A performance review or appraisal is meant to be an assessment of your working strengths and weaknesses and discussion about your career and job development. It's important to the success of the company—and can play a role in workers' career trajectory as well. Research has shown that when women and men are given critical performance review feedback, men tend to receive suggestions to develop additional skills while women receive more negative personality-based criticism.
What is in a performance review?: Research findings
Stanford University Professor Shelley Correll and Senior Research Director at the Stanford Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership, Caroline Simard, recently added to the body of literature around performance reviews and bias in a piece they published for the Harvard Business Review.
Dr. Simard previously reported findings based on an analysis of hundreds of performance reviews from four technology and professional services firms. Last summer, her work reportedly found that words appearing frequently in performance reviews for male employees such as “drive”, “transform”, “innovate” and “tackle” would also appear more frequently in candidate descriptions used to select an employee for an important promotion.
Now, Drs. Correll and Simard elaborate on their previous findings and observe that during the review process or otherwise, when women receive feedback at work, whether through a human resource staff member or through their manager, it is vaguer than feedback from men. In an analysis of 200 performance reviews at a large technology company, women appeared to receive feedback on their job performance that was less specific than men’s, whether it was positive or negative. For example, comments such as “You had a great year” were more often given to women than men (57% for women vs. 43% for men). The reverse was true when it came to individual performance reviews that linked feedback to more specific business outcomes (60% for men vs. 40% for women).
Correll and Simard also observe that women tend to receive feedback from supervisors that focus on their communication style — with women receiving over 2/3 of comments pointing out that an employee was “too aggressive.” The authors suggest that these results may be a consequence of unconscious bias. They write that “Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that reviewers are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise. Stereotypes about women’s caregiving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.
What are examples of positive feedback and constructive criticism?
Both male and female managers have been found to hold similar gender biases. To level the playing field, Correll and Simard suggest taking a few concrete steps when conducting an annual review:
• Outline specific criteria to evaluate individuals in their employee performance review before giving them their review
• Supervisors should tie employee feedback to business goals and outcomes
• Strive to write reviews of similar lengths for all employees
Correll and Simard also suggest that if you find yourself giving feedback during an annual review without tying it to specific outcomes (e.g. saying something like “You’re a great team member on a high-performing team and people like working with you”), ask yourself whether you can simply be more specific. They suggest a counter-example: “You are effective at building team outcomes. You successfully resolved the divide between the engineering team and the product team on which features to prioritize in our last sprint, leading us to ship the product on time.”
Receiving specific, actionable feedback (constructive criticism) in our performance reviews is something we would all appreciate. And in the case of women, it may mean that our next promotion depends on it. So if you're experiencing vague feedback at work -- know you're not alone, and your expectations are not out of line — and ask for more specific details!
Examples of negative performance reviews
There’s no one right way, but a couple of Fairygodboss contributors have hooked us up with their insight.
Jennifer Bewely shares a personal story about her first performance evaluation:
My first performance review came 16 years after I joined the workforce. I started my career at a small Wall Street firm and we had daily reviews – measured in gains and losses. There was simply no need to sit down and discuss anyone’s performance.
When the first formal review process came my way, the idea that I had to sit down and talk about myself was discombobulating. My boss was collaborative and we talked nearly every day. What else was there to say? Not much, and that was the best part about these annual meetings – there was never a surprise. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
After a shocking terrible review, a Fairygodboss member asked the community, “Should I just start looking for another job?” Mind you, this was not just a bad review. It was a review that had her believing she is living in an alternative universe to her manager. Before she makes a big life change, I thought the best person to answer her question would be an HR professional, because they know the other side.
Bettina Deynes, Vice President of HR at SHRM, the world’s largest HR professional society, said, “Unfortunately, many times this is the only recourse for employees who feel that they have exhausted every avenue for fair and equitable treatment relating to performance evaluation to no avail. The recognition that an unfair environment is not likely to change leaves little hope, and a job search for an enterprise that clearly values the contributions of employees is sometimes a conscientious and dedicated employee’s only option.”
Yes, you should start looking for another job. How can you improve your odds that the next job will be fulfilling and fair?
How companies evaluate staff performance
In nearly every job interview scenario, you will meet with someone from recruiting or human resources. Even if it's a screener interview, use the time to your advantage and ask questions about their expertise. The way a company tackles performance management can tell you how they value their employees.
There are basically three examples of performance management being practiced by organizations today, Deynes explained.
“The first involves the organization that is totally dedicated to a formal performance management system that involves frequent, meaningful communication between every supervisor and employee in the setting of measurable goals and standards of performance that are tied directly into the organization’s strategic plan.
“The second example is more common, unfortunately. It is comprised of a haphazard collection of policies and practices, with annual evaluations, that may or may not be conducted on a timely basis, and evaluation instruments composed of subjective, impossible to measure such as “works well with others,” “degree of professionalism,” etc. criteria that supervisors are reluctant or unable to justify, thereby assigning arbitrary ratings from 1 to 5, and usually assigning blanket 3s in a feeble attempt to keep peace.
“The third type involves organizations that have no discernable performance management system.
We all know the system is only as good as the input. Once you know the company’s system, you have a frame to use employee reviews and turnover data more effectively. And, even if the perfect job, has a more haphazard or no system at all – at least you know what you are getting into and can adjust your expectations accordingly. In fact, we all should adjust our view. Only two percent of HR professionals gave their companies an A for performance management, according to a SHRM survey.
If the best circumstance is a new job, there are still times when personal responsibilities make that an impossibility. To dispute your review internally, it’s best if there is a formal grievance process already in place. Even with a system, there is a downside to filing a complaint. Deynes warns, “The long-term effect on an employee resulting from the filing a formal complaint, however, can be a matter of informal harassment and retaliation and can vary from none to rather severe, depending on the management/employee culture in place.”
If your manager doesn’t have your back, that's a scary place to be as an employee. Management still works for the company; only you work for you.
How do you bounce back after a bad performance review?
Alyson Garrido shares 4 steps to take after a tough performance review:
A Fairygodboss member recently shared that she had a bad performance review and was wondering how to proceed. "I just had a terrible annual review that I thought was very unfair," she said. "I was really surprised but it was so bad that I think I'm living in an alternative universe to my manager. Should I just start looking for another job? The feedback was really different than what I think I deserve so I normally would just try to improve but it feels kinda hopeless."
Emotions always run high during performance review season, and having a terrible employee performance evaluation can feel so defeating. But instead of jumping ship right away, think about moving forward using this 4-step plan. It will help you assess the situation to decide whether or not you can (or want to) continue in your current role.
1. Step Back
During a performance review discussion, good or bad, our minds tend to race. We’re considering how to deal with negative feedback, capitalize on the positive, construct the ‘perfect’ responses and present ourselves in the best possible light. If things aren’t going your way, try your best to stay calm and listen.
Ask clarifying questions, graciously listen to answers and avoid responding right away, just take it in as gracefully as possible. After the conversation, try to gain some perspective and do your best not to take things personally. Put yourself in your boss’ shoes to see why she might have misinterpreted your actions or intent.
Be as objective as possible and play devil’s advocate to look at things from all angles. It can be helpful to enlist the help of a trusted friend or colleague in this phase.
2. Be Grateful
Feedback is a gift, right? (insert eye roll!) Really, though, your boss has shared her perspective and now you know how she feels about your performance. If you don’t know there is a problem, you can’t fix it. It might be the case that others share her opinion and knowing what that opinion is can help you shift your behavior to improve relationships and the way you are perceived.
Now that you’ve had some time to cool off, it’s time to talk with your boss about the review. It’s okay to say that you were surprised by her feedback and share your point of view. Stay inclusive and collaborative as you approach this discussion. It’s not you against her, but rather an effort to make sure you are performing in a way that meets her standards and allows you to grow in your role.
This will be a pivotal moment. You’ll learn whether or not you can or want to meet those standards and expectations and that can be a deciding factor in whether or not you look for another role. The best-case scenario is that you and your boss create a plan to help you excel in your role and advance in your career. It might not be hopeless!
4. Set Milestones
If the plan is to stay and to have an amazing employee review next year, you need to create a plan and define metrics that measure your success. It might be that your boss didn’t think you were doing well because you weren’t visible enough.
A great answer to that might be to schedule monthly or weekly meetings where you can update her on projects. Work with her to set goals and performance objectives, so you can both monitor your progress and make sure you're improving.
More about evaluations
Are you easily frustrated and bringing down your team when things don’t go well? Try removing yourself from frustrating situations so others aren’t impacted or being careful about where and when you express those frustrations. Identify the behaviors and perceptions that you’d like to correct and regularly check your progress in making improvements.
Effective communication and setting clear goals in collaboration with your boss should mean no surprises at the time of your job performance review. If you do find yourself in a tough performance review, follow these steps to decide how you’ll successfully move forward.
To learn more about evaluations, check out:
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