Neutral performance reviews? Think again.

A new study out of the US found that numerical rating tools are far from impartial when it comes to measuring the performance of an employee.

The study, published by Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik, smashed the myth that qualitative performance rating scales produce objective outcomes.

There has been much research to show men consistently receive better performance ratings than women, despite identical performance and credentials.

Rivera and Tilcsik conducted an experiment on 400 students, asking them to evaluate at random an identical lecture transcript given by fictional ‘Professor John Anderson’ or ‘Professor Julie Anderson.’ In this experiment, the students were also randomly assigned to use a rating scale of either 10-points or 6-points.

Students using the 10-point scale willingly gave John a 10/10, while Julie only received 8s and 9s.

However, interestingly the gender division was not present amongst the 6-point scale students.

This experiment uncovered systemic unconscious bias against the female professor. It was clear from the results that the goalpost for ‘outstanding performance’ moves depending on whether it is a male or female being evaluated.

 “A 6/6 rating didn’t elicit as strong cultural images of perfection and brilliance as a 10/10, so the 6-point scale limited the expression of bias, and the gender gap vanished.”

The authors said, “these results highlight how seemingly minor technical aspects of performance ratings can have a major effect on the evaluation of men and women.”

“[O]nce we recognize [sic] that biases are also built into our evaluation systems, we can change those systems.”

Unconscious bias manifests in all facets of work and home life. It is in the types of work society believes women and men should do, the types roles that women and men should play in the household and at work, the traits women and men should display in the workplace and in the way different value is placed on women and men’s contributions.

Moreover, this can drive the gender pay gap.

Workplaces must confront the fact that there is unconscious bias at play behind seemingly ‘neutral’ decision-making.

Actions organisations can take include:

  1. Challenging assumptions about the way employees can work and change the culture. For example, role modelling flexibility for men.
  2. Analysing key gender metrics to find important insights into the biases of the workplace. For example, measuring the gender breakdown of employees accessing parental leave.
  3. Building accountability processes around diversity. For example, setting targets on female representation in senior management.

However, the very first step that must be taken is to acknowledge unconscious bias rather than pretending it does not exist.

Read the full article by the research authors and the full research report for more information on the study.