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6 ways to handle biased feedback at work

Bias can easily creep into reviews, often without the reviewer realizing it. Here are six ways to handle it if you’re on the receiving end.

6 ways to handle biased feedback at work
[Photo: Thomas Drouault/Unsplash]

It’s natural for anyone to feel a little stressed about being critiqued and evaluated on your work. But when performance reviews make you feel uncomfortable or angry because of biased or discriminatory feedback, that’s a serious cause for concern.

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Unfortunately, bias can easily creep into reviews, often without the reviewer realizing it. Unconscious bias can be especially hard to identify, which makes it even more pervasive. It’s not as easy to spot as an overt insult, such as “You’re doing great work for a woman,” which of course should be immediately reported to HR. It can be subtle, such as an older employee who gets praised for eagerly adopting new technology, which shows age bias.

If you’ve been the victim of bias, you may not feel comfortable speaking up about it, especially if it comes from a direct supervisor—the very person with whom you should be discussing any concerns. Too often, it’s because employees don’t trust the organization to do the right thing. In fact, in HR Acuity’s recent employee experience study, 46% of workers said they don’t report bias and discrimination because they lack confidence that it will be handled appropriately.

That’s a huge problem for organizations, and one they absolutely must solve. But it also means employees must find the courage and follow the right protocols to make sure their concerns are properly documented and addressed, giving the organization the best shot at addressing the problem. The alternative—staying silent or quitting—may mean turning your back on an outstanding career opportunity because of one bad review or reviewer.

If you feel you’ve been the victim of a biased review, here are six steps you should take to ensure your concerns are heard, investigated, and dealt with properly.

Take a step back and assess

You might not be dealing with bias. In a performance review, it’s natural to be defensive about feedback. Before reacting negatively and assuming discrimination (because of age or gender, for example), ask yourself: Could the feedback be valid? Ask for clarifications, examples, and specific incidents where the undesirable behavior took place.

Learn to identify bias

Remember that it can be overt or subtle, and the reviewer may not even realize they’re displaying bias. Your manager should be using standardized criteria for reviews that focus on job performance to reduce subjectivity, and tools like LeanIn’s 50 Ways to Fight Gender Bias can be incredibly useful for knowing what to look for.

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Talk to HR

Your HR team is there to handle exactly these types of situations, and they should be your first stop. While your instinct might be to talk to a fellow employee to see if they’ve experienced a similar situation, their tendency may be to agree, just to support you. Instead, go to an employee relations partner or trusted leadership mentor. They’re there to help you navigate the situation through the correct channels. That ensures your concerns are investigated and addressed properly, per company policy, so there’s zero tolerance for retaliation or other shenanigans.

Ask for feedback from multiple sources

Another way to eliminate individual bias is to seek input from multiple sources, not only about how you perform your work, but also how you work with other people. Using a tool like Macorva, which gathers 360-degree reviews from managers, peers, and coworkers at all levels can help substantially reduce bias in performance feedback. This ensures no single individual has a disproportionate influence over the overall performance review. Companies can get a much broader perspective on each individual, and blatantly biased feedback can be identified and remediated appropriately using tools like these.

Give feedback

When you’re asked for feedback, especially if your organization uses a tool like Macorva, give it. Use your voice to express concerns, offer praise, and provide genuine, authentic input for your coworkers, leaders, and subordinates. It’s the only way that everyone can improve. Setting a good example of unbiased feedback can help to make sure everyone experiences the same consistent, fair review process.

Participate in training when it’s offered

Training in unconscious bias is essential for everyone in the organization—not just for those conducting the reviews, but for those who will be reviewed as well. And, it’s widely recognized as one of the best ways to ensure a more consistent, bias-free process. According to HR Acuity’s report, 76% of managers and 72% of employees have either received new training or will receive training within the next year. By understanding what to look for, you’re able to not only more easily identify bias when you experience it, but also be more cautious and aware of your own internal biases when providing feedback to others.

The bottom line is if you feel bias or discrimination creeping into your performance review, there’s really only one solution: speak up. You may be the first to come forward about an individual who is habitually biased, bringing forward critical evidence that may finally put an end to the discriminatory behavior for the benefit of the entire organization.

While it might feel awkward or uncomfortable to report biased feedback when it comes from your boss or another individual in a position of authority, ask yourself: Would you tolerate blatant harassment? Would you want your coworkers to be subjected to the same behavior? Having the courage to come forward by reporting to HR and using the proper channels may not only help you and your peers get the fair treatment you deserve but also help you preserve a valuable career opportunity.

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Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity.

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