Dame Athene Donald who is a master of Churchill College (isn’t that a bit sexist?) and a professor of experimental physics says references are often unintentionally written in a “gendered way” with academics more likely to describe women applying for research posts or fellowships as “hard-working” or “team players“.
She thinks this fails to communicate just how good female applicants are unlike when using words like “excellent“, “driven” or “outstanding” which apparently are often reserved for males.
She said “If letter writers just sit down and write the first adjectives that come into their heads to describe men and women, the words may be poles apart even if the subjects of the letters are indistinguishable in ability”.
“Do you really mean that your star PhD student is hard-working and conscientious or was the message you wanted to convey that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile, and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions“.
She believes that this clearly can lead to a significant detriment to the woman’s progression, even if without a sexist intent.
Stanford University analysed performance reviews in technology firms and found that women’s evaluations contained almost twice as much language about their communal or nurturing style using words such as “helpful” or “dedicated”.
Men’s reviews on the other hand contained twice as many references to their technical expertise and vision.
Why is this surprising? Do people like Dame Donald think men and women actually behave the same at work? Of course there is an overlap but there is enough research which shows that women respond to stress differently, are often better at soft skills than men, can improve teams, and may be more emotionally intelligent to boot.
Professor Donald suggested that people writing references should use a gender bias calculator website that highlights words in texts that may be received as gendered. She also calls for training for selection panels – something most organisations have been doing for decades (my colleague and I introduced this into an NHS Trust back in the 1990s). I think she means well if a little too PC but maybe a bit out of touch with the real world.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education at Buckingham University disagrees with her. He is quoted as saying “How do we know that academics using these words have unconscious bias? being a team player and hard worker are very important. It is perfectly possible that candidates do have these strengths and it is important that a referee is able to say so”
Common sense from one academic at least. And read what happened when a journalist investigated this issue for himself.
Performance reviews are held to be a product of Theory X thinking (and all that went with that) and were famously criticised by quality guru Deming who said “The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance”
New research from CEB (reported in People Management) suggests that HR people are in agreement. Only 4% of them felt that performance reviews were effective.
And 42% of the 9,000 managers and employees surveyed across 18 countries said that “significant changes or a complete redesign was needed to improve their existing performance review processes” which were branded ‘backward-looking, inconsistent, and too complex‘.
There is a problem however. Ditching performance reviews can have a negative effect on productivity as Microsoft found. The survey also found that not only did productivity drop by 10% but that employees were more likely to leave and fewer employees thought pay rises were fairly allocated.
Less than 5% of managers said they felt able to manage effectively without a rating system.
The survey doesn’t say what was used to replace performance reviews but poor as performance review methods might be it appears that many staff and managers like a degree of structure no matter how unreliable.
News that two out of three companies are planning to change their staff appraisal processes “radically” might be good news – depending on what they come up with of course. And one in 20 companies are scrapping it entirely.
PwC conducted a survey which came up with these figures and said that that once-a-year assessment of performance and exchange of views between managers and staff didn’t motivate staff or provide the honest feedback bosses needed.
Most of the companies abandoning the traditional approach are encouraging managers to give continuous feedback so that problems are dealt with in a timely fashion and praise is linked to current work performance or behaviour.
PwC is cautioning managers not to abandon appraisal completely as they claim most employees like them as they helped them to understand what they were doing. Does it need an appraisal system for that to happen? I think not. Perhaps improved communication between managers and employees would do the trick.
But PwC also acknowledges that most managers don’t like doing them because of all the paperwork it entails.
Deloitte recently calculated it spent 2 million hours on 65,000 staff. They have replaced that system with one comprising just 4 questions.
Accenture has also dropped annual appraisals. In future staff will no longer receive a ranking or evaluation, just “timely feedback“.
They also say “Companies need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Without the year-end rating the danger is that the distribution of pay and bonuses can become even more of a dark art as shadow systems evolve without proper governance and infrastructure behind them”. And what would HR find to do?
One of the reasons for discontinuing ranking methods is that globalisation has thrown up many different roles and comparisons become more difficult.
There are also cultural differences. I remember being asked in Sweden by a Swedish employee in a multi-national company why his boss always asked him where he planned to be in 5 years time. He said he was quite happy doing the job he had. I also coached a senior Swedish manager who decided to leave the company he worked for rather than having to turn down promotion to a more global role. He opted to move down the road across the Øresund bridge instead.
The Swedes tend to take a different view on careers, valuing work-life balance more than say Americans or Brits.
I’ve posted before on this topic