Rock Stars and Team Players: How Implicit Bias in Performance Reviews Hurts Workplace Diversity

“Ellen managed to execute on a very heavy workload and is proving to be a real team player.”

If you read this in a performance review, would anything jump out to you?

It should, says Lauren Jackman, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Medallia. “Oftentimes, we don’t realize how subtle differences in language — for instance, ‘team player’ and ‘managed’— can be impacted by unconscious bias. Even when we’re dealing with positive feedback, these words should give us pause.”

I had the opportunity to hear Jackman speak at Dreamforce 2016 as part of Girls Lounge, hosted by Appirio. In a panel titled, “The Flipping Point—Eliminating Unconscious Bias,” Jackman joined people leaders and diversity specialists from Vina, Google, Appirio, and Project Include to discuss increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

“Many companies want to increase their diversity but don’t know where to start,” Jackman says. “I advise them to begin by making structural improvements to existing business processes. This helps create an inclusive environment where a diverse group of people can actually thrive.”

Studies show that unconscious biases related to social identities can influence how reviews are written: what is emphasized, criticized, and assumed. Women and minorities are more likely to have their accomplishments overlooked and their abilities questioned than their non-minority male counterparts. “When women and people of color are credited with specific accomplishments, they are more likely to be framed as group efforts,” Jackman says. Use of undermining words and phrases like “despite” and “eventually” may also indicate that a reviewer is making assumptions based on identity rather than performance. For example, the quote at the beginning of this piece says Ellen “managed to execute on a very heavy workload,” suggesting that the reviewer harbors doubts about her competence.

In contrast, markers of distinction (terms like “rock star,” “visionary,” and “game changer”) are disproportionately attributed to men. They again point to a holistic judgement being made about the type of person someone is, rather than the quality of the work they do.

To avoid these pitfalls, Jackman advises people managers to set clear goals and consider how various social identities (for instance race, age, and gender) may influence their assumptions. She recommends focusing on accomplishments and competencies, using specific examples, and making sure feedback is clear, specific, and directly linked to relevant business outcomes.

“The bottom line is that when you don’t intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude,” Jackman says. “Exclusive environments stifle learning and lead people to project an invulnerable facade where they slow their growth and development by not asking for help.” She added, “In contrast, inclusive environments lead to better, stronger, and more successful companies, which benefits all employees, not just those who are underrepresented.”

Sources: Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Nextions Consulting

This blog is authored by Zoe Schiffer, Senior Writer at Medallia.

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