop cultural references from other art forms or speak in an arcane tone.”

“There’s a lyrical tone to the way things are put..some of the people round they table might not understand some of the words used..and that’s the sort of innate way of saying “I’m not sure if you’re aware but I did go to Cambridge”..there’ need for it.” (Karen, Senior Commissioner, Intermediate origins)

“It’s like they all know each other … I know they don’t but here’s this sense … I can’t bear those meetings. It’s like they all went to Hogwarts or something … this posh club that I can’t be in. (Claire, Strategy, Intermediate origins).

In accountancy to be seen as “partner material” you were expected to demonstrate a certain corporate “polish” with expectations of accent and style of speech, language and articulation, dress and etiquette, and a particular style of communication which shows poise, understatement and embodied ease.

“In a meeting environment some people just automatically know when to pitch in … Like you need to be trained in the game to actually sort of contribute. So this is one thing I have found I am incredibly bad at. If I’ve got to present I am good at that. But if I actually have to sit with my peers around a table of 10-12 people – it’s kind of when do you chip in, when do you bring in the personal anecdote? Invariably its the guy who has, for want of a better word, the posher upbringing, is the one who is more comfortable talking. It’s not necessarily the subject matter, it is actually the delivery of it and how you converse and interact, the sort of verbal cues and how you present yourself.” (Philip, Advisory Partner, working class background)

“We have a client base that’s predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-class,  privately educated, so if you’ve got people going up for Partner there will be soundings around the client base…so if its banking or investment banking than, I’m sorry but you need to fit.” (Nigel, Advisory, Professional/Managerial origins)

These informal codes of behaviour may have little connection to ability or performance in the job yet they are used as a proxy for talent. They can have a powerful impact on who is recruited, who does well and who is promoted.

So how might things change?

Being open and honest about the problem is the first step.

Channel 4, the television company in this study, recognises it needs to take action and has therefore gone public with the data. Just 9% of their employees identify as being from a working-class background while 67% of Channel 4 staff had parents who worked at professional or managerial level. The broadcaster, which prides itself on the diversity of its output has acknowledged the scale of the challenge and is working hard to diversify the background of its staff.

The next crucial step is to open up a conversation about talent.

What qualities are really needed to do a good job? How might these qualities look different in someone from a working class or BME background? How can you broaden ideas about talent?

These informal codes are difficult to tackle but being more explicit about what is actually needed to do a good job will make it easier to open up access to people who are “not like you”.

Is your company tackling diversity?

We Rise creates youth led employer media content and recruitment films that use warmth, humour and youthful energy. We can showcase your changemakers and diverse internal staff. We can help you reach diverse young recruits. We can help you get a conversation going internally.

Plus, by commissioning a We Rise project you’ll be giving diverse young people priceless real experience and skills.

If you’re interested please contact

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