Article originally published in Forbes, December 2019
As a communications coach, I’m a staunch supporter of companies having a robust professional development curriculum. Yet even I will agree that corporate training on inclusivity and unconscious bias have their pitfalls and limitations if employees don’t — and aren’t expected to — practice what they learn when their decisions matter most.
Enter the annual review process. Our conscious and unconscious inputs inform some of the most important decisions we face at work: Who deserves to advance in their career? Despite what we learn in a classroom setting, research shows that bias still creeps into performance evaluations if we’re not paying attention. This is especially true if the message isn’t reiterated and enforced within and among our leadership structures, as well as by middle management and down on the front lines — both visibly and behind closed doors.
Bias is a big problem. Our smallest words on a feedback form can lead to decisions that affect not only a person’s livelihood this year but their career trajectory for years to come.
All it takes is a single bad review to halt someone’s rise to rockstar status, leaving their career dreams hanging by a thread. In cases where the employees being held back are disproportionately from underrepresented groups, as is common in many professional services industries, the issue of bias can compound into visible trends across a company.
So before you sit down to tackle this year’s performance paperwork, consider the following tactics for putting the lessons you (may have been forced to) learn about bias into practice when writing performance reviews.
1. Make your structure work for everyone.
Your organization’s performance review form shouldn’t be open to any interpretation. If you find yourself unclear on the expectations and what they mean for your feedback, then talk to someone in HR about how you can improve the performance form. When reviews are vague, bias can thrive, and if your forms aren’t soliciting consistent data from all users, then an adjustment is warranted — for the sake of a level playing field for all employees, no matter their background.
We strongly recommend a numerical scale that assigns ranks to clearly defined behaviors, providing concrete examples of the performance. This approach guides evaluators in their recall process when they might otherwise lean on subjective beliefs. The result will be a more uniform application of your organization’s performance criteria, as well as staff who can focus their performance on what matters to your company’s values.
2. Think twice about your word choice.
The language you choose matters more than you might think — and it matters especially more during employee evaluations than during your normal course of business. When studied across many industries, unfair gender-based trends emerged related to word choice in performance reviews. Generic language like “good” was shown to vary widely in terms of meaning. As pointed out earlier, this lack of clarity invites ambiguity, introducing subjectivity into what should be a mostly objective process.
As one example of the impact of word choice, the constructive feedback delivered to female and male employees often differs in their framing — as a weakness versus a growth area, respectively. Then finding doesn’t change even when women are the ones doing the evaluating, suggesting this is a social construct more than anything else. Women in the workplace might be criticized for “their inadequate relationships with clients,” while men modeling similar behavior are encouraged to “strengthen their client relationship skills.” This subtle difference between positive, actionable language and static, negative language is important.
The reviewer’s good intentions are not in doubt — but the details and nuances that ensure you understand the person’s behavior and performance do not translate when your written comments are shared with unfamiliar readers. The meaning gets murky, and others may interpret the performance of these two people differently. Unfortunately, this misinterpretation will likely compound over many years in that person’s career too.
3. Quit with the creativity!
Inspiring, compelling narratives may win over your clients and move target audiences to action. But performance evaluations are not the venue for showing off your extensive vocabulary or top-shelf writing skills. Variation is the opposite of ideal in the case of evaluations. Repetition across evaluators may be boring, but being consistent is much more vital. See tip No. 2 for the rationale on being clear on your meaning and employing the same language when you do, in fact, mean the same thing.
4. Spread the word about bias.
Even if training won’t solve the problem entirely, any attempt at improved understanding about bias is worthwhile. Ask your HR team for resources about feedback and bias. At the very least, make sure all your direct reports and their reviewers know about its effects — and I mean “all” literally. The phenomenon of bias isn’t isolated to a single gender, seniority, generation, or industry. It’s a human thing.
Everyone at your organization should be held accountable for having a baseline understanding of bias and its surreptitious way of tipping the scales in the (ideally) objective annual review process. Clarity of language is the key. Only when people throughout your organization take what they know about bias and actively apply it will the trends about diversity and inclusion on a large scale start to change for the better.