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5 Key Tips To Remove Social And Cultural Bias From Employee Self-Evaluations

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Pamela DeLoatch

“How’s your tennis game?” (This probably seems like a strange way to begin a post about performing employee self-evaluations, but bear with me.)

Last weekend, my husband and I went out to dinner with friends we hadn’t seen in years, back when I was an avid tennis player. As part of our catching up conversation, our friends asked me this question.

“It’s fine,” I replied. “I’m getting back on pace.” My husband, bless his heart, expanded on my answer. “She’s great! She and I won a mixed doubles tournament and she carried me.” While that was mostly true (except that he held his own on the court), it’s not something I would say. It was a little too self-congratulatory and out of my comfort zone. Even though it was true, I didn’t want my friends to think I was bragging.

That’s the interesting aspect of a self-evaluation. Although it is intended to be simply our own honest reflection of our performance, it can be distorted as we try to combine our own self-view with what we think is an acceptable answer to our audience. Couple that with cultural influences, you’ll find that self-assessments, whether about your tennis game or work performance can suddenly become less forthright.

What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Unconscious bias in the workplace refers to the subconscious stereotypes and assumptions individuals hold about certain groups of people, influencing their decisions and actions without conscious awareness. These biases, shaped by societal, cultural, and personal factors, can impact various aspects of the workplace, including hiring practices, promotion opportunities, and overall workplace dynamics. They can result in a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion, biased evaluations of employees’ skills and potential, and hinder the advancement of underrepresented groups. Recognizing and addressing unconscious bias is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive work environment.

How gender impacts employee self-evaluations

You’ve probably seen the statistic that men apply for a job even if they only meet 60% of the qualifications, while women are more likely to apply when they meet them 100%. Whether that stems from men being more confident in their abilities or from women being more efficient in their job search efforts, it can still result in more men being interviewed and hired for jobs.

This continues in job promotions, where men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on performance—and I believe that may be, at least in part, related to how we evaluate ourselves.

When writing employee self-evaluations, people want to (and should) highlight their achievements, but it’s not always that simple. Social implications can influence how comfortable employees feel sharing their greatest hits. Many women, for example, already walk a tightrope of trying to appear capable but not overbearing; ambitious but not abrasive, and this can show up in how they describe their own performance.

The tendency to understate accomplishments is not just a gender issue. In some cultures, modesty is valued, and employees are more likely to give themselves a low rating or de-emphasize their individual contributions. The accomplishments of introverts can also get overlooked, in comparison to their more exuberant and self-promotional counterparts, the extroverts.

Implications of the undersell

Ideally, employees wouldn’t need to worry about what degree of “brag” they use in their self-evaluations because their accomplishments would speak for themselves and as managers, you would know what your employee is getting done. But the truth is, you’re busy. Inundated with meetings and deadlines, it’s impossible to know who’s doing what over the course of months unless you are clairvoyant or use a performance management software.

Want to take the guesswork out of the achievements (and challenges) your employees are experiencing? Performance Management Software is the answer.

Periodic performance evaluations give you a much needed opportunity to review an employee’s progress on goals and the bigger picture of their career trajectory. And self-assessments are an important aspect of performance management. They provide key insights to the manager, and for the employee, self-reviews help with the perception of fairness. Research shows active participation has a large effect on perceived fairness and the motivation to improve. Surprisingly, it’s the act of having one’s voice heard that is most essential, as opposed to the end result itself.

Employee self-evaluations are an opportunity to make sure you know what your team is up to. But if for some reason, they are reticent to have their voices heard, it may be difficult for you to distinguish between reluctance to brag and a lack of accomplishment. If someone omits an individual win out of deference to the team’s activity, would you know?

How to make sure self-assessments are genuine

It’s not just gender, cultural background, or even personality issues that affect how employees approach their evals. Overall, it’s a people issue. How do you as a manager ensure your employees are authentically representing themselves and their work in this section of their performance review?

1. Your work culture encourages employees to be honest and vulnerable. Does your work culture encourage employees to admit mistakes and to ask for help? Do they see leaders model those behaviors? If not, no matter what directives you give for a self-assessment, employees aren’t going to risk sharing any challenges or even failings they’ve had. Instead, it will be just like when an interviewer asks a candidate about their biggest weakness, and the candidate stonewalls with the “I’m too much of a perfectionist,” answer.

2. Your employees understand what you expect from the self-evaluation. Educate your employees on what should be included in their performance assessment. Beyond creating a laundry list of previous accomplishments, make sure your team details their challenges and struggles. Let them know that by only looking at the highlights, you won’t know how best to support them or to champion them for the growth and development opportunities they seek.

3. You watch for the oversell and the undersell. Even when unintentionally done, people have difficulty accurately assessing their own performance. One article says that in repeated studies, the poorer the employee’s performance, the higher the self-appraisal! When a self-evaluation is all superlatives or, in contrast, all understated, look at the content and dig deeper with the employee for details. Ask questions to assess and to help them learn to assess their true performance.

Employee self-reviews will be stronger when they are based on data. Suggest your employees keep a record of their wins, challenges, efforts, and progress on goals. This data can help counter the tendency to over or undersell.

4. You check your own biases. How you as a manager interpret employee self-evaluations influences the value of the practice. If an evaluation seems overly promotional, or unnecessarily self-effacing, and you have an immediate negative reaction, ask yourself why. Is it related to an expectation you have about the employee and if so, could it influence your perception of the evaluation. We all have biases, but recognizing them and their influence on our decisions is key.

One way to minimize your own bias is to ask every employee the same questions for consistency. An example might be: “What are up to three wins you want to celebrate since your last review? What led to those wins?”

5. You ask questions that encourage growth. By asking about positive outcomes and assessing the steps that led to it, you reinforce successful behaviors, which makes them easier to replicate. Also ask questions that focus on the future, as in: “What would you like to improve? What are up to three opportunities for growth you’d like to focus on before the next review?”
As employees realize that the performance management process focuses on them as individuals and is a genuine effort to build upon their strengths, they will become more comfortable unveiling their real selves and ambitions to you.

A self-evaluation, just like a full employee performance review, should not be the sole tool used to assess performance. Instead, think of it as one of the many threads in your manager/employee relationship. It should be just one interaction you and your employees should have in addition to the casual daily interactions, weekly conversations about ongoing work, and periodic progress checks.

When you’ve built a consistent, trusting relationship with an employee across each of these areas, they will trust you with their honest self-evaluation.

Pamela DeLoatch is a B2B technology writer specializing in creating marketing content for the HR industry. With a background as an HR generalist and specialist, she writes about the employee experience, engagement, diversity, HR leadership, culture and technology. Follow Pamela on Twitter @pameladel.

Image Credit: Edgar Pereira on Unsplash