This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 14 July 2015 and is reproduced by kind permission of Solicitors Journal.
A recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has fired up the ‘class ceiling’ debate once again, leaving most commentators on the subject willing all over-privileged toffs to choke on their proverbial silver spoons.
It cannot be denied that work experience in what are being referred to as the ‘elite professions’ (supposedly law and finance) is easier to obtain when family or friends already working at companies can give individuals a foot in the door.
Although these connections undoubtedly give rise to nepotism in some instances, is this always the case? Getting the opportunity to do work experience with a company, with no other surrounding or complimentary factors, does not automatically equal a job offer. On the contrary, is there anything more off-putting to prospective employers than an air of lazy self-entitlement? Hopefully prospective candidates for the elite professions need to demonstrate personal and academic attributes, rather than just the ability to use useful connections.
This leads me to the focal point of the criticisms, namely the apparently unreasonable requirement for candidates to adeptly master and display soft skills in addition to showing academic prowess. Soft skills are the ability to not only communicate, but, more importantly, establish rapport with anyone; self-presentation is something of a double-edged sword in this respect.
There is also a stereotype of people who speak with a Radio 4 inflection as being pompous and over-privileged. The important question, though, is whether this bias can hold people back in the same way as the class ceiling inevitably does in some companies. Quite rightly, the negative and stereotypical characteristics of the ‘poshoes’, i.e. snobbery, condescension, and arrogance, are looked down on in equal measure to those of the ‘commoners’, i.e. abrasiveness, vulgarity, and belligerence. The reality, though, should be that negative characteristics are viewed negatively within people and not classes.
There is no question that social mobility in professions such as law or finance has to be addressed. However, surely the perpetuation of any divide that does exist will not help to improve this fundamental issue.
It is so easy, and comfortable, to take a black and white approach by grouping people together, but it is not right. It is only in looking at the individual in question, and ignoring the bias perpetuated by the divide, that this problem will be rectified.
If the majority of employers do just look at badges and not traits, I would not want to work at a ‘top company’, if it meant behaving and recruiting on this basis. I discussed this topic with the person at Michelmores who initially decided my application was worth considering and then interviewed me for a job. She commented that ‘if someone has had a very privileged background, we may be inclined to further investigate their personal motivation, grit, and determination more than we would if someone has had a less privileged lifestyle and has been able to demonstrate these skills already.’
She also reminded me that ‘if someone has gained work experience, legal or non-legal, they have actively gone out to gain the opportunity of their own volition, which demonstrates more positive attributes than if someone does work experience through a family contact… People who work on potato farms, for example, have more life experience to draw from to demonstrate the action orientation, drive, and determination that we really look for, and these life experiences make the exceptional candidates stand out.’ Luckily she didn’t know I only got the potato job because my sister used to date the farm owner’s son… SJ