Mid-year performance reviews are underway. For some workers the chance to sit down with their manager and take a bow can be a boost to their careers, egos, and importantly, pay.
For others, though, it’s a bust. And the fallout may have absolutely nothing to do with someone’s actual performance and productivity, but rather the embodiment of embedded bias.
Those who are undercut the most by it are women, who receive significantly less actionable feedback than their coworkers, according to the study by Textio, a software company that analyzed feedback provided to more than 25,000 people from 250 organizations. Black workers, too, also are more likely to get feedback focused on personality over performance.
That can translate into lower pay and fewer opportunities for promotions.
The demographic inequities aren’t specific to just one organization or its feedback culture, according to the researchers. “Rather, they offer insight into the kind of feedback that different groups tend to receive regardless of where they work.”
Personality feedback dominates women’s performance reviews
Only 2% of the men received explicitly negative feedback compared with 76% of the women. Men typically were given reviews that focused on the substance of their work, while women were 22% more likely to get feedback on their personality.
Men, for example, were 3.5 times more likely than women to be described as “brilliant” or “genius.” Women were more likely to be described as “abrasive,” “difficult,” “friendly,” and “helpful” than men.
Compared to their male counterparts, women were twice as likely to report being described as “collaborative” and “nice,” seven times more likely to report being described as “opinionated,” and 11 times more likely to report being described as “abrasive.”
On the other hand, men were three times more likely to be described as “confident,” and 3.7 times more likely to report being described as “ambitious.”
The underlying problem here is that personality feedback is simply hard to act on.
“It’s much easier to change your work than it is to alter your core personality,” the researchers wrote in the report. “Groups that get more personality feedback are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to demonstrating growth and achieving career advancement.”
Race bias seeps into performance review language
Racial bias leaps off the page in these written performance evaluations. White people were described as “ambitious” 4.9 times more often than Black people, and Asian people 7.1 times more.
On the other hand, Black and Latinx people report being described as “passionate”—in the corporate world, that’s often a polite term for having a strong personality and can’t get along with others, according to the researchers—a combined 2.1 times more often than Asian and white people,” according to the report.
Age bias findings were also eye-opening, but not surprising.
Workers under 40 report being described as “ambitious” 2.5 times as often as people who are 40 and older. People under 40 are described as “brilliant” or “genius,” much more often than those over 40. People over 40 were much more likely to be described as “responsible” and “unselfish”—2.1 times more often and 2.6 times more often, respectively.
Consistent with the stereotype tropes trotted out in the workplace, older workers are “expected to be stable, mature, and self-effacing; younger workers with most of their careers in front of them are more likely to be seen as go-getters,” the researchers wrote.
While it might sound like a compliment to be called an “overachiever,” the underlying meaning is more that the person is doing great considering the low expectations the manager had for them in the first place, according to the researchers, and is much more frequently applied to women and people of color.
The upshot is “fewer opportunities for challenging stretch assignments and promotion rates over time,” they wrote.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
“Two things especially struck me from the new report,” Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio, told Yahoo Money. “First, how little has changed since I did the first study in 2014. Socially, so much has happened in the intervening years, the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement and #MeToo, for instance. Despite those movements, the unconscious bias that shows up today is pretty much the same as it was. It runs so deep.”
And the fact remains, “groups with the lowest quality feedback end up earning the least.”
For workers, learning from feedback – even when it feels unfair or is awkwardly expressed – can be a vital career skill, Beverly Jones, an executive career coach with Clearways Consulting, told Yahoo Money.
“Notice your emotional reaction and try to let it go, perhaps by taking a few deep breaths,” Jones said. “Then try to shift the conversation away from your personality toward your work activity, perhaps with a question like this: ‘So that I’m sure I understand what you are saying, can you give me some specific examples?’ Get clarification with a question like this: ‘Can you suggest a more effective way for me to approach this in the future?’”
You might, however, simply find yourself with a sinking feeling in your stomach, or feeling defensive or angry. “If you feel upset, defer the discussion until you are better able to listen and respond,” Jones said. “You might say: ‘It sounds like I might want to make some changes but I need to give this some thought. Could we speak briefly again next week, to talk about an action plan?’”
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon