Performance reviews are notoriously wracked by sexism, and that's why it's incredibly important that managers are careful about what feedback they give and how they deliver that feedback.
The truth is that, on top of being too infrequent (usually only once a year) and often rushed through, annual performance reviews across all industries tend to be littered with unconscious bias. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review actually finds that women are 1.4 times more like to receive subjective critical feedback (and less constructive critical feedback), and their performances are more likely attributed to their personality traits and characteristics rather than their actual skills and abilities.
Tons of research supports this, in fact. In 2014, linguist Kieran Snyder collected 248 performance reviews from women and men across 28 companies in the tech industry. Her research into these reviews found that women were significantly more likely to receive feedback based on their personality traits. And, to that end, they were perceived as abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational, while men were more often considered confident and assertive.
Again, in 2016, research from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research found that, across three high-tech companies and one professional services firm, performance reviews for men were full of specific details and actionable advice, while performance reviews for women were vague and, essentially, useless.
That's why it's critical that managers know how to approach performance reviews, keeping biases at bay the best they can. With this in mind, here's what not to say during a performance review.
Performance reviews should be strictly about an employee's performance — not about their personality unless their personality is a direct cause of their success (for example, personable salespeople may find more success). Otherwise, leave character traits out of the performance review entirely, as they are irrelevant.
Ask yourself why you'd feel the need to tell an employee this in the first place. Are they really being bossy, or are they being a leader and/or demanding what they deserve? If, indeed, you feel that they're really being bossy, there are other ways to relay this message without slapping disrespectful adjectives around. Instead, you might suggest alternative ways of handling situations so that they can learn. That's the whole point of performance reviews, anyway.
Saying this to an employee, especially to a female employee, can have serious implications. This suggests that you're calling the employee abrasive, for example, which is one of those aforementioned gender words that carries a significant unconscious bias.
Sometimes, work can be emotional. And emotion only suggests that people care about their jobs. Accusing someone of being too emotional is like accusing someone of being too passionate.
While this may sound like a nice thing to say to an employee who is doing well, it's super vague and doesn't leave them with a whole lot of constructive feedback to take away with them. If they're doing their job perfectly with absolutely no room for improvement, consider instead practicing positive reinforcement. Talk about what they're doing super well that you'd like to see more of.
Again, this is a super vague piece of feedback that doesn't help anyone actually understand how to do a better job. Give specific details and advice so that they know what you'd like to see them do differently next time.
Remember that an employee is responsible for doing the job for which you'd hired them. Don't expect them to be taking on office tasks like planning the company happy hours and restocking the kitchen or grabbing the coffee for the meetings. Respect everyone's job descriptions and only review them on how well they do or don't do what's actually asked of them. This is especially true for women who are too often expected to be "office moms."
Like calling someone bossy, you need to ask yourself why you'd assume that an employee is being aggressive. Is this actually true of them, or are they simply going after what they want. Recognize that it's particularly difficult for women to ask for raises and promotions, or even just assert themselves in meetings, as they're battling the social penalization of being labeled aggressive. So don't perpetuate the problem.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.
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