People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can experience longer career progression paths because of ‘polish and fit’, rather than ‘performance or talent’

The key to attracting and retaining talent in the insurance industry is being able to show that career progression provides opportunities for all demographics. This is because the “real challenge” currently hitting the sector ”is a question of inclusion”, according to Richard Iferenta, partner and vice chair at professional services firm KPMG.

Citing a report exploring socioeconomic diversity in the financial services sector, published by non-profit consultancy Bridge Group and the City of London in November 2020, Iferenta explained that “people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds take 25% longer to progress in their careers – not because of performance or talent, but because of polish and fit”.

He believes that staff neglect and exclusion are key contributors to this trend.

He explained: “If you don’t do the challenging jobs, if you are not sponsored, if you don’t get those opportunities, you can’t be good enough in two, three, five years’ time to take the big opportunities. I think that’s a big issue – that’s what businesses need to really focus on.

“How do you feel as an employee? Do you feel included?”

According to research published by the Chartered Management Institute in February 2022 - which polled 1,162 managers in the UK - 33% of respondents believe socioeconomic background is a barrier to career progression to executive level, while 31% feel that socioeconomic status can hamper career progression at a middle management level.

Around 87% of respondents also did not know or thought their organisation did not offer training to support career progression to employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Acculturation concerns

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Junior Garba, cyber underwriter at Tokio Marine Kiln and co-founder of the African-Caribbean Insurance Network (ACIN), said that one element he found “extremely difficult” when starting out in the insurance industry was a lack of representation in terms of race and class - so much so that he considered changing industries.

He explained: “I didn’t ski, I didn’t play golf, I didn’t play tennis. I didn’t even drink beer and I went straight into underwriting – arguably the environment that is probably [the] most dominated by upper middle class people in the industry.

“It was a struggle – a lot of acculturation issues. People didn’t really understand me - a lot of people were working with somebody like me for the first time and you could see it was challenging for them as well.”

Garba said that in his early career experience, a lot of colleagues and industry peers opted to put him at “arm’s length” and “go and talk to a graduate who was a lot closer to home”.

Now, he uses ACIN as a platform to “give back”, helping a wider pool of people make their way up the insurance career ladder.

Embracing different perspectives

To eliminate career experiences like Garba’s, Admiral Group’s UK insurance chief executive Cristina Nestares explained that “you need to be a business that embraces challenges - it doesn’t matter [if] you have an amazing set of initiatives for diversity and inclusion if you don’t allow [the business] to be constantly challenged [by] different perspectives”.

She added: “Do we really like people to think differently and tell us to our face? That to me is key.”

One way that insurer Zurich is ensuring that different voices are heard within the organisation is through the use of reverse mentoring. Tim Bailey, UK chief executive of Zurich, noted that the “concept of openness and enabling communication in a very non-hierarchical way is absolutely critical”.

He continued: “We meet with people across our organisation one-to-one and it is really an opportunity for them to provide their perspectives [and] feedback to help us learn as an organisation.

“What it provides me with is to put myself in someone else’s shoes to really understand what is happening in their part of the organisation, how they feel about the way the organisation is working, how they feel about what we could do better. Those conversations are incredibly valuable.”

KPMG, meanwhile, has invested in an allyship programme, to encourage its partners and directors to work more with black colleagues. 

Iferenta explained: “It’s made a big difference because many of these colleagues hadn’t realised there was a way to go up. They hadn’t ever been in a position where they had been sponsored.

”The difference with an ally is that an ally can take responsibility and say: ‘have you thought about that? How are you getting on with X and Y projects?’ Experience is what matters - experience gives you growth.”

Iferenta, Nestares and Bailey were speaking as part of a panel discussion at the ABI’s annual conference on 22 February 2022.