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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How to become a more effective coach

Teacher talking with student

Coaching can be described as the use of positive support, feedback and advice to help improve personal effectiveness.

Its use within the work environment is not a new concept.  Indeed, according to the CIPD, 9 out of 10 organisations already use coaching by line managers, and 2 out of 3 use external coaches.

However, despite its prevalence, there is very little research evidence about what makes a ‘good’ coach and whether coaching actually works.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) are among those working to address this.  In August, they published a report which explored the factors leading to coaching success, from both the coach and the coachee perspective.  They also examined the nature of an effective coaching relationship and set out practical advice for organisations on how to improve coaching elements of everyday work.

The key to success

They found that, according to coachees, the most important characteristics of a coach were:

  1. Communicates clearly (including the ‘ability to listen’, ‘ask good questions’ and being ‘non-directive’)
  2. Displays emotional intelligence (e.g. ‘presence’, ‘emotionally involved’, ‘awareness’, ‘connection’, ‘sensitive’, ‘empowering’, and ‘authentic’)
  3. Has experience within the coachee’s industry
  4. Is challenging but supportive
  5. Displays acceptance of the coachee

In the context of achieving successful outcomes from coaching specifically, coachees felt that successful coaches:

  1. Displayed acceptance of the coachee
  2. Were calm
  3. Displayed self-confidence
  4. Were organised
  5. Had experience within their industry

The characteristic ‘has experience within my industry’ was of particular interest.  Whether or not coaches need experience of the industry in which their coachee works is a point of contention between different coaching researchers and practitioners.  Based on this research, the IES suggest that industry experience may help to improve coach credibility, but also note that who coaches are has importance to coachees, not just what they do”.

They conclude that “the key to effective coaching lies within the coachee having respect for the coach’s ability. A coachee can also derive comfort from the coach’s experience in dealing with situations, and in the coach’s confidence and manner”.

While the characteristics perceived as important by coach and coachee were broadly similar, it was noted that coaches being organised, calm and self-confident was considered very important to coachees – much more so than to the coaches themselves.

In terms of the coaching relationship, the coach having ‘similar values’ was considered the key to success.   It is thought that such shared values may promote the sense of connection between the coach and coachee.  The coach being the same gender, age or having a similar personality was less important to the development of a successful coaching relationship.

Addressing the barriers

The majority of coachees felt that their coaching was effective.  However, there is clearly room for improvement – around 1 in 10 people felt that their coaching was of limited or no effect at allPrevious research by the IES has also shown that as many as 84% of coachees have faced barriers to their coaching experience.  These include:

  1. Unclear goals
  2. Emotions getting in the way
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Unsupportive boss
  5. Defensiveness

Coachees also faced difficulties with:

  • Their own readiness and engagement
  • The coaching model used
  • Organisational culture/boss
  • Coaches skills or manner
  • External events
  • The coaching relationship

Awareness of the barriers commonly experienced by coachees and the factors coachees perceive as contributing towards their success is a useful first step towards developing and adopting effective coaching practices.

Improving coaching practice

According to the IES, their research on coaching is a conscious attempt to “shift away from ‘guru’- led coaching practices to research-informed and evidence-based practices”.  Based on their research to date, they offer the following advice for coaches and line managers:

  • Not to worry about having less experience than coachees – that the coachee having respect for your ability is more important
  • Weave reflection into everyday coaching practice after each session/encounter – consider how to best help your coachee, how your coaching made a difference, and how your coaching compares to that of others
  • Obtain feedback from your coachee about what you did that made the coaching successful (or unsuccessful) for them, and ask them to contribute to collective feedback mechanisms such as evaluation surveys

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our briefing on coaching and mentoring.

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