Why Inclusivity Needs to be the Backbone of Performance Reviews

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Mar 19, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Equity and advancement, especially of underrepresented people in the workplace, begins with bringing together two corporate initiatives that are often seen as separate: Diversity, equity, & belonging (DEB) and performance reviews.

In today’s workforce, DEB is core to the conversation but is often relegated to cultural celebration and marketing programs. Companies have invested ample time and money, but often fail to fundamentally rethink the structural aspects of employee experience. The problem is that many companies continue to heavily invest in marketing and community initiatives that don’t meaningfully improve the representation or experience of people of color, women, people with disabilities, etc. This massive investment with little impact leads to diversity fatigue. If we’re being honest, underrepresented employees are exhausted by being told things will improve while not being treated fairly – they’re rightly looking for authentic and long-term results.

One solution to bringing rigor to equity & belonging initiatives lies in an existing staple in corporate culture: performance reviews. While there have been strong voices negating the power of the review cycle,  they are more relevant and critical as ever as a culture shaper and to build cultures where people are evaluated and advanced fairly. They produce hard data that can be audited, which can surface bias in the process, which helps hold employees accountable.

The challenge with these initiatives is that organizations have often not considered the ways that bias is often built into their existing performance review processes. For example, data from Culture Amp’s People Science & Data team found that, on average, women don’t believe their performance is evaluated fairly when compared to men. Given the importance of these processes for deciding who is eligible for leadership development, promotion, and even additional compensation, separating considerations of equity from performance creates opportunities for discrimination.

Without performance reviews, companies lose a key opportunity to measure and fix the inequalities that exist within the systems they’ve built. In an effort to craft more effective and inclusive performance reviews, organizations must hold employees accountable for mastery of a broader set of skills, educate employees on how language can reveal implicit bias and revamp how feedback is collected.

Consider what you are evaluating

Some organizations have outdated methods when it comes to assessing employees’ skills and contributions.  For example, we often view technical skills as the most important–or only–aspect of performance we consider. Yet, evaluating only technical abilities often leads to the “brilliant jerk” being normalized, rewarded, and promoted. This often means that companies don’t consider things like emotional intelligence or willingness to contribute to Employee Resource Groups, for example, a part of “performance.”  This leads to people with a specific skill set that are awarded the opportunity to advance their careers without repercussions for poor behavior or leadership. This can be a damaging cycle to company culture, undervaluing the value underrepresented people often bring to the workplace and leading to employee disengagement.

Companies that want to align their intent to build diverse, equitable workplaces need to fundamentally shift their approach. Choose to value contributions across categories like team members’ contributions to culture, mentoring, and the work they’ve done to create a more inclusive workplace. Research shows that leaders who prioritize inclusivity on average see a 17% increase in team performance, demonstrating a need to assess these skills to build the strongest, most resilient teams.

Watch for language that indicates bias

Performance reviews, without careful design and auditing, are often an intractable morass of unconscious bias. Encouragingly, there are common linguistic patterns that provide clues that evaluations aren’t as objective as intended.

When describing the accomplishments of our peers and colleagues, bias can often be disguised through non-specific and gendered language. In a recent performance feedback survey, Culture Amp found that male employees receive more specific “work-related” feedback where female employees receive nearly 1.4 times more “personality-based” feedback. In addition, the research found that in 81,000 performance evaluations, managers used more negative language for women, like selfish, inept, and aggressive, while naturally using positive language for men – describing them as analytical and competent. It’s absolutely imperative to educate our managers about the language used when they evaluate the work of their employees. It’s the first step in mitigating this bias and fosters unbiased conversations with our colleagues during performance reviews.

One way that bias is revealed through language is the type of evidence about work performance we collect for women becomes less about their skill set, and more about characteristics such as luck, niceness, and the ability to spend long hours in the office. For example, how many women you know have been called “abrasive”? How many men? We expect women to be nice and emotionally manage others, all while having to provide more evidence of their competence than their male peers.

Companies can level the playing field for underrepresented people by educating leaders about the language of bias, and giving them tools to help them identify it in real-time.

Collect more feedback, correctly

Feedback is often rife with bias: our expectations and judgments are strongly influenced by social stereotypes based on people’s identities. Our memories tend to be selective– we remember successes from people who are well represented and remember failures from those who are underrepresented. We also tend to be more effective at identifying errors in the work of underrepresented people.

These patterns create performance reviews in which the bar for well-represented employees is unfairly low, denying employees from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunities they have earned.

To create a truly equitable workplace, it’s essential for companies to understand and mitigate the human bias built into evaluations and feedback. As recruiting, retaining, and engaging a workforce becomes a more crucial part of business success, organizations that build equitable processes will have a significant advantage.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.