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Do we really have bias in our reviews?

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

"It's review season!"

I heard that statement no less than five times last week when I led a workshop with a project leadership team at one of the largest general contractors in the US. The two hour workshop was focused on developing a strategy to build a better relationship with their client (which unfortunately had taken a turn for the worse). After a current / future state analysis and solutioning session, the team came away with a short list of actions to go implement and a person responsible for each item - a win!

OK, workshop aside... I want to talk about:

performance reviews: they can have long-term effects on one's career.

They can position someone for success. They can highlight areas of development. They can skim over the facts and lack concrete details. They can also be biased by race. Or gender.

Unfortunately, it is a challenge that many companies face: bias in performance reviews. Numerous studies have shown that these biases can creep into how employees are reviewed. One study from Textio found that:

Women are 11 times more likely than men to report being described as “abrasive” in the performance feedback they receive

​Black women are 4 times more likely than white men to see the term “overachiever” in their job performance feedback

​Job feedback for Asian men is 7 times more likely to have the words “brilliant” or “genius” in it than feedback for Latinx women

Whether these biases are implicit or explicit doesn't actually matter - they have the same result. And as employees it is easy to feel helpless when on the receiving end of this kind of discrimination.

Racial bias in reviews is just that: discrimination.

I may, or may not, have been hiding under a rock for a while, but I just learned what ChatGPT is. For those that have been hiding under the same rock, ChatGPT is a natural language processing tool that allows you to have human-like conversations with a chatbot. This tool can answer questions, composing essays, and code. It can also draft performance review feedback for you.

You may be thinking of the output that this tool could provide to you, but I ask you to temper that excitement for just a minute. As it turns out, ChatGPT is not exempt from the biases that exist outside of its processing power. Textio just completed this study about the gender and racial biases in performance feedback generated by ChatGBT. The graphic below illustrates the gender bias permeated in the feedback provided - 100% of construction worker feedback was gendered male.


I am sure that our managers and leaders conducting the reviews and aren't misgendering the feedback that they are providing (at least I sure hope not), but last week when I talked about what can we do better to improve the diversity of our organizations, here is one space: our performance reviews.

There are many steps businesses can take to combat bias in performance reviews, from instituting structured feedback systems that promote inclusion to actively creating a culture of respect and equality. If you are ready to get started, but aren't actually sure where to start, no problem. Click here to book a free half hour call to discuss the challenges you are facing and real solutions to help you.


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