Gender and Performance Reviews

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Most companies use performance reviews on an annual or semi-annual basis. These evaluations serve to summarize an employee’s work, and ideally, offer ways to improve.

Though widely employed, performance reviews are frequently fraught with errors. Managers might conduct them in a hurried fashion, or only recall the very best or very worst performance over the time period. Employee coaching following the evaluation, when performed at all, is often ambiguous.

As if these critiques were not damning enough, new research from Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, from Harvard Law School, demonstrates another problem with the review process: they routinely disadvantage women.

Her analysis showed that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback, as opposed to more objective pointers.

The problem with subjective feedback is that it allows for biases to enter the picture. These can take many forms, including confirmation bias—such as, “I just knew Rhonda would struggle on that project”—or gender bias—such as “Fred is stronger and more independent than Juana when making decisions.” These biases, while common, can lead to double standards for women and men, ultimately hurting women’s career progress.

The good news is that Cecchi-Dimeglio also identified a number of ways to improve the performance review process. It starts with using objective criteria, and is further enriched by drawing from multiple sources for evaluation.

Timing is also important, as offering real-time feedback, even on a weekly basis, improves performance for all employees and reduces the prevalence of biases toward women.

Finally, reviews are best when they offer specific, measurable ways for improving, letting employees know what they should stop, start, or continue to do.