This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: Why do so many working-class people feel alienated at work?

Sophie
I come from a background where TV is very much something that you don’t work in. It’s very much of a sort of a place that lacks aspiration. So getting into TV never really seemed achievable. The Creative Access internship role helped because it was my breakthrough for TV. I couldn’t believe it when I got it and when I first started out, I think I was very unconfident, nervous. TV again felt so other and just something completely out of the realm of what I was used to. Tips for people starting out, I would say that just be confident in yourself. You know, sometimes when you come from a place where there is an industry you’re not used to, it can be really quite scary and you don’t feel good enough, but actually, you’re completely capable and I think that’s something that I still need to remind myself of, but obviously, things like Creative Access and the internship that I got really remind me of that.

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It with me, Isabel Berwick.

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Isabel Berwick
Few years ago, I was having a conversation with a successful friend who was talking about how they kept silent in big group conversations with colleagues because they were always worried that they were gonna be found out for being working class. And I remember then back in my 20s when it seemed perfectly normal for the very loud, very confident people I knew at that time, some of whom had been at the most expensive schools in the world, to suggest that anyone who found them objectionable was just jealous or inverted commas, “chippy”, as in having a chip on their shoulder. It took me far, far too long to realise how much of my own success was based purely on my privileged background in education. Holding a conversation with pretty much anyone holds no social or class fears for me. And all of this got me thinking about class at work, not just in the sense of what barriers people might face, but also how it changes the way our workplaces operate or feel, essentially the culture.

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That voice you heard at the start of the podcast, we’re gonna call her Sophie. And Sophie works in the TV industry and benefited from the work of Creative Access. It’s a social enterprise whose mission is to improve diversity and inclusion across UK creative industries. Creative Access provided Sophie with that important foot in the door into the TV industry and it was via an internship. And the point Sophie highlights about feeling under-confident, not being good enough and out of place are the troubling things that I really want to try and tackle in this episode and relate to cultures that have become deeply entrenched within many industries, not just creative ones. What can companies do to eradicate those feelings and make themselves truly more inclusive to people from all types of backgrounds? Well, to find out more, last week, I sat down with Annette King. She’s the UK chief executive of Publicis Groupe, a French-owned group of advertising and creative companies. Annette proudly describes herself as a working-class girl from Swindon and has frequently spoken about the struggles she’s faced over her career due to her background. I was really interested to hear about her experiences. Here’s Annette’s story.

So you’re the CEO of a huge group of companies. Can you tell the listeners a bit about how you got there? Because I’ve seen you describe yourself as a working-class girl from Swindon.

Annette King
Yes, indeed, I am a working-class girl from Swindon. And what happened is a long story. I’ll try and keep it brief, but I went to Oxford Brookes University, which was Oxford Poly at the time, did a business studies degree and specialised in marketing and kind of came out into the big wide world looking for a job in a year where there weren’t that many graduate jobs. So I had to learn early how to network. I didn’t realise I was networking at the time, but I basically told anyone I met that I wanted to work in advertising and in London and I applied for all sorts of things. I sent letters and CVs and basically, like I said, just told anyone who would listen, and randomly met this guy in a pub in Swindon. He was a Swedish guy in Swindon with my friend and was telling him and he had a friend who worked for an agency in Sweden that had an office in London. And he said, If you give me your address, I will write to you. It was a while ago. I will write to you once I’ve spoken to my friend just to see if there’s any opportunities and bless him, this chap whose name I don’t remember, he did write to me a few weeks later and gave me a contact name and number for the agency in London. So I rang the number and spoke to a man called Philip Beeching, who had started his own agency, having worked for lots of the big ones for many years. And he said, come and meet me. I met him, we got on great, and I started work a few days later.

Isabel Berwick
Wow.

Annette King
Sleeping on a friend’s sofa because I had nowhere to live.

Isabel Berwick
And that was the bit in the days before LinkedIn and social media did it for you.

Annette King
And going down the pub in Swindon and having a chat with someone is what did it for me.

Isabel Berwick
I’m interested to talk a bit about class because in this country obviously that is quite an explosive issue and we’ve talked so much about diversity and inclusion and there’ve been all sorts of initiatives and I’m sure in your group of companies there have been too. But it feels like it’s been left behind a bit. Why do you think that is?

Annette King
I definitely think it’s one of the things that has been left behind. I think we’re catching up with ourselves now and definitely in my company we are. And I think there’s been so many other issues to deal with that quite understandably, some of them have come first, and I think the class one is perhaps one of the least tangible ones. You can’t really physically see it, and so it’s just a bit harder to pin down and for people to really understand.

Isabel Berwick
Why does class diversity at work matter? I haven’t asked the most obvious question.

Annette King
Well, it matters because just like with any form of diversity, you get different perspectives and different points of view and different histories that we’ve all had. And especially if you’re working in a creative business like advertising is, diversity is what gets us to better ideas, because rarely is it a linear process of somebody sitting there having an idea that work gets made and it’s all brilliant. It’s usually a result of planned and unplanned interactions between people that get you to the best possible work. And that’s not possible if you’ve got people all with the same background.

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Isabel Berwick
So I’m joined to discuss class at work by Naomi Rovnick. She’s an FT markets reporter and becoming a Working It regular. And she’s someone who has a personal interest in this. Naomi, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how, we heard from Sophie then. How did you find the workplace when you started work?

Naomi Rovnick
Oh, it took me a long time to get into this workplace. I grew up on free school meals in Milton Keynes. I was OK academically. I went to a Russell Group university. When I was there, tutor said, Oh, you should be a journalist. The way you write is very journalistic, and a careers coach suggested it and I completely ignored them and went to become a teacher because I had no idea what journalism was or how to get into it. Few years later, I grew a bit of confidence, decided to leave teaching and got a job at a temping agency that supplied secretaries to publishing houses and then applied for every single job in the media. Guardian every week, got a job as an editorial assistant, then got a job on a graduate scheme, a trade publication, and then did lots of freelancing, went abroad for eight years and finally landed at the FT. How did I find it? For the first decade, I thought there was something wrong with me. I was doing well and I was getting loads of stories in my trade paper that were being followed up by the nationals but I wasn’t getting any calls from anyone about being hired. I masked a lot. I’m half Jewish. My name is Jewish. I kind of let people assume I was some Jewish girl from North London.

Isabel Berwick
Can you explain to listeners a little bit about masking? Because I think this is interesting. I should have asked Annette about this.

Naomi Rovnick
Say you’ve been to university and you’ve learnt how to use a fork for your peas. You’ve heard of a few types of wine and you go into a sort of elite industry like media, and you don’t actually want to say to anyone, oh, I had free school dinners. And when everybody around you was talking about wine and skiing and brown furniture and country houses or whatever. You simply nod along and try not to get found out. But at the same time, everybody knew that I didn’t really fit in and I wasn’t getting any fitting-in kind of benefits.

Isabel Berwick
Was it something that you were conscious of all the time, or have you become more conscious of it in recent years, as the diversity and inclusion agenda has moved up corporate agendas?

Naomi Rovnick
It wasn’t really the diversity and inclusion agenda that did it for me. As I say, I spent 10 years feeling less than and feeling like if I could only try and fit in more, maybe I could do better. And then I started researching schools for my son when he was a toddler, and I like data. So I started looking at data involving educational inputs and outcomes. I noticed that students from certain schools, perhaps like the one that you went to and lots of our colleagues did, tended to get much better grades and then go to much better universities. And then I started thinking, well, hang on a minute. I went to a school where nobody got good grades. I got three Bs at my A-levels and got a standing ovation at the certificates evening because it was Bs, you know, three of them. And I was going to Nottingham and they thought this was amazing and I thought, well hang on a minute, my benchmark was really low and yet I went to a Russell Group university, got a 2.1 and I’m now in journalism. Maybe I’m smart and that maybe if I had gone to private school I might have gone to Oxford and my entry into this profession might have been a lot sooner. And then I started thinking about hiring. So why do we only take the finished product? Oh, you went to Oxford. That makes you clever. Come and have a job. Why do we not go, oh, hang on a minute, if 20 per cent of everybody in that school went to Oxford, is it that special? What about looking at the candidate who was the first in their family to go to university and ran the student newspaper at Hull or Leicester? Where are those people in the industry? Hopefully we are getting more of them now. Companies really, really, really need to think about this kind of benchmarking. It’s a lot harder than the diversity inclusion initiatives that say, let’s hire people from a different ethnic group or let’s hire more women because that’s very, very easy to identify. Class is very fluid. Lots of people don’t talk about their backgrounds, but I would really like hiring to incorporate some information-gathering about where somebody started and where they’ve ended up. And if someone who was on free school dinners is applying to you with a good bit of work experience and does a great interview and has a great application letter, maybe move them to the front of the queue. As you say, you have to find the information first. Hiring processes have to incorporate it. And what we really need to look at is when somebody applies for a job in a competitive industry, we can choose wherever, you know, whoever we like. Let’s think about what cohort does that person come from and have they outperformed their cohort?

Isabel Berwick
Yes, exactly that. And I think that hiring is one area where a lot of companies are starting to take notice, but you have to change the parameters for hiring in the first place, which I think has been a barrier in itself, hasn’t it?

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Isabel Berwick
So, I talked to Annette a bit more about what her companies are doing to try to attract people from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Annette King
So we’ve launched a number of different initiatives to try to attract talent that wouldn’t otherwise want to or even know about coming to work in advertising. One of them is called Saatchi Home, where we’ve partnered with the London Housing Association to provide places to live for people who perhaps wouldn’t be able to afford to live in London and therefore work in London. So it’s a subsidy-based set-up and we’ve got a couple of people that are benefiting from that at the moment, which is just great, and you know, they may well not have been able to come and work in London otherwise. We’ve got another one that we’ve launched recently with Open, which is called The Innovators, where we’ve brought 10 people in to work in data and commerce kind of areas. And it’s a six-month stint which they get paid for. It’s like a paid internship, but they’ll get trained and they’ll get lots of guidance along the way. And at the end of the six months, if they want to, and if they’ve shown the aptitude, then there will be starter jobs for them as well.

Isabel Berwick
I think this idea of subsidised housing is catching on. I’ve heard of other companies doing it in London and I hope it’s happening in other places. Naomi, would that have helped you?

Naomi Rovnick
Yeah, absolutely. So the only reason I got anywhere near the media is because my first teaching job was in London. So what I did was in my teacher holidays, I started doing internships. And again, I happened to have a friend who had a sister who worked in publishing and she gave me my first bit of work experience, but I had my first teaching job bit in Birmingham. I’d never have got anywhere near the media.

Isabel Berwick
I know. And I can remember back, you know, going back many years now when internships, even at the FT, were unpaid and that was standard. I mean, but I think there are still companies where internships are not paid or not paid a living wage. Another thing I’m interested in is if you are living in a shared subsidised housing, that would create a network for people.

Naomi Rovnick
Yes.

Isabel Berwick
And actually, I think networking is perhaps the missing piece here, because what we might call social capital, which I would never have put a name to until about five years ago, is what I have in spades. And you probably didn’t have Naomi.

Naomi Rovnick
Networking is so important. So you can’t erase privilege. You can’t say, Isabel, it’s terrible that you went to private school and that you went to Oxbridge and you must stop speaking to your friends and helping each other. What we need to do as working class people in our industry and across industries is network with each other. And one thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time is form a network of working class-background journalists. But it’s very, very hard because how do you define that? Do you say, if you went to state school, you can be part of it? And also for some people, class is not their main marker. They may have come from a working class background, but they may identify much more with being part of another minority, being trans or BAME or neurodiverse. To say class is paramount can sometimes negate the experiences of others who aren’t white, for example. So I was thinking we should set something up, but is there gonna be more of a backlash? So again, it goes back to hiring. It goes back to companies, it goes back to perhaps there’s a few senior hiring managers in your organisation who either are working class or really care about this. Perhaps it’s two generations back and they want to go out and proudly hire people from a lower socioeconomic background. They need to be enabled to do that and they need to be enabled to do that by being part of corporate D&I initiatives. And a lot will tell you that it shouldn’t be, because class intersects with ethnicity and to some extent with gender. And the thing I always say to that is, yes, class does intersect with race, but in elite professions it often doesn’t because a D&I policy, as many are designed, would hire Rishi Sunak over me. And he went to Winchester College.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I mean, it’s a very imperfect world but I was really intrigued to see that some really big organisations in this country, for example, the BBC and KPMG, have both set what I would actually define as quotas for the numbers of working class leaders. I think around 30 per cent that they’re looking for by about 2029, 2030. I mean, traditionally there’s been a massive reluctance to put numbers on recruitment and retention. Do you think that’s changing?

Naomi Rovnick
I think quotas are always the first tool, aren’t they? And they’re a blunt tool. And obviously the aim is to move beyond quotas because it’s embedded into the culture. And without quotas, I don’t know what you do first. What I like about these schemes is they are not putting quotas on the bottom end of the pipeline. They’re putting it on leaders, because you can go and hire people from a group that is other, and then after two years they will leave because nobody made friends with them or they didn’t get the good projects. So what they’re doing there is they’re trying to fill a pipeline all the way up to the top, and I really think that’s brilliant, actually.

Isabel Berwick
So to summarise, if you’re listening and you’re a manager, make your hiring transparent and make your promotion transparent. Actually, we haven’t talked about that. And that’s one of the key things, is that the . ..

Naomi Rovnick
Class ceiling.

Isabel Berwick
The class ceiling. Historically, managers have perhaps promoted people who reminded them of them as a young man, often, you know, people. That “cultural fit” phrase.

Naomi Rovnick
For the sociologist I studied sociology. The word is homophily, and it’s somebody who looks like me is good, and it permeates all of life. Harder to do in, like professional sport, but easier to do in, say, creative industries where a lot of your performance can be very subjective depending on who’s pushing you forward and where you fit. Again, it comes down to using your data and benchmarking, gathering the information about your workforce. Firstly, how many people from working class backgrounds or however we’re going to define that, do we have?

Isabel Berwick
How are we defining it?

Naomi Rovnick
Well. How do you define it? What was your parents’ job? You know, were they in a blue collar profession or not? Did you have free school meals? Were you the first in your family to go to university? Are you from a minority group? The thing is, I don’t have the answers, but I have the questions. And big elite companies like banks and media companies and government departments have statisticians and data scientists who can sit and work this out. If we could just please start the ball rolling.

Isabel Berwick
That’s excellent advice, Naomi.

Naomi Rovnick
Thank you.

Isabel Berwick
It was brilliant talking to Naomi and Annette. I’ve got a much better perspective on these things. I think class and privilege haven’t really been talked about in the workplace enough until now. So, as Naomi says, get data on your employees and when you’re hiring, make that a completely transparent process and be more open to people from different backgrounds. That’s been one of the biggest barriers. You know, those big companies that will only hire from Ivy League or Oxbridge or the great European universities. Be more open, think laterally. And once you’ve got people into your organisation, think about how you promote and keep people, because the people who are, look like the people at the top are always going to get on. So I just think a more thoughtful, open attitude is going to go a long way now. And now is the moment. This post-pandemic moment, I think, is a really interesting and opportune moment to really get the class agenda into your workplace and think about it as a manager or leader.

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Isabel Berwick
Thanks to Sophie, to Annette King and to Naomi Rovnick for this episode. And please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. We’re at workingit@ft.com or I’m @IsabelBerwick on Twitter. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And if you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our new Working It newsletter. It’s got the best of FT reporting on the future of work, plus, some content you won’t find anywhere else, and you can sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to our producers Anna Sinfield and Harry Cook, executive producer Joe Wheeler, and brilliant mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening.

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