Perceptions of “class” and socio-economic status have always permeated UK life and will continue to do so. Can/will the slow creep of discrimination law eventually spread to cover class discrimination in the workplace? Is classist treatment a real issue that employers should be grappling with? Lewis Silkin LLP explores.
“Ski holidays for Shazza and Kev, not just Hugo, Spencer, Mille and Binky”, promises a recent advert by Direct Ski. The message is clear – their trips are affordable whatever your social class. (Hugo, Spencer, Millie and Binky are, apparently, the über-posh participants of TV dramality show Made in Chelsea, in case you didn’t know...)
Contrast the approach of another travel firm, Activities Abroad. A few years ago, it promoted “chav-free holidays”, listing names likely to be encountered on their trips (e.g. Charlotte, Alice, James, Charles) and others rather less likely (e.g. Britney, Chardonnay, Wayne, Dazza).
Both ads, in their different ways, highlight a continuing British obsession with the class system (as satirised in this classic sketch). Despite Direct Ski’s more enlightened marketing policy, it would probably be a mistake to assume it represents a general shift in attitudes towards a utopian, “classless society”. Studies, polls and reports have repeatedly shown that classism exists and that people’s social standing determines the way others judge them.
Time for socio-economic discrimination legislation?
Arbitrary bias and stereotyping based on social status is often entrenched in minds and manifested in workplaces. The way employees and job applicants speak, their family background, the school or university they attended and even their food preferences, can play a role in how they are perceived and treated by bosses and colleagues.
Given that the Government says there are economic benefits that could come from increasing socio economic diversity, why, then, has there been no serious attempt to legislate against class discrimination in the workplace? Unequal treatment on other grounds such as race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation and so on has been outlawed – why not class?
There was a significant nod in that direction by the previous Labour government when it enacted section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, a new duty on public sector bodies to address socio-economic disadvantage when making strategic decisions. The current Government, by contrast, seems intent on repealing it altogether.
Class discrimination: definition problems
In truth, there would be serious difficulties in seeking to enact a legal right to challenge class discrimination. The whole notion of “class” is a slippery concept to define. While it is relatively straightforward to draw distinctions between people for the purposes of the current protected characteristics – black/white, male/female, old/young etc – this cannot easily be done with class. As mentioned above, it encompasses myriad constituent factors such as personal wealth, name, education and speech. Trying to frame social class as an overarching protected characteristic would prove unworkable.
Evidence from abroad suggests this might be the case. The European Convention on Human Rights covers discrimination on grounds of “social origin” and “property, birth or other status”. Several countries have signed and ratified this section of the Convention (the UK has done neither) and enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination on grounds of social standing. Yet claims of this nature appear to be extremely rare. This could be explained by those countries having less divided and class-obsessed cultures than our own, but more likely it’s because the laws don’t work.
Arguably, there is a strong case for finding ways to address the scourge of socio-economic inequality in the UK, although the issue is clearly on the backburner under the present Government. But if we’re really serious about reducing classism, boosting social mobility and fostering a fair, inclusive and meritocratic society, socio-economic discrimination is an issue that people should be bovvered about, innit?
By Tom Heys, Lewis Silkin
Have you ever encountered class issues in your workplace? Do we need legislation? Share your thoughts about classism and socio-economic discrimination at work using the comments section below.
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