Julia Taylor Kennedy.
Courtesy Coqual
November 16, 2021 8:02 PM EST

With the end of the year approaching, some organizations are starting to prepare for annual performance reviews. Performance evaluations are controversial—no one seems to love them, and some companies have even abandoned the practice.

But Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president and head of research at Coqual, a nonprofit thinktank, says she thinks such evaluations can be extremely valuable because they provide a structure for employees to get feedback if they’re not otherwise getting it. (The best practice is more continuous feedback and goal-setting.)

Recent research from Coqual, however, has found that performance reviews are susceptible to bias. And that’s a factor in organizations’ struggles to create inclusive workplaces and retain diverse talent.

We spoke recently with Taylor Kennedy about what specifically is wrong with performance reviews, and how we can make them better. Here are excerpts, edited for space and clarity:

What types of bias do we see with performance reviews and how do they present themselves?

Performance reviews are one manager or leader’s take on how someone on their team did over the past year. so there’s a lot of opportunity for bias to creep in, whether you don’t remember something really well that happened in February or whether you hold an unconscious bias about someone based on their identity.

Those who are being evaluated see some real gaps in how they’re being evaluated relative to their peers. For example, 21% of Black men say, ‘I was evaluated on different criteria from my peers.’ Seventeen percent of Latinx men say the same, whereas only 3% of white men say, ‘I’m evaluated on different criteria than our peers.’

Asian professionals were the least likely of any group to feel their evaluations actually reflected their contributions. We often hear about Asian professionals as being a model minority, but it’s a complicated experience for Asian professionals that has some invisibility attached to it.

Looking within the group of Latinx professionals, when we asked, ‘do your evaluations accurately reflect your contributions to the company?’ 72% of Latinx professionals who had lighter skin said, ‘Yes. My evaluations reflect my contributions to the company.’ It’s a pretty high number. When you look at those who self identified as having darker skin and Latinx, that number drops from 72% to 46%. They’re seeing huge bias in terms of how they’re evaluated. The majority of Latinx professionals with darker skin say, ‘my performance evaluation isn’t reflecting my contributions.’

Are there common ways in which the bias manifests itself?

Yes. Managers focus on vague things like executive presence, which was a term that was thrown around for awhile, someone’s potential, readiness for the next step in their careers, or gravitas. These terms that indicate the employee doesn’t quite have an ‘it’ factor, which is very subjective.

The other thing that we often see within the tech sector, for example, is that those who don’t look like leadership are held to a higher bar, even on hard skills. We hear this especially from Black and Latinx women, and sometimes we see this with white women, too. They’re asked to take coding tests to progress to the next stage and receive a promotion, which a male counterpart may not be asked for. Or, if they’re in business development, in any sector, they’re asked to meet a higher bar in terms of sales or conversion than male counterparts.

The third area where we see a miss for performance evaluations is there’s a smaller likelihood that those who a leader might not feel comfortable with will receive the feedback that they need. If you have a leader who doesn’t have a lot of personal relationships with people who are Black, they may be less likely to sit down with a direct report who’s Black and say, ‘Let me tell you how to improve on this one thing that I think you need to move forward.’

What are best practices for mitigating bias in performance reviews?

A few things. The one that we keep hearing over and over again is a more frequent drumbeat of feedback and more comfort around feedback throughout the year. Then, the performance evaluations themselves are building on a foundation of open dialogue and trust. They don’t come as a surprise to either party. If the feedback is delivered, there’s more opportunity for pushback. There’s more opportunity also for improvement on the part of a report on your team.

Another element to having a robust culture of feedback is having opportunities for 360 feedback. If the manager is unaware that they’re acting in a way that might be inequitable, they have a channel to hear that from the members of their team. Of course, for that to work, the 360 has to be trusted. Sometimes, it’s helpful to bring in an outsider, an outside vendor or party, to administer the 360 and to have a communications campaign around it that talks about what safeguards are in place to protect anonymity of team members.

Companies are doing all kinds of creative nudges and reminders on different types of bias just before a performance evaluation is given. That can be helpful. We do find that bias training has a very short half-life. Having one bias training, the effects of that really wane in the course of doing business. Having a nudge around bias just before a performance evaluation might be more helpful.

Did your research find that there are types of feedback that are less frequently given to workers of color that would be useful?

When we think of a really good feedback, it’s clear, it’s quick, and it’s actionable. Vague feedback is common, and we hear it’s especially common for people that the leader is not comfortable with. Often those people are employees that are Black, Asian, and Latinx. You want to give feedback one-on-one soon after something happened so that everyone remembers. You want to be really clear about what was good about what that person did and what can be improved. Then you want to be actionable about what they can do to improve going forward.

To give you a really quick example, say you have someone who’s giving a quick presentation to senior leaders in a meeting. You notice that when they’re questioned on that presentation, they get a little hot under the collar and their responses aren’t necessarily heard because they give them in a really aggressive way. You might pull that person aside afterwards and say, ‘Listen, the information in your presentation was great. I just wanted to give you a couple of pointers when speaking to this group of senior leaders going forward. What I saw was that they disengaged from being able to hear the content of your response, I think because of the way that you framed your answers. Your voice got really loud and you started speaking really rapidly. Next time with this particular group, given the culture of our organization, take a deep breath before you share your response and try to give it in a more measured way, so they’re able to hear the content.’ That has the recency, the clarity, and the constructive elements in the feedback. Then, the best way is to end by saying, ‘How does that land with you?’ That way, the person has an opportunity to respond and share whether that works for them or doesn’t, and you can enter into dialogue.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including a discussion of changes to performance reviews in light of the experience of the past year and whether performance reviews make sense at all. Read a LifeLabs post on how to think about performance evaluations.

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