Employers' graduate recruitment and selection practices and the impact on social mobility

Newsletter articles

5 May 2016

Employment Studies Issue 23

Emma Pollard, IES Senior Research Fellow

Emma PollardRecent work by IES on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills highlights the challenges facing employers when looking to recruit graduates, the approaches they adopt to attract and select graduates and how these have changed over time. The research also contributes pertinent qualitative evidence to the current debates around social mobility – the movement of individuals, families and households within or between social strata in society – and higher education (HE). Social mobility is a key policy for government and was a major theme of the HE Green Paper published at the end of last year, which set out the government's plans to drive social mobility by further increasing HE participation of those from disadvantaged and under-represented groups.

Existing research exploring diversity, social mobility and HE highlights how social background not only continues to affect individuals’ chances to access HE and the type of HE they experience (a focus for the Green Paper [1]), but also the progress made in the labour market after HE. Thus ‘Graduate Destinations’ and ‘Access to the Professions’, are two of the previous government’s 19 Social Mobility Indicators [2]. However, HE is not the only lever for change to support social mobility – employer actions can also make a difference. Indeed, there are concerns in public policy circles that the efforts of employers to manage their graduate recruitment and selection processes in an efficient and effective way could run counter to their own and public policy diversity agendas, and thus impact negatively on social mobility.

Employer concerns

Our recent study suggests that employers are concerned about diversity but that these concerns tend to focus on the gender, disability and ethnicity of their workforce and of applicants. They are much less engaged with the issue of social mobility and of recruiting graduates specifically from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

There appeared to be three distinct viewpoints among employers.

  • There were employers who saw HE as a social leveller and thus questions of social mobility were related to HE access and not relevant to graduate recruitment. These employers regarded social mobility considerations as being directly at odds with their attempts to identify the ‘best’ talent in a meritocratic sense, although they felt it was appropriate not to exclude or disadvantage certain groups.
  • Other employers, often scientific and technical employers, recognised there were issues with the diversity of their intake but felt this was beyond their control, and therefore conceptualised the lack of diversity as a supply challenge. Here employers felt the demographic profile of graduates available to them (locally, regionally or nationally) was the problem or that the perceptions of graduates led them to select themselves out of particular sectors, despite endeavours to reach out to potential candidates.
  • A further group of employers also recognised that there were issues with the diversity of their graduate intake, and that they may not get to see individuals for whom barriers had inhibited their (successful) application. These employers, which tended to be large and/or business services or public sector employers, were proactive and felt they would need to take steps to deliberately widen their talent pool and address social mobility in their recruitment and selection activities. In recruitment, these employers were working to encourage less advantaged students to apply and looking to broaden entry routes to include non-graduate pathways such as apprenticeships. In selection, they were working to identify and address potential bias in their processes.

Key challengesInterview candidates waiting image

The feedback from employers indicates that the key challenges in tackling social mobility issues in graduate recruitment can be distilled into six themes:

  1. Broadening reach and attracting a more diverse range of potential applicants so that individual graduates and students see themselves as candidates BUT this could further increase the volumes of applications, with which employers are already struggling to cope.
  2. Increasing the evidence base in terms of the profile and relative success of applicants to see where the difficulties lie BUT employers find it challenging to track the social background of applicants. They can feel that it is inappropriate to monitor background, or are unsure which metrics to use and how to collect them, are concerned about costs, and lack contextual external data to benchmark their own performance.
  3. Ensuring employers create links with a diverse range of universities BUT employers have limited resources and potentially narrow perceptions of the ‘best’ institutions to target (based on personal perceptions of reputation and difficulty in gaining a place).
  4. Developing alternative ways to reduce the volume of applications without reducing the diversity of the applicant pool BUT the use of a minimum degree classification (such as the 2:2 cut off) and/or A level points is ubiquitous even though this generally fails to address the real eligibility criteria required for graduate positions.
  5. Understanding how the processes used in selection, such as lengthy competence-based application forms and tests, can erect barriers to success for individuals from some backgrounds whilst advantaging perform better, even though these appear to be objective.
  6. Tackling perceptions and capacity. For many employers social mobility is seen as not an issue by the time an individual has graduated from HE or is viewed as something beyond their control or means to tackle. Although some employers recognise that they face problems, they feel it is not their responsibility or that they lack the capacity to rework their recruitment and selection approaches, especially when faced with reductions in recruitment budgets.

The engaged employers consulted during the study reported a range of strategies and initiatives with which they were tackling social mobility issues, and these provide good practice ideas for a broader range of employers to explore. Actions include:

  • Opening doors, extending reach and promoting their organisation to a wider group of individuals through: inclusive messaging, advertising online (moving beyond on-campus marketing) coupled with careful targeting of adverts, use of positive role models, and using third-party specialists experienced in working with students from diverse backgrounds to provide support.
  • Targeting, for on-campus activity, universities outside of the traditional ‘elite’ institutions, including those with a more diverse student body and those with a more local student catchment.
  • Dropping or flexing the minimum academic entry requirement. This has gained wider attention recently with the press reporting its adoption by large financial organisations such as Ernst and Young, and PwC [3].
  • Changing selection processes, most commonly moving to a strengths-based approach to assessment or situational judgement tests to assess potential rather than prior performance. Other attempts to remove unconscious bias include changing the amount of candidate information available to interview panels (removing information, such as name-blind or universityblind applications; or increasing information, such as using the Higher Education Achievement Record; or, as championed by the Green Paper but not mentioned by our employers, the Grade Point Average), reviewing the skills and composition of interviewing panels, and using reserved places or specific schemes on the basis of demographics (eg guaranteed interviews or work experience schemes).
  • Greater engagement with schools to foster interest, passion and a sense of inclusion in HE generally but also towards specific universities and specific subjects.


The message from our research echoes that of bodies such as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission: that employers need to be aware of how their practices can influence the social backgrounds of those they recruit. However, our work highlights how strategies to widen access can be similar to those already used to encourage gender and ethnic diversity. Social mobility is and should be an issue for employers, not just to reflect their communities and customers but to ensure they draw from the full pool of talent provided by HE; and our work indicates an appetite for change among employers.

Read the research

The core of the study involved in-depth interviews and two workshops with 76 employers (of different sizes, sectors and locations) and rich discussions with 30 stakeholders, including Heads of Careers Services in universities; and representatives of professional bodies, policy bodies, employer bodies and organisations supporting students and graduates.

Pollard et al (2015), Understanding employers’ graduate recruitment and selection practices, Research Paper 231, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills



[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2015) Fulfilling our potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-indicators/social-mobilityindicators#access-to-the-professions

[3] “Feeling depressed about your 2:2 degree? Get over it, employers have”, Guardian, 1 September 2015; and “‘Big Four’ look beyond academics”, FT, 28 January 2016.