“It’s a far easier task to rewrite policies that elevate DEI’s importance on paper than it is to reshape the attitudes of those who are required to turn DEI into a reality on the job”, concludes a recent report on language bias in performance feedback by Textio, a company providing AI analysis to improve the language used in HR processes. The data show consistent patterns of inequality when it comes to performance reviews given to employees of underrepresented groups.
Research to date indicates that women, even the high performers, receive harsher feedback, less constructive and actionable feedback, and more personality feedback than their male colleagues. Furthermore, employers seem to appreciate certain behaviours, like “taking charge”, more when observed in men.
Actionable feedback is the most useful, most conducive to better performance, and therefore to potential promotions. However, women receive significantly less actionable feedback than men.
Another interesting aspect highlighted by the report is the ‘fixed mindset’ feedback. In other words, business environments tend to view people in terms of fixed character traits, such as ‘highly intelligent’ for someone who performs their tasks well, and ‘naturally slow-paced’ for someone who misses deadlines. As the report puts it, “[t]his way of thinking about people presupposes that how they perform on the job is largely a matter of innate characteristics that they were born with”. While nowadays many businesses tend to try and encourage a ‘growth mindset’ – “anyone can grow if they are willing to learn” – the report shows that performance reviews still include comments on people’s fixed characteristics. This is true (and a problem) for all demographics. However, the specific characteristics vary quite significantly. For example, for well-performing employees, men are 3.5 times more likely than women to be described as ‘brilliant’ or ‘genius’, while the term ‘overachiever’ is much more frequently applied to women. ‘Overachiever’ implies someone who transcends low expectations, while a ‘brilliant genius’ clearly has high inherent ability. This trend basically assumes that one group has more baseline talent and capability than another. And, of course, any sensible manager will want to promote a more inherently talented person – it is only logical, after all.
The report ends by linking its data to pay gap and average earnings, which show a clear correlation between salaries and feedback quality, and by giving recommendations to both employees and employers. Employees who receive unhelpful or inadequate feedback can ask their employers to provide examples or suggest specific changes to any unactionable negative feedback they receive. Employers should take care to provide all employees with equally structured and actionable feedback on their work rather than their personality or fixed traits.
You can download the full report for free from Textio’s website.