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Policy Matters

How does performance valuation work in your office?  Do you think it needs reviewing?  This blog from Helen Broadbridge looks at some of the possible bias that may impact the performance process.

Policy focus - performance evaluation

There is no single organisational policy change that would suddenly propel us to roughly 50% female representation in decision-making bodies. But, as they say, every little helps. In this blog, I’ll look at performance evaluations and research that proposes how one area of policy could be tweaked to make it easier for organisations to progress women.

In 2019, a mid-market US law firm approached the Center for WorkLife Law to ask for help understanding bias in their performance evaluation process. A spot-check of evaluations had identified several red flags. Here are the results of the project that followed, led by the Center’s founder and distinguished professor, Joan C. Williams.

An audit of the firm’s evaluations showed fundamental patterns of gender and racial bias. The project recommended a number of interventions and saw improvements by the following year:

1. Mistakes mentioned: 43% of people of colour and 31% of white women had at least one mistake mentioned            in their evaluations, versus 26% of white men. A comparable study found that 50% of Black men and 50% of            Black women had at least one mistake mentioned in their evaluation.

Groups stereotyped as less competent - women, people of colour, people with disabilities, older employees, LGBT employees, employees from blue-collar backgrounds - found that their mistakes were noticed more and remembered for longer.

2. Down-side only: 83% of Black men were praised for having a “good attitude”, versus 46% of white men. 27% of white women were praised for being “friendly and warm”, versus 10% of white men. 50% of Black women had “office housework” mentioned in their evaluations, versus 3% of white men.

Certain traits and behaviours that take effort to maintain, went unevaluated in white men, but were ‘down-side only’ for other groups. That is, the majority of white men appeared not to face a penalty for, for example, not getting along with others or not ‘mucking in’ on behind-the-scenes work; whereas other groups felt they had to be agreeable with everyone and volunteer for undervalued tasks, not to receive extra credit but to avoid a penalty.

3. Children: Almost 20% of white women’s evaluations mentioned that they did not want to make partner.               Women were also more likely to receive comments about being overworked.

The researchers suggest that these women had not been saying that they did not want to make partner, but that presumptions were being made about them after having children.

The interventions

The project trialled two simple and inexpensive tweaks to the system:

1. Follow a specific competency framework: At first, the evaluation form was open-ended, meaning employees were missing out on feedback that was specific to the competencies the organisation valued and did not encourage supervisors to give evidence to justify their ratings. Using a form that breaks down a role into key competencies and requires examples for each discourages positive or negative generalisations.

2. Train evaluators: The project developed a one-hour workshop to train those using the form. The workshop           showed comments from the previous year and asked participants whether or not the comments represented             one of the patterns of bias discussed above and, if so, which one.

Reviewing the evaluations the following year, it showed that the evidence-based system helped all employees - people of colour, white women and white men all received more constructive feedback following the interventions. Gaps were narrowed, though not closed, and glowing evaluations still did not always lead to promotions - especially for women.

In the long-term, organisations should continue to study their systems and implement interventions on an iterative basis - trying things out, collecting data, keeping what works and losing what doesn’t. There is no quick solution when trying to balance the workforce, but an evidence-based, data-driven approach will help organisations to make steady progress.

Helen Broadbridge is a Tax solicitor working in the City of London and Honorary Secretary of Westminster & Holborn Law Society.  She writes about organisational behaviour, gender and economics.

September 2021