November 2020, the Social Mobility Commission launched their new guidance for employers on effectively measuring socio-economic data in their workforce. The following article by Alexandra Sufit, Communications Lead for the Employers’ Programme at the Social Mobility Commission, explains why measuring socio-economic data is crucial in modern workplaces. You can view the guidance in full here [1].

Data is at the heart of every forward-thinking diversity & inclusion (D&I) strategy. In order to take the right action at the right time, you first have to understand where you are at, as a business. This guide will help you do just that, wherever you are on this journey.

“It is the fruit of a collaboration between key organisations to deliver seminal guidance on what is often the most challenging aspect for employers, in defining and advancing social mobility.”

says Steven Cooper, Co-Chair, Social Mobility Commission.

We’ve consulted with dozens of leading academic experts, think tanks, charities and employers to produce a simple guide on the most important information you need to collect – and how best to use it to develop an informed strategy.

The full list of organisations and experts who participated in the consultation process can be found below.

Former Education Secretary and founder of the Social Mobility Pledge, Rt Hon Justine Greening commented:

“Social mobility happens in businesses, education institutions and in communities at a grass roots level. It’s why there is no single lever to pull in Whitehall, just data-driven hard work on the ground. From my time in government and more recently with the Social Mobility Pledge, I’ve seen that you make most progress when stakeholders work together in partnership, sharing solutions that work and can be scaled up.”

“The Opportunity Areas programme that I launched as Education Secretary took this approach and they are delivering improvements by bringing together government, business, education and communities to level up Britain.”

Why are we changing our guidance?

Back in February 2020, we launched the Employers’ Toolkit. We wanted to provide real support for employers with a clear goal of increasing socio-economic, outlining the practical steps they can take. The toolkit was developed to support them at every step of their journey.

However, one thing we kept hearing time and time again from employers was how difficult it was to collect data. It was a real stumbling block for many to progress to the next phase and develop a clear strategy to increase the diversity of their workforce. The reasons cited were poor response rates, concerns from those who received the questions over how their personal information would be used, how long the survey was, and crucially, what to do with the data once it was collected. We listened to all these concerns. We consulted with a wide range of experts, with one clear aim in mind – to simplify the process.

That extensive research has now been distilled into one key question that measures socio-economic diversity most accurately. For you, as an employer, this means simplified surveys, less time spent analysing data, and more time spent using those results to build a forward-thinking strategy. This is the all-important question:

What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?

Following our extensive, collaborative research, we’ve established that this is the single best measure to assess someone’s socio-economic background. And if there is one over-arching thing you need to find out about both current and potential employees, it is this.

“The social mobility and workforce context is evolving all the time, so it is important to reflect on and update existing guidance to make sure it remains useful and achieves what we want it to.

Alongside other organisations in the sector, we are pleased to have contributed to the SMC’s important work here — and encourage employers who have not already done so to start collecting this data as a first step to identifying and nurturing the very best talent.”

 James Turner, CEO, Sutton Trust.

Our guidance has simplified what was originally a four-part version into a single question. But for employers who already use the older, four-part version, rest assured – you can continue using the longer version without concerns. (But do read our guidance, as a few other questions you might be using have changed, too!) This simplified version is primarily for employers new to the agenda, those who need a simpler way of analysing and interpreting results or those who would like the option of a short, simple question for supplementary staff surveys.

Driving up response rates

So, now that you have the all-important question, how do you drive up response rates? The simple answer is that responses are likely to rise when couched in a clear and transparent goal – to create a more socially diverse and inclusive workplace.

People need to be motivated to fill out surveys, so get them engaged in helping you make the right changes as a business. They also need to understand why providing this kind of personal data is important, that it will be treated confidentially, and how it will be used to drive positive, long-lasting change.

You can begin by taking clear, decisive action to embed socio-economic diversity in your strategy and company culture. One way you could do this is by getting senior leaders to act as role models, writing blogs on why diversity is important or even telling their own social mobility story, if they have one. It’s inspirational, for staff and candidates alike, to know that even those at the top may have struggled to get where they are now.

This knowledge can be a hugely empowering and motivate staff to pursue their ambitions for promotion or take up any in-house training offered. It’s also important that potential candidates, who may not come from privileged backgrounds or hold traditional academic qualifications, know there are opportunities open to them within your organisation, and people like them already in senior roles.

HMRC is a good example of how to get things right. When they first set out on their data journey, they started small and set realistic goals. They began by piloting a survey amongst 12,000 staff, with a response rate goal of 35%. They then took several key steps to explain to staff why the survey was so important and how the results would be used.

To maximise publicity, the team worked closely with businesses leads, unions and senior leaders to gain their agreement and support. And they issued messages to all managers, adding a news article to the intranet in a bid to drive up promotion. HMRC staff invited to take part received a personalised message from the project’s senior sponsor and were assured that their responses would be anonymous.

Behind the scenes, the survey data was stored in a restricted folder that could only be accessed by the project analysts. Their efforts resulted in a response rate of 42%, well above the initial goal they had set themselves. 

The results are in, now what?

Once you’ve collected your survey results from the widest possible cross-section, the first step is to review the proportion of applicants and staff from each socio-economic background – is there equal or close to equal representation from each group? And if not, which is the dominant socio-economic group? The simple way to do this is by comparing your results to national benchmarks.

Once you have worked out where your business may not be fairly represented, you can then set about putting in place the right interventions. There are lots of things you can do, in a number of key areas, and our website will provide you with a step-by-step guide on each of these. A good place to start is by watching our videos, which highlight our top tips for employers:

  • Data drives smart recruitment – any forward-looking socio-economic diversity and inclusion strategy begins with data and this will help shape your plans at every step
  • Outreach – are you reaching the widest possible pool of talent? You could look to explore partnerships with Further Education colleges or target geographic ‘coldspots’
  • Many common Hiring practices create artificial barriers for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Do candidates really need traditional academic qualifications in order to do the job?
  • Social mobility is not just about who gets in, it’s also about who gets on – Progression. Have a defined list of skills required for each promotion – and build flexibility into job specifications
  • Culture and Leadership – a diverse workforce is a more productive workforce, so embed this ambition into your culture. And ensure your employees’ voices are heard, by encouraging people to share their ideas and experiences

Scorecard – the final piece of the jigsaw

For those of you who have more advanced D&I strategies, we have developed a scorecard to help you measure your progress. This effectively manages your performance against set targets for key interventions – outreach, hiring, progression, culture & leadership, advocacy, and data.

The targets have been set using data collected by the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) through their Social Mobility Employer Index. Now in its fourth year, the Index ranks employers on their social mobility work across eight areas and publishes the top 75 employers with the best overall score.

SMF emphasises the importance of collecting reliable data for employers if they are to perform well in the rankings and drive forward their efforts. So this scorecard will help you measure progress against set targets, drive constant improvements and give structure to your efforts.

It’s an important step to drive your strategy forward – and it is the last crucial piece of the jigsaw for employers wanting to measure their social mobility performance.

“We welcome the Commission’s new scorecard and we were pleased to contribute to its development. If an employer wants to do one thing to improve social mobility, collecting and measuring data is an excellent place to start. We hope employers will find the scorecard a practical and useful tool for enhancing socioeconomic diversity in their organisation.

Employers need to ensure they are attracting top talent irrespective of background and tackling the barriers that prevent people from less privileged backgrounds from progressing – this is the right thing to do and makes business sense.”

Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive, Social Mobility Foundation (SMF)

Find out more

In the last of our masterclass series for employers, we will be exploring all things data, including insights from this new guidance:

  • Presentation by the Social Mobility Commission
  • Case studies from the BBC, Clifford Chance, Compass Groupand Civil Service Fast Stream– organisations at different ‘data maturity stages’
  • Presentation from the Bridge Group, who will run through how best to use the data you collect
  • Interactive workshop in which to explore ideas and tackle some of the challenges

We hope that this new guidance will help you, at whichever stage of the process you are. Thank you for being committed to boosting socio-economic diversity within your business.

Together, let’s promote meaningful paths of opportunity so that everyone has a decent chance of a better future

Full list of organisations and experts who participated in the consultation process:


[1] Social Mobility Commission. 2020. Tips from the employers’ toolkit: Hiring. [online] [Accessed 21/04/21]

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Alexandra Sufit, Communications Lead for the Employers’ Programme at the Social Mobility Commission, explains why measuring socio-economic data is crucial in modern workplaces.

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