It’s a nearly universal rule that the better you do on your performance review, the better you’ll do in your career. Throughout the federal government, and in countless private sector businesses, performance reviews drive raises, annual bonuses and your chances for promotion.
So, what if you couldn’t get a fair review? What if you found that someone had stacked the whole review process against you? Even if your manager applied the process as fairly as possible, you just couldn’t perform as well as younger peers? Or Caucasian ones?
Racially biased performance reviews have been in the news
Two relatively high-profile cases have recently drawn attention toward the systemic bias that companies can bake into their performance reviews:
- In the first, an administrative judge with the EEOC certified two classes in a class-action discrimination case against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- In the second, the NewsGuild of New York, a journalist union, published its analysis of the racially discriminatory performance evaluations in use at the New York Times
It’s notable that these events have come into the headlines at roughly the same time because they show the problem is not isolated to one agency. Indeed, they show the problem isn’t even contained within the federal government. It is a larger, widespread problem, and it lurks silently in the shadows, subtly sucking people down, until someone drags it out into the light. Only then can the EEOC or the courts address the problem and help employers and employees improve the system.
NASA’s misfiring performance evaluations
The news in the complaint against NASA is that a judge identified two classes and two representative cases to let the class action move forward. The two classes that administrative judge Herrera identified are:
- All African American employees in grades 13-15 who rated below “Distinguished” in performance reviews since 2008
- All Asian American employees in grades 13-15 who rated below “Distinguished” in performance reviews since 2008
According to an article from the Federal News Network, most of these employees are or were mid-level managers. They claim the agency’s review process, which only focused on two to four tasks, favored Caucasians. The racial disparity remained in effect across the agency’s ten work centers and multiple years.
The report notes that the evaluators were also mostly Caucasian. However, the complaint doesn’t focus on individual bias so much as it reveals the systemic bias that can, year after year, hold back whole groups of employees. Over time, artificially deflated performance reviews can slow down step-level promotions and cause employees to miss out on promotions for which they may be qualified.
The New York Times might want to do some better research
The dispute between the New York Times and its journalists is notable for one primary reason: The journalists are articulate.
In the NewsGuild’s published report, the journalists address the problems surrounding systemic bias with stunning depth and clarity. Among their findings, they focused on two recurring themes:
- The flawed performance reviews led to real, material damages.
- The New York Times and its management had delayed, deferred and otherwise denied to do anything about the problem. In fact, the union claimed the company had continually sought unilateral control over performance reviews, trying to edge the union out of the process.
The report made it clear that the damages went beyond deflated wages. Among employees of color, they led to bitterness and disappointment. For the company, this translated to lower retention rates. As some journalists told the union, they felt convinced the reviews had nothing to do with the quality of their work. Instead, employees might hear praise for their work and then receive poor reviews. And these often came without clear explanation or directions for future improvement.
The Times claimed they had analyzed the performance reviews and did not find the same bias as the NewsGuild. However, the journalists ran the Times analysis past a number of economists and other third-party evaluators. Most found the analysis deficient. And the journalists noted that the Times had requested the analysis from the same firm that had worked against migrant farm workers and had supplied evidence to help the Weinstein Company defend itself against harassment suits. In other words, the analysis was suspect.
Systemic bias doesn’t stop itself
As both these cases make clear, systemic bias in performance evaluations can harm an untold number of people. The New York Times claims that it employs 1,700 journalists in 160 countries around the world. NASA counts just over 17,000 full-time staff and over 1,000 more temporary workers. The numbers add up.
Agencies and employers rarely acknowledge the bias in their processes unless someone forces them to. Both NASA and the New York Times have argued that their reviews aren’t discriminatory. And not just once, but repeatedly and for years. It just shows that best way for employees to end the abuse may be to stand up and call it out.