Combating Discrimination in Performance Evaluation Systems

As protests continue around the United States, it is clear that returning to “business as usual” will not be good for business. Countless companies that don’t talk about racism publicly have spoken out to condemn racism and police brutality.

Employees of color have openly called out racism in their own institutions. On this critical issue, neither employees nor consumers are looking for vague platitudes about change. They want to see companies taking action.

Achieving racial equity in the workplace will be one of the most important issues that companies will tackle in the coming year. Business leaders are looking to their HR teams to lead the charge. This is our time to prove our worth.

The suite of diversity and inclusion tools and practices that became mainstream in the ‘90s are grossly insufficient for racial equity work. Instead of driving fundamental changes in organizations, they largely focus on painting new guidelines and policies onto existing practices.

One of the areas that needs attention is the performance review form. As innocuous as the typical form may seem, research (see link below) shows that it allows for biases to creep in. The research indicates that as much as 62% of a rater’s judgment of an employee reflects the rater, not the person getting rated.

The problem is the “open box.” Most forms ask managers broad questions about their employees—e.g., “Describe the ways the employee’s performance met your expectations” or “What are their significant accomplishments?”—and offer a blank space or open box that managers can fill with assessments, advice, and criticisms as they see fit.

The ambiguity of these questions is by design: They are general and open-ended precisely because they must apply to everyone in the organization, regardless of level or function. So when the form states “Describe the ways the employee’s performance met your expectations,” managers are expected to remember or figure out on their own what the specific expectations were for that particular employee.

When the criteria for making evaluations are ambiguous, bias is more prevalent. Without structure, people are more likely to rely on race, gender, and other stereotypes when making decisions – instead of constructing assessments using objective expectations that are consistently applied across all employees. Simply put, “Open Box equals Open to Bias”.

HR can make their performance reviews eliminate the scope for bias by doing two things that will “constrain” the open box:

  1. Set SMART Goals. This will define the criteria against which the employee’s performance will be assessed from the start. Then objective evidence can be used to assess whether they did or did not meet expectations.
  2. Run a consistency check. Calibrate ratings checking for variations by race.

Only when companies eliminate bias from their recruitment, compensation, development, appraisal and promotion systems and practices will the work be done. This is our problem to solve!

Gender, Race, and Meritocracy in Organizational Careers >

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