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How do you evaluate performance during a pandemic?

December 13, 2020
Borderless Leadership

The ongoing crises of 2020 are affecting women’s careers and, as we enter performance review season, managers have a responsibility to make sure that bias against women — and women of color in particular — doesn’t do further damage. If you want to retain this critical group of talent and avoid lasting consequences for workplace diversity, it will help to rethink how your organization handles performance reviews.

Managers face particularly tough decisions right now. They must figure out how to reward those employees who are “stepping up” during these crises without inadvertently penalizing those who have needed to “lean out.” Compassion for workers, while very important, is not enough; companies must arm managers with the tools they need to fairly and effectively adjust performance expectations within their teams.

Covid-19 Is Increasing Bias
Figuring out how to evaluate and reward employees fairly is hard even in the best of times. In this crisis, managers are facing a trifecta of conditions that make the task even harder because they’re likely to give rise to increased bias.

First, in any crisis, managers are less likely to access their “slow thinking” brains and more likely to make snap judgements, which are often influenced by stereotypes and are therefore flawed.

Second, ambiguity in how assessments are made can lead to more bias. Today, ambiguity abounds, from predicting the business impact of Covid-19 to retooling our ability to read performance in a remote workplace to deciphering the increasingly blurry line between work and life. As one manager put it, they need to“balance the need for flexibility that’s specific and supportive to the individual’s needs with the need to also somehow be equitable to others.”

Lastly, the ideal worker norm, or the often implicit preference for workers who are typically able to leave home concerns at home and focus solely on work while on the job, can lead to bias, even in situations where workplace structures are being reexamined. This can be additionally burdensome to working mothers, who face inaccurate assumptions that their need for flexibility conflicts with their commitment to work. Compare that with fathers, who typically face less scrutiny over parenting needs as a result of a historical belief that they’re ideal employees who put work first. Thus, managers may inadvertently make more allowances for men who are homeschooling or caring for family members than for mothers doing the same.

The Need for Criteria Monitoring Is Urgent
Managers need good processes to help block bias in their assessments. For example, they’re less prone to give biased feedback when answering a set of questions before judging performance or when using a checklist/rubric to aid consistency. One such process, which we call criteria monitoring, involves three steps any manager can learn and practice to weed out bias in their own — and their team’s — decision making. We developed these steps during a research partnership where we worked to create a fairer evaluation process. Managers at the company moved step-by-step through a clarifying process and then improvised ways to monitor one another to ensure consistency. These steps can reduce the negative impact of bias during the pandemic and beyond.

Step 1: Define effective criteria before making critical decisions about employees. Ambiguity in the criteria used to evaluate employees leads to biased outcomes, whereas thoughtfully developed and clearly defined criteria can help level the playing field.

Start by considering what’s important for the role. Then, as much as possible, define those success factors in concrete and measurable terms. For example, “be innovative” is not measurable, but “bring together people from different functions and perspectives in forums that encourage idea sharing and problem solving” is.

Next, look for unintended consequences or hidden preferences in the criteria you’ve chosen. For example, “stepping up” has an unexamined preference for those “ideal workers” we mentioned previously. Take, for example, Cisco, one of the web platforms connecting millions of people working from home as a result of the pandemic. Many Cisco employees worked around the clock to meet the increase in demand for their product. Even if managers are successful in supporting employees who need more latitude to take care of family or personal issues during this period, that may go unnoticed if evaluations only focus on those kinds of step-up results. Both employee care and meeting heightened customer demands are valuable to the overall health of the organization and should be recognized as such.

“Visibility,” a criterion that’s often problematic in normal times, can be a dangerous downward decelerator in our world of videoconferencing. For example, a working parent might not make it to every meeting and will thus be less visible, but they may also be making other meaningful contributions. To mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the careers of those already disproportionately burdened, organizations must carefully consider what they truly value and wish to reward under the current circumstances rather than simply carrying over the old criteria from last year’s evaluation cycle.

Step 2: Align all decision makers. Decisions are often made in a shared context. It’s not enough for company policies to be clear about evaluation criteria — it’s critical that everyone doing assessments is not only using the same criteria, but that they also understand and share the same definitions of them. Get managers together to align on the most important criteria and be explicit about how to measure them precisely and consistently. Pay particular attention to overlooked behaviors and skills that have become important in the new context, such as managing team infrastructure by sending out meeting minutes and checking in on colleagues. One manager may recognize these as essential contributions, but another may not. When managers align on their shared metrics in advance of decisions, individuals are less likely to act on biases.

Step 3: Engage others in being consistent and equitable. We call this final step “monitoring.” Encourage managers to monitor one another when discussing performance. If a manager notices a peer misusing criteria or being ambiguous in their evaluation, they should ask them about it. For example, “What criterion did you use to come to that assessment?” or “Why didn’t you include infrastructure-building behaviors in your assessment?” If their peer downgrades an employee for missing an impromptu meeting due to a BLM protest, ask, “Didn’t we agree that we would not be downgrading performance if someone was involved in a protest or similar activities? How would you describe their overall performance otherwise?” Remember, bias is often unconscious, so the team has a better chance of catching it together than if the job is left up to individuals monitoring themselves.

Some may argue that managers are already burned out and it’s not fair to add one more task to their plates. However, even the most skeptical managers we’ve worked with to clarify and simplify their evaluation criteria ultimately viewed the process as a net benefit. As one manager explained, “It probably took me just as long to do [the performance review],” so there was no time savings. “But [the new process] allowed me to accomplish the goal of ranking my individuals,” they added. The real benefit of the process was consistency and fairness: “I was comparing apples to apples — I felt more confident behind the ratings than I might have in the past.”

Big decisions lie ahead. We know that criteria alone can’t undo the potentially widespread impact of the ongoing events of 2020 on workers and workplaces, but they can equip managers to create a new “normal” that values employee well-being and holds themselves and others to a standard of fairness and equity. By providing managers with these strategies, companies can deliver on their intentions to advance organizational aims during tumultuous times.

by Lori Mackenzie, JoAnne Wehner, and Sofia Kennedy


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