Is the class system still alive and well in business?

I want to become a partner in my organisation. Will my lack of public school education hold me back?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

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Q: I work in a professional firm at just below partner level. All the partners are public school and top university educated. Although I got a good degree I feel discriminated against because I went to a comprehensive and my university was more lavatorial brick than ivy-clad. It seems the class system is alive and well, so should I forget about ever making partner?

Miranda Kennett: It seems that the logical, rational understanding that diversity in organisations is a definite strength is still struggling to make headway over the tribalism that leads to clone hiring and a monoculture in public institutions such as government. Though it's cheering that MI5 has recently decided to hire trainee spies at 18 from varied backgrounds (because it understands that those on whom it is gathering intelligence are similarly diverse), your case appears to be one example among many of entrenched loyalties getting in the way of excellence.

This doesn't just happen when the privileged classes discriminate against the less fortunate - I recently worked with a client who was sure he'd been ousted from his job because he was the only ex-public school boy in a blue-collar company.

For reasons clear to our prehistoric ancestors, it is a feature of group dynamics that those in the group want to define who's in or out of it to better protect their interests and safety. Race memory says it's sensible to beware of strangers.

You may, as you suggest, be feeling the negative effects of this dynamic, and this apparent rejection is personally hurtful as well as annoying. But it is rather too easy to fall into victim mode, attributing failure to progress to the prejudices of those in power, without examining other possible causes. And awarding ourselves victim status reduces our power to do anything positive.

In addition, feeling discriminated against is likely to make you act in a more negative way, at worst behaving like a former colleague of mine who was described, wickedly but amusingly, as 'not so much having a chip on his shoulder but the whole potato'.

So my first suggestion is to try to stand back and come to a balanced view about your options, which seem to be to stay and challenge what you perceive as the status quo; transfer to another firm that is less public school/Oxbridge dominated; or stay where you are and put up with it.

You sound despondent about your current firm. However, you were hired by people who presumably knew your educational background and rated your ability, and perhaps understood that it would benefit the firm to have a range of employees to match the spread of its clients. So, before you think of moving on, it would be worth sizing up the opportunities for progression.

Is there any likelihood of the business appointing any more partners? Most partnerships work on an 'eat what you kill' basis (meaning that the remuneration of partners relates directly to the client income they generate). This could be an advantage, as, with your unique background, you could be developing business in different hunting grounds from your fellow partners, rather than raiding theirs.

I suggest a conversation with the managing partner, or whoever is the most senior partner involved in making appointments. Tell him or her (from what you say, most likely it's a 'him') that you are interested in moving up to partner and want to know what your prospects are. If the response is positive, feel free to ask how long this might take and what the criteria would be. You may be pleasantly surprised by the response and, clear on what promotion would entail, decide it's worth the effort to prove your capability. Or you may decide the stakes are too high. If he's non-committal or negative, you'll know your suspicions are well founded. Either way, you'll have some basis on which to make a decision.

If you decide to move on, make sure you evaluate the new firm properly before you leap. If you can't go in as a partner, make sure that there will be a vacancy at the top for you to slot into within an acceptable period. And try to meet the other partners to get an idea of what their backgrounds are and whether or not they seem to be welcoming. Not all groups are exclusive and excluding, and the more enlightened may be well aware of the need for new blood.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach.

If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk

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