Co-op Group launches plan to drive social mobility in its own ranks

The announcement follows a survey commissioned by the retail society which unveiled serious concerns about the ‘class ceiling’ in the UK

The Co-op Group is taking action to break the ‘class ceiling’, as research reveals that a significant number of people believe that what they achieve in life is dictated by their background.

Nearly a fifth (17%) of UK adults believe they have missed out on a job due to their background, accent or social status, with 10% revealing that they have been teased for their accent. As a result, a quarter (26%) have changed the way they look for a job interview and a tenth (11%) have changed the way they speak at work.

Researcher ICM was commissioned by the Group to survey over 8,500 people on the experiences, life chances and impact of social mobility. Over two-fifths (41%) of young people believe what they achieve in life is determined by their socio-economic background. Over a third (34%) feel it is determined by where they come from, and a quarter (25%) see it being determined by their race or ethnicity.

Many believe the opportunities available to them are fewer and the outlook tougher, because of their background. Over a third (35%) of young people agree that lots of careers aren’t open to people like them and that their accent and the way they talk reduces the opportunities available to them (29%).

Where young people turn to for advice, are often their immediate circle therefore are more likely to be from their own socio-economic background or class, creating an echo chamber. When looking for advice, nearly three-quarters (71%) will look to their parents, nearly a half (49%) to their friends/peers.

Those who are the first of their immediate family to go or consider going to university are significantly more pessimistic about their future prospects than those who have relatives who are university educated. A third (31%) of first-generation university students believe they won’t achieve their career (31%) or life (29%) goals. This was the case for just a fifth (22%) of students who have immediate family members who are university educated.

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Now the Group has undertaken research with Making The Leap, a grassroots social mobility charity, to capture the diversity of views and experiences of Lower Socio-economic Background (LSEB) individuals across work levels, business areas, and a range of personal characteristics within its own ranks.

In light of the research, the retailer is introducing a 9-point business plan on social mobility, which includes:

  • Creating an internal social mobility taskforce to work through the findings of the research and report back to colleagues in June 2024
  • Making changes to internal job adverts so that it’s easier for colleagues to see how their skills may suit a sideways move or promotion. Co-op has been focused on making its job ads more inclusive since 2018, this includes keeping essential criteria to an absolute minimum and avoiding desirable criteria entirely for example degree qualifications.
  • Continue with plans to improve its financial wellbeing offer to help colleagues be more financially resilient
  • Establish a new mentoring scheme for colleagues from lower socio-economic backgrounds (LSEBs), with mentors from LSEBs.

In moves to improve social mobility, the Group has set out plans to ask the government to make socio-economic background a protected characteristic, and will look to publish a socio-economic class pay gap report in 2024. Through this work the Group intends to elevate socio-economic background as a characteristic that should be considered alongside – and seen to be as important as – gender, ethnicity and disability.

The campaign comes as almost three quarters (72%) would support a change in the law to make it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their socio-economic background, rising to over four fifths (85%) of 16-25 year olds.

“Too often our life chances are defined by things outside of our control,” said Co-op Group CEO Shirine Khoury-Haq, “be that gender, ethnicity, disability or socio-economic background. It cannot be right that those from less advantaged backgrounds are almost twice as likely to end up in working class jobs than others from more privileged backgrounds. It’s a question of fairness.

“Our evidence shows socio-economic background can act as a brake on progression and performance – this has to change. We want to lead by example, taking action to identify where unfairness is holding our people back. That’s why we’ve announced a range of measures today to break through these barriers.

“And that’s why we are also calling on the government and other parties to make it a priority in their manifesto – for socio-economic background to be made the tenth protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010 and it becoming illegal to discriminate against an individual because of their background.”

Tunde Banjoko, CEO of Making The Leap, said: “For the past 30 years, Making The Leap has worked passionately to advance social mobility in the UK, from direct delivery with schools and young people to partnerships with employers.

“Every business and institution in the UK must embrace the challenge of social mobility if we are ever to move the dial, and high-quality evidence is essential to inform meaningful action. We were therefore delighted to conduct this in-depth study for Co-op, which highlights the great progress it has already made as well as key areas to improve.

“To its great credit, Co-op has not only commissioned and published this research, but most importantly, it is using its employees’ views and experiences as the foundation for commitments to real change.”

Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation, added: “We welcome Co-op’s ambitious plan to improve social mobility and smash the class ceiling.

“The workplace is as important as the classroom for improving social mobility, and it is excellent to see Co-op take a lead on this issue. “As a business, Co-op has recognised that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not, and that when companies act, it makes a huge difference, especially when in conjunction with the views of their employees.

“We’d urge those employers not currently looking at socioeconomic diversity to get started.”

John Craven, director of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “We commend Co-op for undertaking a deep dive into the experiences in the workplace of colleagues from different socio-economic backgrounds.

“Having both quantitative and qualitative data gives them a rich insight into the real-life experiences of their colleagues. This evidence enables them to build a robust action plan to address the challenges identified. The report provides important learnings for other employers in the sector, and beyond.”