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Styles evolve. From the woollen three piece suit of the early 20th century and the power dressing of the 1980’s, through to today’s boom of business casual, company dress codes move with the times. In part this reflects a shift in culture from those that emphasise authority, hierarchy and convention to those that are more open and creative and which emphasise a greater work-life balance. However, for most employees this doesn’t mean you can wear whatever you like. Rules, both written and unwritten, still dictate what is regarded as suitable for work. Whilst most people are happy to leave their favourite party outfit in the wardrobe when attending an important meeting, when it comes to body art such as tattoos and piercings, or extreme hairstyles it’s not so easy to leave your personal style at home. For many companies there remain good reasons to manage their brand through the appearance of employees. However, the challenge of how to manage dress codes is becoming increasingly difficult as companies move towards more diverse and inclusive employment strategies and fashion moves more and more towards individualised body art. Tattoos seem to be particularly emotive, and invite strong reactions both for and against, so where and when should a company legislate against them? How do you decide what is, and is not, appropriate in the workplace?

It is perfectly legal to bar someone from employment on the basis of their personal dress and appearance. The company must simply have a written dress code in place that it applies equally. The dress code must apply the same levels of expectation to both men and women although it can stipulate different styles of clothing that fit with the prevailing conventions for that gender. Flexibility need only be extended where someone’s clothes or styling is associated with their religion or related to a disability. However, health and safety concerns may override personal freedoms. In practice, many companies must make a judgment of what is sensible for different groups of employees based on the level of contact and impact on customers, the expectations of other employees and the need to be clearly identifiable and in keeping with the company brand. Sub cultures have developed with different conventions and norms. In Silicon Valley you would be regarded as a freak if you came to work in a suit. Whereas, a city broker would attract attention if they turned up in jeans.

Fitting a company dress code to societal norms matters if it means the company will be perceived as more professional or approachable. The difficulty is that norms have changed dramatically within a short space of time and companies are struggling to keep pace. Tattoos, once associated with sailors and thugs, are now commonplace. It is estimated that 1 in 5 Britons have a tattoo, rising to a third of UK 16-44 year olds. In the public eye it is not just musicians, actors and sports stars that seek body art but establishment figures too. As our tattooed youngsters become the establishment, no doubt company dress codes will reflect the prevailing attitudes again. Perhaps we will even see employees encouraged to put ink to skin. Last year, a real estate company in the US offered staff a 15% pay increase if they had a tattoo of the company logo. Even so, I suspect that there will always be pockets of professions where tattoos will never become the norm; where employees as well as their employers will want to differentiate themselves as being different and more conventionally serious and respectable. For these groups I imagine tattoos will generally stay well hidden.

Let’s assume for just one moment that mothers have complete freedom of choice of whether they want to stay at home to care for their children or to pursue their career or find a way of combining elements of both; their company is supportive and offers flexible options to cater for this. Everyone is happy; the company retains the loyalty and skills of the woman, the woman is able to utilise her talents as she judges best.

Not so fast. A serious challenge for many women who would like to work is the cost of childcare, or the availability of able and willing grandparents. An option open to few will be to share or hand over childcare responsibility to the father during the working week. Here companies and society struggle to extend the same flexibility and this creates a serious barrier to the aim of encouraging inclusivity for women. Inclusivity for women cannot happen without commensurate flexibility for men.

One way to address this is to challenge unconscious bias towards men. More and more we are seeing men embracing the parenting role with the number of stay-at-home dads doubling over the last twenty years (Office of National Statistics). Yet attitudes remain entrenched with society struggling to embrace the idea of men being the primary care-giver rather than the primary bread-winner.

Break down the care-giver role into its constituent parts and our deep seated bias looks shaky at best. Teacher, first aider, chef, artist, activity and sports coach, story-teller, play mate, counsellor, taxi driver, expedition leader and hug-giver; we accept men can be all these things. However, when we role these things into one, we often assume that men will struggle. Recognising men’s talent for home-based roles is just as important as it has been to recognise women’s talent for work-based roles. In working families, one cannot be fully achieved without the other.

It seems graphology – or the study of handwriting – is back in the news. A recent article on the HR Magazine website suggests a resurgence in popularity of the technique with "30% of UK and US companies using handwriting analysis as part of the recruitment process". Apparently, it is "fast becoming a crucial element in the vetting and screening of incoming personnel".

Really!? I thought we had put this one to bed. Do we still need to ask whether graphology is worth the paper it’s printed on??

First, the short answer...No.

Now for the longer answer...

According to advocates of graphology, it is possible to infer various characteristics such as personality and predicted job performance from a person’s handwriting. As a technique, it has long been argued to provide an accurate and reliable mechanism for selection and assessment.

Unfortunately for the movement, decades of scientific research have thoroughly debunked this claim. Several empirical studies in the mid-1980s (e.g. Ben-Shakar et al, 1986) all found that graphology revealed nothing about subsequent job performance. Decades of research going back to the 1960s (e.g. Reid, 1983) identified no correlation between the interpretations of graphologists and personality characteristics of the subject. In 2000, Anderson and Cunningham-Snell reported validity coefficients (i.e. the degree to which success in the tool predicts success in the job) of graphology as an accurate tool for selection to be zero. It simply doesn’t work.

Interestingly however, its popularity dogmatically persists despite clear evidence that it simply doesn’t work. In France for example, graphology is very popular with up to 52% of companies using it at some point during the selection process (Smith and Abrahamson, 1992). It is this popularity that graphologists use as proof of its efficacy. However, just because people like something doesn’t mean it has any true value.

According to the same research, the UK uses the technique in just 3% of cases, not 30% as illustrated by the piece in HR Magazine. Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind that this recent claim for renewed interest in graphology comes from Erik Rees, a leading graphology expert and former chairman of the British Institute of Graphologists, and comes with the caveat that companies may use the technique but “few would openly admit to doing so”. So, not only is the author of the claim a key source of PR for graphology but he also makes a claim that is irrefutable.

In all, graphology is simply not worth the paper it is written on. And its use as a selection tool is deeply worrying. These are decisions that influence a person’s career, their life. These are decisions that cost organisations a fortune with the estimated cost of a poor selection decision reaching three to five times the annual salary of the role in question.

Remember, despite what the 1980’s BT advert with Maureen Lipman would say, just because it is an “ology”, does not make it science.

It's official, Google is dominated by white men. By publishing their figures earlier this year, Google have made an important step in encouraging a sector-wide impetus to improve the situation. The rapid growth of the IT sector is potentially threatened if it is unable to recruit and retain talented staff from a more diverse base.

The truth is it's not an easy thing to put right. Investment needs to happen through the education system to create a healthy pipeline of tech graduates from a more diverse mix. In addition, organisations need to ensure the door is fully open to all applicants at all stages of their career, and that talented workers are not lost. Every employer in the IT industry is experiencing the same challenges.

For all computer and maths related professions in the US, only 26% of employees are female, and for Computer programmers and software developers it is nearer to 20%.

All US workersAll US Computer & Maths ProfessionsAll US Programmers Software Developers
Female 47%26%21%
Male 53%74%79%

Data from US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013)

A major difficulty is finding maths and computing graduates from a broader gender and ethnic spectrum. Added to this, women are more likely to abandon STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers than men. This problem is mirrored in the UK where we see fewer women represented at each consecutive stage of technical careers.

UK ICT GCSE EntriesUK ICT A Level EntriesUK ICT GraduatesUK ICT Employees
Female44%39%18%15%
Male56%61%82%85%

Data from WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) (2012)

Efforts in the UK to attract women to studying STEM subjects have actually been successful but any increase is outstripped by the rising number of men choosing such degrees. The case to encourage girls to consider a career in science and technology is strong. At A level those girls who study STEM subjects on average do better than the boys and challenging our assumptions that girls are not good at these subjects is critical.

It is recognised that girls and women need strong role models that are supported throughout society. Hurray for Lego who, this year, are introducing a range of female scientist characters inspired by the Stockholm based geochemist and avid Lego builder Dr Ellen Kooijman. They may be small but let’s hope a generation of girls grow up seeing these jobs as a real option for them in the future.

Beyond that we need to do much more to create the right environment that encourages women to stay with the profession. The Centre for Talent Innovation (CTI) found in a 2014 US study that almost a third of senior leaders in STEM fields believe that a woman would never be able to reach top jobs at their organisations and that women feel "marginalized by lab-coat, hard-hat, and geek workplace cultures that are often exclusionary and promulgate bias". Such bias, if unchallenged, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; women leave such organisations simply reinforcing beliefs that they never belonged there in the first place. It’s not just women that lose out. The effect of perpetuating bias is to strangle organisations that need to constantly innovate and grow.

Unconscious bias training for leaders within the technology sector is an important investment to ensure that valuable talented women are not lost through perpetuating old stereotypes and inflexible work patterns.

On the front cover of the Financial Times' appointments section there was an article about the benefits of 'big data' for recruitment - Forget the CV, data decide careers. As happens from time-to-time this is a classic case of old fashioned ideas being re-branded and re-sold; here, with the added allure of technology.

To summarise the premise of the article, organisations can use large volumes of data about their applicants and staff to identify characteristics that predict success – such as job performance and length of tenure.

Is this a new idea? No. Since the 1920s this approach has been known as 'biodata'. An example from the Financial Times article is as follows: "Employees [at Xerox call centres] who are members of one or two social networks were found to stay in their job for longer than those who belonged to four or more social networks".

Is this a good idea? No. Unfortunately, this approach has myriad problems. First, it 'capitalises on chance' – if you look for statistically significant relationships amongst a large number random variables you will find one – have a look at the excellent website spurious correlations for many examples, such as the almost perfect relationship between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US. This problem can be overcome by using a 'hold out sample' – a group that was not in the original analysis that can be used to test the relationship – although this is not often practical.

A second issue is that biodata is notoriously volatile over time and context. Several years ago a psychologist at a consulting firm published a research paper showing that students who were quicker to apply for graduate recruitment programmes performed better in the subsequent recruitment process. At the time this research gained a fair amount of exposure in the media. The next year a colleague and I tested this effect in a large sample of graduate recruits – numbered in the thousands – across three separate sectors. There was no effect either collectively, or in the three individual sectors. In essence, it did not matter when candidates applied – good candidates were evenly distributed across the application process.

Taking the Xerox example of the number of social networks that candidates use, how will recruiters know if this has a meaningful relationship next year or the year after? Times change – changing technology and social attitudes mean that patterns of social network use are liable to change. Likewise demographics change; those future candidates who are still in their teens may well have different online habits compared to people who are only four or five years older.

Finally, and perhaps most damning of all, is the law of unintended consequences. Take candidate diversity as an example – what if use of social networks (or any other obtuse predictor) varied between different ethnic or socioeconomic groups, by culture or by gender? As researchers in 1977 found* having a city centre address as opposed to a suburban address in Detroit distinguished thieves from non-thieves, but it also tended to distinguish between white and BME groups.

Beware the Emperor's new clothes.

* Pace, L. A. and Schoenfeldt, L. F. (1977), Legal Concerns in the Use of Weighted Applications. Personnel Psychology, 30: 159–166.

Andy Murray's search for a new coach ended a few weeks ago with the announcement that he had appointed Amélie Mauresmo into the role. The reaction to this decision has made interesting reading revealing much about the gender bias in sport coaching.

Despite the fact that Amélie has an impressive track record both on the court, having won two Grand Slams, and as a coach (she coached last year's women's Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli) the focus has been on the fact that he has chosen a woman rather than a man for this role. Female coaches of top male tennis players are virtually unheard of whereas all of the current top 20 female players have male coaches.

So why are female coaches so uncommon in sport? A number of different studies have shown a strong preference by both men and women to want to work with male coaches rather than female coaches. Williams and Parkhouse (1988) carried out a study using female basketball players. They split them into 4 groups based on the gender of their coach and team success. Each group was asked to indicate their preference between a hypothetical male or female coach who was classified as either successful or unsuccessful, based on their team's win/loss record. Every group showed a preference for the male coach except when given the choice between an unsuccessful male coach and a successful female coach. Even in this scenario, 40% of the female athletes still preferred the unsuccessful male coach.

BT Sport carried out a study in 2010 and also found a general preference amongst young female athletes for a male coach. The three top reasons given for this preference were:

• Their lack of experience with female coaches, i.e. the majority of their experience so far in a coaching environment had been with a male coach

• Their perception was that male coaches were more likely to have performed at a higher level in the particular sport than female coaches

• They associated 'good coaching attributes' with masculine traits (i.e. dominant, controlling and inspiring respect).

Interestingly, studies looking at this issue in a business context have found different results. Gray and Goregaokar (2010) looked at the influence of gender on the executive coach-coachee matching process and revealed no bias towards the choice of either female or male coaches.

Many commentators have looked to gender stereotypes for the reasons that Murray may have made this decision. Is he looking to improve the "emotional" side of this game and a female could help him tap into this? Mauresmo herself commented "I think he's maybe looking for something different, about emotions and sensitive things. It's not really interesting for me, this part of the story, to be honest. All I'm interested in is to be able to help him with his goals. That's about it.

In his typical matter-of-fact style Murray explained his decision as follows: "Amelie is someone I have always looked up to and admired. She’s faced adversity plenty of times in her career but was an amazing player and won major titles. I want to win more Grand Slams". In other words he has chosen who he thinks is the best candidate for the role. As Billie-Jean King explained "It is not the gender of the coach that is important, it is the strength of the relationship between the coach and the player that will make the partnership work".

Given the ground breaking nature of this coaching relationship it will be interesting to see how the Mauresmo-Murray partnership plays out during the rest of the grass court season and also whether this sets a precedent for more top level female tennis coaches.

360 degree feedback (or multi-rater feedback) processes are very widely used in organisations (for example, estimated to be 90% of fortune 500 organisations in the USA). The strengths of 360 seem to be clear: they can heighten self-awareness by holding a mirror up to the individual. Self-awareness, as we know, is the cornerstone of personal development. It offers individuals the choice to change or not to change, and in particular ideas about the areas in which they need to change.However, engagement of the individual is key to the success of 360 and as a result, the potential value of 360 is frequently lost in my experience. Here are a number of reasons why:

• Questionnaires are too long, with a question for every single behavioural indicator in the competence framework. The consequence of this is that respondents put less effort into completion, getting frustrated about the length of time taken, and responding at speed without really considering what each item means. This can result in bland, middle of the road feedback. Better to carefully choose the items to be representative of the competencies in the framework. It should be possible to complete a 360 in about 10 minutes.

• Questions are too generic, poorly phrased and the rating scale has not been well thought through. Again, all of these can be an annoyance to respondents. Generic behaviours are difficult to apply to a specific role and the respondent can struggle to interpret them into something concrete that they can relate to. Poorly defined rating scales can result in 'middle of the road feedback', with no differentiation between effective and less effective performance. The net effect of all of these is that the recipient receives vanilla feedback that is of little use to them. Better to carefully write questions that have a clear relevance to the role and to use a well-defined rating scale that will allow you to genuinely differentiate between levels of performance – even in a group of high performing individuals.

• Reports are too long and detailed. The length of reports depends on the number of question items as well as the level of detail that is reported. (I've seen reports that are up to a daunting 40 pages in length!). For example, reports that provide feedback against every single question can appear to be very useful. However the law of diminishing returns is relevant – the more question items there are which are reported individually, the less valuable and less engaging the feedback can become. From experience, recipients of such reports can at times become overly hung up on the detail. This is unhelpful, particularly where items are badly worded. This problem can be exacerbated when feedback indicates the frequency of scores for every single item. In my experience, this can have one of two effects: the recipient either rationalises the feedback, e.g. "well, only one person said that, and I think I know who that might be, so I'll ignore it". Whilst this is useful data in terms of their approach to receiving feedback, and is in itself diagnostic, the result is that the recipient can disengage. Alternatively, a recipient may become overly concerned about the detail.

"I need to know who said that", thus focussing more on the specifics and what one person said rather than engaging with the overall message that the feedback provides.

If you want to get the most out a 360 process, therefore, focus on using fewer questions of higher quality (i.e. expressed in concrete terms that are relevant to the role), ensure that you use a well-defined rating scale and don’t over engineer the feedback report – just because data can be cut and sliced in a particular way does not mean it is better. Sometimes, less is more!

I read some genuinely fascinating research out this week about the impact of the names of hurricanes. As you'll probably know, hurricanes are alternately given either male or female names, which cycle through the alphabet. The research from the University of Illinois looked at the last 60 years’ worth of hurricane data and found that, even though they weren't any more severe, hurricanes with female names had, on average, higher death tolls than 'male' hurricanes.

When looking at why this might be, the researchers concluded that people's behaviour changed according to the name of the hurricane.

One of the researchers, Sharon Shavitt cites:

"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave.

This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."

This was also tested in experiments, where male-named hurricanes were consistently rated as being more intense and risky than 'female' hurricanes.

These gender stereotypes are deeply engrained in our subconscious and this research found that people imagining female hurricanes were also less likely to seek out shelter. That's a risky strategy, given that this behavior is likely to be directed by our unconscious bias associating the hurricane with feminine stereotypes such as warmth and lower aggression, when hurricanes are in reality named arbitrarily. However, our brains do like to take short cuts and such stereotypes are a quick and easy way of processing information. This is not helpful for effective decision-making at the best of times, but this is an example of where these gender stereotypes can have serious consequences.

I'm sure by now most people have gotten the message from our work and our blogs that unconscious bias is bad for business.This latest research takes it even further and suggests that, for some, it could even be deadly.....

In the last week a major figure of authority, the Avon and Somerset Police Chief, has been suspended while “serious allegations” of inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues are investigated. At this stage the exact details are unclear and there will be further enquiry before we know whether or not any inappropriate behaviour has occurred.

This, together with other recent high profile claims of harassment at work, causes me to question what else needs to be done to achieve any real reduction in inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Research from several sources suggests that around 10-30% of workers are affected by workplace bullying (e.g. Acas, Unison, National Bullying Helpline). The fact that this latest allegation has occurred in the public sector gives it greater publicity in the media and reflects the finding that 80% of calls received by the National Bullying Helpline are from workers in the public sector.

More needs to be done to raise awareness of what inappropriate behaviour means and the fact that it still goes on in many organisations today. In this case, the claim is of “serious allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards female officers and staff” (BBC News), which leads us to believe that this is a case of alleged sexual harassment. More generally, inappropriate behaviour can fall along a spectrum with serious harassment and bullying at one end, to more subtle forms of inappropriate behaviour at the other end. It is these more subtle behaviours that are often overlooked but nevertheless have a big impact. For example, research suggests that inappropriate behaviour results in poor staff retention, reduced efficiency, increased sickness absence, lower employee engagement and can have a detrimental impact on the bottom line.

There is frequently confusion in organisations about how to eliminate inappropriate behaviour without being accused of being “the fun police”. Many organisations find that feedback in their staff survey suggests that bullying and harassment is a greater problem than they would have suspected because very few cases are reported to their HR departments.

So what can employers do about this problem? Here are some top tips to help organisations reduce the likelihood of inappropriate behaviour occurring in the workplace:

· Clarify expectations – communicating a clear policy on bullying and harassment / dignity at work is a crucial first step. In addition, ensure managers are delivering consistent messages about what is or is not acceptable and focus on positive behaviours the organisation would like to see, e.g. being inclusive, valuing and respecting everyone’s contributions etc.
· Create leadership – ensure that people in the most senior positions are displaying appropriate behaviour and encouraging others to do so. Research suggests that when employees feel supported and trust their managers, they display greater effort above and beyond their normal role (Reychav, I. & Sharkie, R. 2010). When there are appropriate leader role models, employees are happier and less likely to leave the organisation (Nguni, S. et al, 2006).
· Focus on impact NOT intention – ensure that employees know that it is the impact of their behaviour on others which is important rather than what they intended. Saying you did not mean to cause offense is not an excuse for inappropriate behaviour.
· Create a culture that is open to feedback and challenge – our experience of working with many organisations is that employees often do not feel able to speak up about inappropriate behaviour because of fear of repercussions and not being supported by management.

brainblog2"You can't teach an old dog new tricks." A well-worn phrase that hints at a rather negative relationship between age and ability to learn. Some of the most interesting areas of our work in psychology relate to the way that people change their mindset, behaviour and learn to develop new habits. As a coach, for example, I am often struck that both the ability and motivation to learn are not actually age related, but instead linked to mindset and attitude.

Back in the 1970's many scientists argued that the brain stops developing around early adulthood and then starts to deteriorate in function. Indeed, the belief was so strong that my mother still, to this day, discourages me from playing football on the basis that every time I head the ball I will never be able to replace the lost brain cells.

Recent advances in neuroscience have challenged this perspective considerably. Of course the brain stops increasing in physical mass - otherwise space within the skull would be tight - but there appears to be some fairly strong and consistent evidence that the brain has a plasticity which enables structural changes through learning. The term neuroplasticity has been around for a few years, but only recently are studies beginning to illustrate the vital nature of the way that the brain continues to change. The use of magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, now enables researchers to observe changes in the brain during and following a wide range of different activities, including sport, problem solving and music.

One area of focus in understanding such changes in the brain comes from studies of mindfulness or meditation. While there is a degree of scepticism levelled at the practice - often seen as somewhat too transcendental and intangible for the workplace - the reality is that a number of studies of the brain seem to have identified significant changes in activity in different regions of the brain following periods of 'mindful' activity. A frequently cited paper (Davidson, 2003) reports significant increases, following participation in an eight week course of mindfulness training, in left-sided anterior activation (the left frontal area of the brain) which is associated with positive emotion. Equally, there were corresponding decreases in right frontal lobe activation, associated with negative feelings such as anger and depression.

In a later paper, Holzel et al (2011) cited changes in grey and white matter concentration in the areas associated with self-regulation and perspective taking. A more recent study published in Nature by Zatorre et al (2012) further highlights the structural plasticity of both grey and white matter that specifically occurs with repeated learning.

As with many aspects of neuroscience, findings at this stage tend to be inconsistent and need further exploration, but if these changes are found to be replicable then the impact on activities such as coaching could be huge, not least because it provides us with a greater and more specific understanding of what is actually happening when we develop new skills and behaviours at work. Let's face it, as coaches we are fundamentally interested in working with individuals to achieve significant and lasting changes in motivation, behaviour and attitude. The use of cognitive-based activities, such as learning new habits, learning to manage stress or even learning to manage bias could become more 'conscious' coaching activities with very concrete - albeit unseen - changes taking place.

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