Weekend Reads: In Employee Reviews, Words Matter
by Kevin Schofield
Reading this weekend is a report from technology company Textio on biases in job performance feedback. Specifically, the report examines biases in the language used to provide feedback — an unsurprising topic given that Textio sells a product that claims to help employees improve their writing at work.
In an earlier research survey, the company looked at the quality of feedback received by employees, including the amount of feedback, the mix of praising and critical feedback, the amount of feedback that is actionable, and the frequency with which feedback is received. relate to personality traits rather than substantive work habits. He found that women receive harsher, more personality-focused feedback and less constructive or actionable feedback. Performance feedback is a matter of fairness: studies have shown that people who receive less feedback – and less actionable feedback – consequently have fewer opportunities for professional growth and promotion.
In the first part of this new study, the company expanded the questions to examine potential biases by age and race/ethnicity in addition to age. And he found plenty. Of 500 respondents, 100% of women said they received personality-related comments, but only 75% of men did. Black and Latino employees also said they received personality feedback, while only 71% of Asian employees did. The specific language used to describe employee personalities also showed clear biases.
Since personality reviews are by definition less actionable, the amount of performance reviews focused on these aspects can have a huge impact on the overall quality of reviews. They also reinforce cultural biases in the workplace; the report contains an interesting parallel discussion of the “stereotypical threat”, in which many employees constantly spend more time questioning their own actions in the workplace, lest they provide ammunition to those seeking confirmation of well-established but unfounded stereotypes.
In the second half of the study, the company gained access to the written performance reviews of 25,000 people: 13,000 from a large organization, 2,800 from a medium-sized company and 10,000 from a collection of more than 250 small organizations. Analyzing actual written texts allowed Textio to understand how well they align with employee perceptions of the feedback given to them – and for large and medium-sized companies, whether their performance reviews reflect employee cultures. enterprise of their state.
He found that there were substantial biases in the amount of feedback given by race and ethnicity, as well as age. Asian employees received 105% of the company average, while Latino employees received 88% and black employees only 81%. Similarly, employees under 30 received only 80% of the company’s average amount of feedback. Again, less feedback means fewer opportunities for improvement and advancement.
Looking only at the personality comments, there were two clear biases: men get less than women, and Asians get less as well. But personality comments are intersectional: for example, black women receive 2.7 times more personality-related comments than Asian men.
There were also dramatic biases in actionable feedback: female, Latino, and black employees receive significantly more feedback that isn’t actionable, as do employees over 40. The intersectionality here is also huge: according to the report, “for every piece of feedback that is unactionable received by white men under 40, women over 40 receive 4.4; Black women (all age groups) receive 8.8.
The study also examines exaggerated comments, as well as comments that focus on fixed or innate characteristics rather than aspects that people can change.
There are things we can criticize about the study: First, it comes from a company that sells a product to solve these kinds of problems. On the one hand, it’s nice that he does (and shares) customer research; but we have to ask ourselves some tough questions about whether that might lead him to exaggerate the issues in order to sell more products. This does not necessarily mean that Textio’s research results are wrong, but we should look to other independent studies to confirm them. Second, about 60% of its written performance reviews came from just two companies; this should make us wonder if the results generalize broadly to all other large and medium-sized companies. Third, the segmentations used by the report are oversimplified: gender is not binary, nor is race/ethnicity in many cases.
At the same time, obvious biases emerge, which have a significant impact on employees’ careers and livelihoods. Performance feedback directly affects employees’ opportunities to improve, succeed in the workplace, and advance their careers. But studies have also shown that racial/ethnic and gender bias in pay persists in the workplace, and these pay differences align with reported findings of bias in negative reviews. In other words: words matter – a lot.
Linguistic bias in performance feedback
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Overview, a website providing independent information and analysis about the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears occasionally on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
📸 Featured image by fizkes/Shutterstock.com.
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