Unconscious Bias Undermines Reviews

chalk drawing of a female and male with a question mark in between them
Contributing Writer

9 minutes

Managers can take steps on their own to correct gender inequity in performance appraisals by considering how research may apply to them.

Every manager aims to deliver fair and constructive performance appraisals, but business research indicates that unconscious bias can steer job reviews in unintended directions.

In analyzing the content of annual performance reviews, Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioral economist and senior research fellow with Harvard Law School, found that women were more likely to get critical subjective feedback, while men were more often recipients of positive or critical objective appraisals. 

Those tendencies can support double standards in which managers put a positive spin on behaviors exhibited by men and a negative response for women. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Cecchi-Dimeglio shares an example of how that disparity plays out for two employees who need to develop their confidence in working with customers: A male employee could be told he “needs to develop his natural ability to work with people,” while a female “seems to shrink when she’s around others.” 

Business executive Kieran Snyder found similar disparate patterns in her linguistic analysis of performance evaluations. And Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, shares her experience of a boss asking her to work on her “likeability.” 

“No one wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to try to treat men and women differently in performance appraisals.’ And yet it happens—unconsciously and usually with good intentions but very negative results,” says speaker and consultant Sarah Gibson, who has worked with credit unions and other businesses on gender differences in the workplace. 

Among the patterns business researchers have uncovered is the tendency for men’s reviews to be based on perceptions of their potential, while women are assessed based on their past performance, which moves men up the ladder more quickly, she notes. But women also may fall behind because they haven’t been trained to advocate for themselves during reviews. 

Gibson shares a personal example: She was hired at the same time as a male colleague to work for an organization. When it came time for performance reviews, her co-worker came out of the director’s office with a promotion to a senior level job. “I said, ‘How did you do that?’ He said, ‘I asked for it.’ And I thought, ‘You can do that?’” she recalls. “I just assumed that my good work would lead me there, but he asked and he received. I thought, ‘Note to self: I have to do that.’ It sounds silly, but at the same time, I think many women fall into that trap.”

Family Responsibilities, Work Relationships and
Affinity Bias

Organizations committed to inclusion and diversity in staffing and management should rely on performance evaluation metrics that don’t reflect subtle bias against women. Questions like whether employees “put in the extra hours,” are occasionally “late for work” and have “no flexibility around being away from work” may penalize employees with family responsibilities, notes Susan Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell, Stankovic and Associates and chair of the World Council of Credit Unions’ Global Women’s Leadership Network. In today’s world, even with more couples sharing child care duties, women are still more likely than men to need time off to attend to family needs. 

“Are you rating employees down when they have to take time off for child care? What I would look for is what’s driving that expectation level, and are we measuring to a level that doesn’t allow for flexibility of the responsibilities based on gender?” Mitchell suggests.

Relationships developed outside of work and over common interests can also influence the tenor of performance appraisals, she cautions. An executive and some direct reports may play on the same softball team on the weekends or bond over their shared interests. 

She cites an example of unconscious affinity bias by a CEO who makes frequent basketball references. A male executive who played basketball in college naturally relates to those references. Among the three female executives on the team, one says the perception of favoritism based on those conversations bothers her, another shrugs it off and the third simply notes that she is unable to participate in those conversations. 

“So here we have an executive team of three women and two men where there are regular conversations on something that two of them have in common. And then we see a performance appraisal that says, ‘I have a good strong team leader here.’ Guess who that team leader is?” she asks. “The male executive is perceived as a good team leader, without the same type of performance related to teams in other departments. You’ve got an unconscious bias that people wouldn’t even be looking at because it’s conversational. It’s not necessarily anything that’s divisive, it’s just that we relate on a different level.” 

Mitchell shares another situation. “I had one CEO tell me that he examined the fact that he and two of his senior executives worked out at the same gym, while two other executives, both female, didn’t work out there. He didn’t realize until later—when the team started discussing the potential for bias—that they would have conversations about work while they were at the gym. And so the question is, was that an intentional practice? The end result was that there might be unconscious bias.”

Inequities in performance reviews and opportunities for advancement can grow out of informal work relationships in the form of sponsorship, which involves a leader or colleague advocating for an employee to others in the organization, Gibson says. 

“Men have had a little more access to that, although women seem to be catching up as they realize, ‘Oh, I need someone who actively promotes me.’ They’re looking for that beyond mentorship, and that’s helping out,” she notes. “Women can seek out sponsorship rather than assuming it’s going to come to them.”

Sarah Gibson
Sarah Gibson
Speaker and Consultant
Women should be thinking about how we’re actively promoting ourselves in our careers. And we should be asking for more specific feedback.

Stepping Up

Managers and their direct reports can take steps on their own to recognize and correct inequities in performance appraisals by considering how the research on gender bias may apply to them. For managers, questions such as these can be useful: 

  • Do I evaluate the potential for advancement for men and women in the same way? 
  • Do I respond differently when women and men advocate for themselves and their teams?
  • Looking back over written reviews, do I apply different terms based on gender? 
  • Do I provide practical, constructive feedback for all my direct reports?

She cites a tendency of viewing women as more team-oriented and men as more independent as a factor that could work for or against employees depending on their evaluator’s mindset. In organizations that value teamwork, this tendency might favor women, but it could also obscure their abilities to step into leadership roles. The key is for managers to consciously address how they assess these attributes in decisions on project assignments and promotions.

On the employee side, “women should be thinking about how we’re actively promoting ourselves in our careers,” Gibson recommends. “And we should be asking for more specific feedback. Research shows that women are given more general comments in performance reviews, but we can ask for constructive feedback like ‘What is my next step?’, ‘How can I move into that role?’ or ‘Here’s where I see myself in five years, and here are the gaps I see. Can you help me fill in those gaps?’”

A structural component already being implemented at many credit unions is more frequent reviews, she notes. Monthly check-ins, in comparison to annual evaluations, give women more opportunities to ask for and act on constructive feedback, “so they can step into the expectations that are being put before them.” In addition, they can speak to their professional and leadership capabilities more often.

“Women may need to be taught how to do these things and ask these questions,” she adds. “The opportunity may be there, but women might not even think to do those things. Managers should make it clear that employees are encouraged to identify where they want to go as they create their development plans.”

In monthly performance evaluations between managers and their direct reports, there should be time for open-ended conversations with no set agenda, suggests Deedee Myers, CEO of CUESolutions platinum provider DDJ Myers Ltd., Phoenix. 

“It’s employee-oriented. What are their initiatives, what are their goals, where are they looking to go? What might cause them to consider leaving?” Myers says. “It’s a big check-in on how things are going.”

In formal evaluation systems, elements that might reflect gender bias have been largely “languaged out,” Myers says, “but we still need to work at a personal level on our unconscious biases.”

Toward that end, she recommends an exercise known as “bracketing,” which involves managers writing frankly and for their eyes only about their perspectives and stereotypes about gender and leadership. Once they write them down and claim them, it’s easier to recognize and address these biases if they arise during a performance evaluation. 

Proactive Approach

At an organizational level, Mitchell recommends that credit unions conduct an environmental or corporate culture scan to encourage managers and employees to bring to the surface the existence of favoritism and/or negative bias, or the perception of inequities, related to gender, race/ethnicity, age or other attribute. Even though workplaces have made positive strides in these areas—or perhaps because of that progress—leaders should be prepared for defensive reactions, by themselves or others on the team, to findings that biases may persist.

It can be hard to acknowledge that “we still operate with a head-in-the-sand outlook about diversity,” she says. “Some of that is age-related, some is gender-related, and some is related to ethnicity in keeping us from fully examining our environments from an inclusion and diversity perspective.”

HR professionals can and should take the lead in making sure that bias in performance evaluations is addressed as part of the strategic discussion, Mitchell recommends. In many organizations, HR leadership stops one level below the executive team, which lowers the profile of fundamental issues like diversity, advancement, compensation and turnover. 

A closely related topic is the type of skills the HR team needs to develop to tackle those challenges. Mediation and arbitration skills could be useful in bringing people together to work through concerns and perceptions of inequities before those situations rise to the level of requiring formal investigations, she says. 

A useful analysis in uncovering the existence of or potential for bias in performance appraisals is to assess written evaluations for patterns of language that reveal differences based on gender, race or age. For example, HR could compare woman-to-woman, man-to-man, man-to-woman and woman-to-man assessments for consistency of ranking, findings and recommendations for improvement. Identifying disparities is the first step toward addressing them.

“Why do things have to escalate to a hashtag moment?” Mitchell asks. “It’s not that I take anything away from those movements. I’m very supportive of initiatives that require people to disrupt and change and take a hard look at their practices. But I also think we have to get better at our day-to-day strategic positioning.”cues icon

Karen Bankston is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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