How to tackle unconscious bias: Step 1 – read this!

What is unconscious bias?

Although levels of explicit prejudice are falling, discrimination continues to be a problem for many sections of society.  One reason for this may be ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Everyone has some degree of unconscious bias.  Unconscious thoughts are often based on stereotypes and prejudices that we do not realise that we have.

From a survival point of view, these brain ‘shortcuts’ are a positive and necessary function – they help us to make snap decisions in dangerous situations, for example.  However, in everyday life, they can negatively effect rational decision-making.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has different forms.  One common form is Affinity bias – the subconscious preference for people with similar characteristics to ourselves (sex, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, educational background etc.).  In 2015, the CIPD reported that recruiters were often affected by affinity bias, resulting in the tendency to hire ‘mini-mes’.

The Halo effect involves the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area.  For example, a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, suggesting that there is a perception that taller people make better leaders, or are more successful. Similar patterns have been observed in the military and even for Presidents of the United States.

The Horns effect is the opposite of the ‘Halo effect’ – where one characteristic clouds our opinions of other attributes.  For example, the perception that women are ‘less capable’ in certain occupations.  A review found that female psychologists and women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) departments were just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.

The same qualities can also be perceived very differently in different people – for example, assertiveness in a man may be perceived more positively (‘strong leader’) than in a woman (‘bossy’).

Impact of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias not only influences our body language and the way we interact with people, it can also negatively influence a number of important decisions in the workplace, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Promotion
  • Staff appraisals
  • Workload allocations

As well as being unfair, decisions based on unconscious biases are unlikely to be optimal and can result in missed opportunities.  Where unconscious bias also effects a protected characteristic, it can also be discriminatory.

How to mitigate unconscious bias

So, now you know what unconscious bias is, what can you do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. The first step is to become more aware of the potential of unconscious bias to influence your own decision-making. Large organisations such as Google and the NHS are already providing unconscious bias training to their staff.

You can take this awareness further by taking an Implicit Association Test, such as that provided by Harvard University.  This will help to identify and understand your own personal biases.

Other ways to help reduce the influence of unconscious bias include:

  • Taking time to make decisions
  • Ensuring decisions are justified by evidence and the reasons for decisions are recorded
  • Working with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, such as different teams or colleagues based in a different location
  • Focusing on positive behaviours and not negative stereotypes

At the corporate level, ways that organisations can help to tackle unconscious bias include:

  • Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences, including objective indicators, assessment and evaluation criteria and the use of structured interviews
  • Ensure that selection panels are diverse, containing both male and female selectors and a range other characteristics where possible (ethnicity, age, background etc.)
  • Promote counter-stereotypical images of underrepresented groups
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops

Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral obligation; it is essential if organisations are to be truly inclusive.  By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.


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Performance appraisals – does the public sector need to be more innovative?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.By Heather Cameron

In a time of austerity, there is increasing pressure to get the best out of staff in order to improve organisational performance, particularly in the public sector.

Staff performance appraisals are a well-established practice in most organisations but there has been much debate over their effectiveness. Many say they are time-consuming and involve too much paperwork. Others say they are a key part of an organisation’s human resources strategy and align the strategy and objectives of an organisation with those of individuals, which is necessary for effective service delivery.

Why performance management?

A number of reasons have been highlighted for implementing performance management in any organisation, including:

  • to provide information on organisational and/or employee effectiveness and efficiency
  • to improve organisational and/or employee effectiveness and efficiency
  • to improve employees’ levels of motivation
  • to link employees’ pay with perceptions of their performance
  • to raise levels of employee accountability
  • to align employees’ objectives with those of the organisation

In the public sector, the aim of performance management is to motivate staff and managers to improve organisational performance and therefore effectively deliver services.

But while this may seem simple enough, is this what is happening in practice? Some would argue that performance appraisals have the opposite effect of motivating staff and lead to increased pressure and stress, resulting in poorer performance.

Concerns

A recent survey of over 25,000 civil servants highlighted widespread concern over how performance management is working in practice.  A huge majority (94%) said it was unfair that 10% of staff should be ranked as ‘must improve’, a recommendation that has been suggested to lead to discrimination against black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff, those who are disabled and part-time workers.

Performance appraisals have also been described as a “waste of time” or “tick-box exercise”.

Abhacken

The CIPD Employee outlook surveys have consistently revealed a general dissatisfaction with performance management practices among employees, with the most concern shown in the public sector. The most recent survey highlights a slump in job satisfaction and a lack of motivation among employees, and an increase in the number believing their performance management processes are unfair.

And this is not new. There have been concerns over the effectiveness of such systems in the public sector for some time. Research by the World Bank in 2003, which considered factors influencing better performance in public administration, concluded that performance management systems demonstrated remarkably little influence on anything and in some cases produced negative effects.

Lack of understanding

The literature suggests that the reasons for such criticism of performance appraisals more recently include: people generally don’t like to evaluate or be evaluated; the nature of public affairs being hard to quantify makes it difficult to develop performance objectives and measureable performance indicators; these systems tend to create more paperwork and increase both performance pressure and stress; and a lack of understanding of such systems among managers.

As a former chief executive of the Institute for Leadership and Management (ILM) emphasised:

“One of the skills that is often not developed is understanding what an appraisal is and why it is relevant to the whole organisation’s success… Being able to appraise is a fundamental management skill.”

So rather than scrapping them all together, perhaps a culture change within organisations is what is needed.

Good practice

Indeed, there have been signs of innovation within the public sector when it comes to performance appraisals.

An innovative approach to the employee appraisal form was taken by South Lakeland district council which has shown promising results. A personal qualities framework was created which was used to redesign the appraisal form. It was tested, staff were informed about it and line managers received training in how to use it.

After two years of the framework being introduced, peer reviews were good, their Investors in People award was the best yet, the staff survey highlighted many positive messages, and customer and member satisfaction had improved significantly.

Similarly, Wiltshire Council developed a successful transformation and ongoing culture change programme which resulted in significant efficiencies being delivered.

The council’s behaviours framework was developed to clarify social expectations of staff by defining ‘how’ staff are expected to approach work alongside ‘what’ they deliver. The behaviours have since been embedded into: a new on-line appraisals solution, job description templates, recruitment procedures, human resource policies and employee well-being initiatives, and corporate awards categories and selection criteria.

A training programme for all people managers also inspired new thinking and provided approaches and skills for performance managing for the behaviours, skills and objective setting.

Research by Nesta suggests that performance appraisal can also help to harness motivation to innovate in the public sector by valuing appropriate behaviours.

So perhaps staff appraisals have a future after all.


Read our previous blog post on performance-related pay in the public sector.

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Costs and benefits of the National Living Wage

English money

By Heather Cameron

Britain’s bosses have been urged by the government to prepare early for the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in April next year.

Firms are advised to follow four simple steps:

  • know the correct rate of pay – £7.20 per hour for staff aged 25 and over
  • find out which staff are eligible for the new rate
  • update the company payroll in time for 1 April 2016
  • communicate the changes to staff as soon as possible

Support

This push coincides with a new poll revealing that 93% of bosses support the Living Wage initiative, with a majority believing it will boost productivity and retain staff.

This is supported by new research by the University of Strathclyde and the Living Wage Foundation (LWF), which uses real-life case studies and evidence from employees working for accredited Living Wage employers. It suggests that paying staff a living wage leads to many business benefits – such as staff retention, more efficient business processes, improved absenteeism and better staff performance.

Potential benefits

Many of the findings highlighted relate to research on the London Living Wage (LLW). Among these include:

  • 50.3% of employees receiving the LLW registered above average scores for psychological wellbeing, a sign of good morale, compared to just 33.9% of non-LLW employees studied
  • an average 25% reduction in staff turnover was reported for organisations moving to the LLW
  • and 70% of employers studied reported reputational benefits through increased consumer awareness of their commitment to being an ethical employer

Estimates show that 4.5 million employees will see a rise in their wages as a result of the introduction of the NLW in 2016, with a further 2.6 million gaining from spillovers. By 2020, 6 million employees are predicted to have received a pay increase.

Up to one in four workers are expected to experience a significant positive impact from the NLW. If the result is indeed a happier workforce, perhaps the knock-on effect for businesses will be improved productivity.

There will however be variation across different parts of the UK and across different households, depending on how the NLW interacts with the tax and benefit system (it should be noted that many estimates were made prior to the u-turn on welfare reform). And let’s not forget that the NLW is not for all as under-25s will not be eligible.

Costs to employers

The impact on employees and therefore employment generally, will also depend on the actions firms take to prepare for the NLW in order to mitigate costs.

Indeed, the research from Strathclyde and LWF recognises that implementing the NLW will inevitably involve initial costs to businesses and could represent an issue for some companies more than others.

According to the Federation for Small Businesses, a negative impact on business is expected by 38% of small employers, with many expected to slow their hiring and raise prices.

It has been estimated that the NLW may lead to an increase in the unemployment rate by 0.2% points in 2020; resulting in around 60,000 more people unemployed and total hours worked per week across the economy around 4 million lower.

Businesses may also look to employ those under the age of 25 who won’t be eligible for the NLW. This could particularly impact on those sectors with a high proportion of lower paid employees, such as social care – a sector that is already under financial pressure.

The roll out of the Living Wage has certainly raised concern over potential costs for councils, which are having to deal with increasing budget cuts. The Local Government Association (LGA) has estimated that the NLW could cost local authorities £1bn a year by 2020/21.

So while increasing wages for low paid workers may seem like a no-brainer in the bid to help reduce in-work poverty, the full impact on employees, employers and therefore the economy, remains uncertain. Only time will tell what the true impact of the NLW will be.


Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous blog on the Living Wage

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Zero future for zero hours in a fair economy?

By Stacey Dingwall

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released its second annual update on the number of people employed on zero hours contracts, which suggests that in August 2014 UK firms were employing 1.8 million people on such contracts.

What is a zero hours contract?

According to Acas, the term ‘zero hour contract’ (although not defined in legislation) can be understood as “an employment contract between an employer and a worker, which means the employer is not obliged to provide the worker with any minimum working hours, and the worker is not obliged to accept any of the hours offered”.

Use of the contracts has been a highly controversial issue in recent months, with high-profile retailers such as Sports Direct (who employ 90% of their part time staff on zero hours contracts) coming in for criticism of their “exploitation” of their employees. The sports retailer is also facing legal action from hundreds of their workers due to their exclusion from the company bonus scheme, thanks to the nature of their contracts.

Increasing or not?

The ONS’ first Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours found that between January and February 2014, 1.4 million UK workers were employed on zero hours contracts. Despite the inevitable headlines depicting the new figure as a direct increase from the 2014 analysis, the ONS was careful to warn against this in its latest analysis, noting that it covers a different time of year than the first release therefore the number of contracts reported may be affected by seasonal factors.

The latest release also includes data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which indicates that the number of people employed on zero hours contracts in their main employment, between October and December 2014, was 697,000 or 2.3% of all people in employment. The figure for the same period the year before was 586,000 or 1.9% of people in employment although again, the ONS are careful to stipulate that they can’t be certain how much of this ‘increase’ is due to greater recognition of what constitutes a zero hours contract, as opposed to new contracts.

The Economic Research Council suggested that a lot of the jobs that have been created recently have come with much less security and guaranteed pay. And the UK Commission for Employment and Skills have noted that 33% of people on zero hour contracts would like to work more hours (either in their current job or in a different one), compared to just 13% of people not on a zero hour contract.

Zero hours and the general election

The issue of the use of zero hours contracts looks set to become a key feature of parties’ campaigns in the upcoming general election. Current Secretary of Business, Innovation and Skills – Liberal Democrat Vince Cable – has already put forward legislation (clause 151 of the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill, currently before the House of Lords) which would see exclusivity clauses in contracts (which prevent those employed on zero hours contracts from seeking additional work to supplement their income) banned.

The Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has however defended the contracts, arguing that they “provide people with a flexible way of working and the freedom to arrange jobs around other commitments” and “allow employers to be competitive in response to market trends”.

What of the other parties? Labour has vowed to “end exploitative zero hours contracts” and introduce “new rights” to employees on such contracts, however has stopped short of proposing to ban employers from offering them altogether. Somewhat embarrassingly for the party, figures released by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and seized on by the tabloids, have indicated that over 30 Labour MPs employed staff on zero hours contracts in 2014.

The Green Party is firmly against the use of zero hours contracts altogether: leader Natalie Bennett has been calling on the government to place an outright ban on them since 2013. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has also criticised the long-term use of zero hours contracts by employers, and has called for large employers to be subject to a code of conduct as to how they are applied.

Zero hours contracts aren’t a financial necessity

In these times of budget cuts, many local authorities have argued that they have no choice but to offer some of their workers zero hours contracts. One area in which this has been particularly prevalent is in the provision of social care, with some employees paid on a ‘time and task’ basis, i.e. only for the amount of time they actually spend with a client, which can be as little as 15 minutes in some cases.

In 2012, Southwark Council took the decision to move away from this approach, after feedback from care workers and service users indicated that it did not allow workers to carry out their duties with the required level of compassion. The Council carried out a review of their homecare services and found that extending the length of visits greatly helped in keeping service users healthy in their own homes and out of hospital and residential care. It also noted that the costs of providing longer visits had been ‘passed on’ to their care workforce over time through the use of zero hours contracts and, wishing to end this, announced that from October 2014 they would be eliminating their use altogether, and offering guaranteed hours of employment to their staff.

Immediate reaction to the release of the latest figures has been plentiful; it now remains to be seen whether it is reflected in party campaigns in the forthcoming general election.


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on zero hours contracts and other employment issues. Items of interest include:

The decent jobs deficit: the human cost of zero-hours working in the UK

Give and take? Unravelling the true nature of zero-hours contracts

Zero hours contract: not all bad news

Zero-hours contracts: myth and reality

Flexibility or insecurity? Exploring the rise in zero hours contracts

Sharing the caring – tackling the cultural and financial barriers to Shared Parental Leave

Baby hand in father's palmBy Donna Gardiner

New Shared Parental Leave legislation came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on the 1st December 2014.

The legislation provides much greater flexibility in regards to how parents care for their child over the first year of his or her life. Specifically, a new mother can opt to curtail her maternity leave (subject to a minimum of two weeks), and have the child’s father or her partner take any of the remaining weeks as Shared Parental Leave.

Anticipated uptake and impact

The aim of the legislation is to encourage more men to share childcare, drive greater gender equality in the workplace, and eliminate discrimination around maternity leave. The government estimates that around 285,000 couples will be eligible to share leave from April 2015, and that take up will be around 8%.  However, it is not clear whether significant numbers of fathers will take up Shared Parental Leave in practice.

On one hand, there does appear to be evidence that fathers will welcome the new proposals. Research conducted by Working Families found that many fathers wanted to increase the amount of time they spent at home with their children. Indeed, many fathers, particularly those in the 26-35 age group, felt resentful towards their employers because of their poor work-life balance.

These findings are echoed by the IPPR, which found that one in five fathers wanted to change their working patterns, and another one in five wanted to spend more time with their baby, but couldn’t because of financial or workplace reasons. Another report found that over half (57%) of fathers working full time wanted to reduce their hours to spend more time with their children.

Cultural and financial barriers

However, despite the apparent desire among fathers to spend more time with their children, considerable barriers remain. Continue reading

Performance-related pay in the public sector … does it work?

English moneyBy Donna Gardiner

Pay accounts for a large proportion of public sector expenditure and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that in the current context of ‘do more with less’, there has been renewed interest in using pay to help drive performance improvements.

Indeed, as part of last year’s spending review, the government announced the introduction of performance-related pay for all civil servants by 2015-16. It is also working towards the removal of automatic pay progression in schools, prisons, the NHS and the police. In his Budget statement, the Chancellor called progression pay “antiquated” and said it was “deeply unfair” to others within the public and private sectors who did not receive it. Continue reading

Housing associations – great places to work?

protect houseIn our second blog on housing associations we look at why they are consistently cited as great places to work and what the future might hold for them.

by Brelda Baum

Housing associations (HAs) are perceived to be great places to work according to The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For 2014 survey (not for profit results) which is dominated by HAs and social housing employers. This seems to demonstrate that, despite the availability of other more lucrative options, people still want to work in the housing sector, perhaps because HAs and social housing organisations are at the forefront of a very rapidly changing environment, often at the cutting edge of a lot of social issues, so that by working for them, people see themselves in a position to do some good and see evidence of it. Continue reading

Being ‘out’ in the world of work

Rainbow flag

by James Carson

March 29 saw the first same sex weddings in England and Wales, and later this year the first gay marriages in Scotland will take place. Some proponents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights have characterised the recognition of gay relationships in law as a full stop in the campaign for equality. But there is evidence that the struggle against discrimination of LGBT people is far from over. Continue reading