lauantai 1. helmikuuta 2014

Is objective performance assessment possible?

The season of performance appraisals is getting close again. In the Finnish working culture of short power distance and relaxed relationships between managers and staff, assessment discussions are well established as a developmental instrument. In multicultural workplaces, the exercise may be an unknown territory for many. The nature and purpose of the assessment – the idea of mutual feedback, exchange of expectations, and a dialogue with the supervisor – may sound impossible for those coming from authoritarian, long-power-distance cultures. People have different expectations and a different understanding of their own role in the process. Critical feedback does not always sound developmental but rather frightening to anyone trying to build a new life in a foreign country, dependent on this one job and employment contract. In many cultures, it is also a issue of self-esteem, pride and public face.

From a supervisor’s perspective, staff diversity proposes a challenge they are not always trained or experienced in. Regardless of systematic HR practices, human nature plays a role in the assessment. Everybody has some hidden or explicit biases in their mind. These subtle biases and stereotypical beliefs influence the way we see, hear, and feel other people’s performance. We tend to value skills and behaviors that are similar to ours. We feel comfortable with people who are like ourselves. Unconsciously, we overlook unfamiliar qualifications and, especially, unfamiliar manners, behaviors, communication styles, and even accent and dressing-up. Stereotypes and personal preferences do injustice to individuals.

Typical biases in performance assessment relate to gender, age, race/ethnicity, skin color, religion, and language skills. This also applies to physical ability. We cannot easily see the competencies and growth potential behind a wheel chair or limited vocabulary. Our blind spots have an impact on the way we see peoples’ skills, output, effectiveness, productivity, abilities, and talent. Even more, they influence the assessments of long-term career potential: managerial traits, commitment, loyalty, drive for results, ambition, motivation for progress, sense of responsibility, confidence, credibility… Therefore, we need instruments that help reduce subjectivity.

How to minimize the risks of stereotyping and subjective biases in performance assessment?

1. Make performance criteria specific, concrete, measurable, driven by agreed objectives, and focusing on strictly professional aspects rather than personal characteristics.
2. Link the assessment to concrete and time-bound development plans and apply follow-up programs to enhance individual and collective performance and well-being.
3. Ensure diversity management training and awareness building for every supervisor.
4. Make diversity management an essential element of supervisory performance standards.