Discrimination is a tightening net of issues and demands around HR. This week there was another tug on the drawstring, this time from a relatively new direction: social class.
The TUC’s report into ‘Building working class power’ points to workplaces as rife with inequalities, a class pay gap and fewer opportunities for employees from working-class backgrounds. In other words, there’s snobbish attitudes towards how other people speak, their manner and character. Through unconscious bias, middle-class people recruit and promote those that are more like them, and are more likely to be tough in their judgments of those who aren’t.
The TUC wants the Government to legislate on class inequality in workplaces, making it an offence to discriminate on the basis of class, and compulsory to report on class pay gaps.
As a form of bias, it looks an even more difficult weave of attitudes and behaviours to unpick than any other. Legal firms have been quick to flag the basic problems of trying to define social classes, what elements to include, and then to collect data that can quantify social background. It’s not as straightforward as gender or race. Is someone disadvantaged because they grew up in social housing, or because they went to a comprehensive school or a university at the lower end of the rankings? Is it discrimination to recruit mostly Russell Group graduates onto fast-track schemes?
HR are more than capable of dealing with discrimination without more enforced requirements around reporting. Workplaces don’t need more angst from rules and regulations, they need better conversations. Discrimination mediation can be a useful option for certain cases. After all, the aim surely is for more understanding, fairness and harmony – not pressure, suspicion, or high levels of discrimination investigations.
Building higher levels of Conversational Intelligence across employees is fundamental to creating an environment where concerns can be aired in a constructive way; where people have trust in their managers and colleagues to listen and respond in the right ways. Talking and listening are the route to awareness, understanding and empathy – in other words, the way to break down all the lingering kinds of unconscious (and conscious) assumptions and prejudices that can lead to discrimination.
For all our sophistication as employees in many ways, it’s the conversations side that lets us down. More and more, better conversations skills will help HR deal with some of its most difficult problems.
Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP.