When you’re negotiating for a promotion or a raise, your manager is likely to draw on your most recent performance review—or conduct a new review—to determine whether you’re deserving. Such reviews are supposed to be objective, yet new research shows they are highly biased.
Specifically, studies by Harvard Law School research fellow Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio show that if you’re a woman, your performance reviews are likely to be more negative than if you’re a man. In fact, women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to positive feedback or critical objective feedback) than men in Cecchi-Dimeglio’s research. Fortunately, Cecchi-Dimeglio has also identified ways to correct this problem.
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Seeing Men and Women Through Different Lenses
When evaluating employees, managers appear to be more likely to give men the benefit of the doubt—and to jump to negative conclusions about women. That is, the very same behavior “can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender,” writes Cecchi-Dimeglio in the Harvard Business Review.
Imagine an employee who takes time to make a decision. Analyzing actual performance reviews, Cecchi-Dimeglio found that if this employee is a woman, she risks being accused of “analysis paralysis.” If the employee is a man, however, he is likely to be praised for being careful and deliberate.
It seems that age-old gender stereotypes often work against women when their job performance is being evaluated. Traditionally, we expect men to be forceful leaders in the workplace, and women to be accommodating helpers who stay at home taking care of the family. Both men and women face a backlash for behaving contrary to these stereotypes, research has found. Thus, simply being present in the workplace sets women up to be judged more harshly than men.
Not only do women receive worse performance reviews than men, but the feedback they receive is less constructive and vaguer—and therefore less helpful, Cecchi-Dimeglio has found. Consequently, men may receive another advantage if they receive more precise, useful advice and parlay that feedback into better performance.
A More Efficient System
Given that stereotypes and expectations about men and women are so deeply ingrained, it might seem as if it would be difficult to reduce gender bias in performance reviews. But Cecchi-Dimeglio has been able to do so in her field experiments at professional services firms.
Specifically, she created automated, tailor-made communication tools that provide instant feedback on employees’ weekly—not quarterly—performance. The feedback comes from multiple sources, including an employee’s supervisors, colleagues, and clients, rather than just from his or her manager. In addition, the language of feedback options is gender-neutral in an attempt to eliminate bias. Although employees are rated once a week, the feedback is still presented to them quarterly by their manager.
The result? More objective feedback—and far less bias against women. The new tools enabled those giving feedback to more easily recognize the strengths of the women they were evaluating, such as a collaborative style or good listening skills. For example, a client might (or might not) choose to give the feedback, “The employee is a team player and understands how to help others in time of need.” By asking respondents to evaluate a range of behaviors, the system encourages them to look beyond the stereotypically male behaviors, such as assertiveness and decisiveness, prized in many offices.
Filing frequent employee reviews may sound time-consuming, but respondents need only spend about 15 minutes per week evaluating an employee to see results, according to Cecchi-Dimeglio. For managers, the benefits are considerable: they receive more objective, detailed information about their employees from a range of people. In the process, managers learn what support each employee needs to improve.
Promoting Fairer Performance Reviews
Other organizations can get more useful data from performance reviews by implementing simple changes, according to Cecchi-Dimeglio, including the following:
- Invest in a system that continuously collects performance data from a variety of people.
- Ensure that the language used in the system is gender-neutral and assesses both traditionally male and traditionally female strengths.
- Train appraisers to give feedback using well-specified criteria, with input from both the employer and the employee.
When they conduct inefficient, biased performance reviews, organizations hold back a significant percentage of the workforce from achieving their full potential. By implementing fairer, more precise systems, managers can set all of their employees up for success.
What flaws, if any, do you see in your organization’s performance review system?