by Deidre Golden

Director, Global Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Practice
ORC Worldwide

International Labour Organisation (ILO) identifies discrimination based on social origin as a long-recognised form of discrimination, and one that is very difficult to address. While it has not been “on the radar screen” of most diversity and inclusion efforts to date, ORC has recently observed an emerging focus on class and socioeconomic background as a ‘new’ area of diversity. We see this particularly in the U.K., the focus of this article, but also with relation to a number of countries in South America. We believe that this trend will have implications for the global diversity initiatives of many organisations.

In the U.K., class has long been the elephant in the room that no one wants to address because it is felt that a modern, seemingly meritocratic society has no room for such notions. In common with all E.U. member states, the U.K. has a robust framework of anti-discrimination legislation covering six key areas or “strands:” race and ethnicity, equal treatment between men and women, disability, religion and belief, sexual orientation, and, most recently, age. This broad framework of legislation does not include socio-economic disadvantage, or class, but with this issue making strong inroads into the diversity discourse, and bolstered by the continuing impact of the recession, it looks set to gain ground in Britain.

Two recent events have created additional impetus in the U.K. First, the publication earlier this year of a government sponsored report by the National Equality Panel has placed the issue centre stage. The report finds that despite a whole range of government policies and initiatives to address inequality, the social group into which a person is born has as much effect on the individual’s life chances as differences arising from ethnicity, gender, etc.

Second, the U.K. government has just passed legislation that places a duty on public authorities to implement strategic decisions in a way “designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.” Although the legislation lacks an enforcement mechanism, it is bringing the issue of socio-economic class into sharp relief. Importantly, its impact will be felt beyond public authorities, especially in companies that undertake work or contracts as suppliers to the public sector (perhaps as much as 30% of the private sector). In addition, as more private sectors undertake work for the public sector, and as social inequality continues to be a high-profile topic of conversation in politics and the media, other private sector organisations will be increasingly nudged towards taking action.

Faced with this legislative change, and the related political rhetoric surrounding the May 6 general election, U.K. employers are still getting their heads around what it all means in practice. One likely outcome will be that employers, starting with public sector organisations, will need to figure out how to include socio-economic class in their diversity monitoring programs. It is unclear what question an organisation could ask its employees to determine their class background. One solution would be to ask people to self-identify; another would be to use proxies such as education (private or state schools) as markers of class. Organisations will also need to re-examine hiring criteria such as educational requirements to make sure they are not disproportionately excluding individuals from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds who have the competencies to do the job.

It will take some time for all of this to take shape, but it is clear already that the discourse on equality and anti- discrimination is changing and is moving from what has been, to date, a strand-specific approach (looking at each equality strand on its own) to one that takes a more holistic approach. Because socio-economic advantage is closely tied in one way or another to the experiences of people in every strand, this may well be the issue that helps create more integrated strategies.

ORC Worldwide (ORC) is an international management consulting firm offering professional assistance in the areas of global equality, diversity and inclusion; talent management; global and domestic compensation; labor and employee relations; and occupational safety and health. Visit for more information