by Kristina Murkett
Monday, 13
September 2021

KPMG enters the diversity minefield

The firm wants more working class staff, but can't define who they are
by Kristina Murkett
KPMG wants a significant percentage of these people to be working class. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Last week, KPMG announced that they are aiming to recruit more working class staff, and by 2030 want 29% of its workers to come from parents with “routine and manual” jobs such as drivers, cleaners and farm workers.

On the surface this seems like a worthy and admirable cause, and it is refreshing to see a large corporation using a broader definition of inclusion and diversity that includes class as well as race, gender and sexual orientation. However, there are also some serious questions that need answering if KPMG are going to be able to justify judging their applicants by ancestry rather than achievements.

Firstly, how exactly do we define ‘working class’? The phrase “routine and manual” is not only slightly degrading (there is nothing routine about skilled craft work such as, say, carpentry), but also anachronistic; “routine and manual” plumbers, electricians and train drivers nowadays can earn far more than traditionally ‘professional’ jobs such as teachers, secretaries and office managers. Not all careers fall neatly into a discrete category: what about work that is manual but not routine (for example, a veterinary nurse), or routine but not manual (say, bar staff)? What about social and care workers too — do they count?

How do you ensure candidates are genuinely working class? (Whatever that means). A recent study by the British Social Attitudes Survey shows that 47 percent of people in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify as working class, and a quarter of people whose parents also did professional work identify as working class too. This misidentification may partly come from guilt, and it may also partly come from a need to say that their success was earned, not given. Either way, all this initiative will do is encourage people to disavow and downplay their privilege for fear of being discriminated against.

Rather than obsessing about candidates’ background, there are other ways that KPMG can help — for example, funding travel expenses or even accommodation for interviews and internships; expanding their work with academies and comprehensive schools; and promoting their apprenticeship schemes so that students don’t need a degree to get their foot in the door.

And if we really want to encourage social mobility, then levelling the playing field needs to come much earlier, through better state education. No one wants to carry the stigma — that inevitably comes with any form of positive discrimination or affirmative action — that they are part of some ‘special’ category that needs extra help to get on. Instead, we need to raise the standards at state schools so that disadvantaged students have the ability, experience and qualifications needed to compete in their own right.

Finally, it’s hard not to feel that this policy is actually self-serving corporate posturing that provides a timely distraction from KPMG’s bigger problems. Earlier this month KPMG was accused of giving false and misleading information to the Financial Reporting Council, whilst in July the firm was criticised by the UK accounting regulator for its ‘unacceptable’ bank audits for the third year in the row.

Even if we could assume that their intentions are honourable, pigeon-holing staff into a particular class, and disregarding years of experience and hard work, seems to cause more problems than it solves. Ultimately the aim should be equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

Join the discussion

  • When does one cease to be “working class”?

    So, a “working class” person “does good” and becomes a partner at KPMG. This person’s children cannot be working class, and are therefore cut off from “progressing” and ineligible to become a partner at KPMG?

    Don’t get me wrong. As a grandchild of extremely working class grandparents, and child of lower-middle class parents, i agree i am (must be) middle class, despite the childhood scars of beetroot as the only entry at the table at my grandparents’ for tea. fFS what child would eat beetroot for tea now, on its own, because it was grown in the allotment for free (cf. “veganism”)?

    There’s a reason i’ve worked my proverbial b o llcks off. I don’t want to be my grandparents. And yet, my children are to be penalised for it.

  • Hopelessly misguided. They should be scrapping all diversity targets and recruiting solely on merit.

    That aside, apart from the difficulty of defining working class, they appear to have overlooked (or more likely just conflated) the sizeable underclass, which can usually be characterised by adults of working age who don’t work and exist on benefits, or who are engaged in the black economy. Occasionally one of their children will be very bright and will do well, maybe even getting to university. The difficulty for such young people is that they will likely lack the social skills and networks to fit in at the likes of KPMG where their background will make them stick out like a sore thumb. (Full disclosure: I’m from a working class family.)

  • What class am I? My father was a sailor who later helped his single mother run a wholesale grocery business, my mother was a nurse. I got a scholarship to a top private school and then went on to Cambridge. Would an elite school and Oxbridge graduate count as working class for KPMG? For how long does my class remain defined by my parents’ occupations?

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