When I covered how to handle a bad performance review in Forbes, it was strictly from the angle that you deserved the negative feedback. Not that I wish a downturn in my readers' careers, but realistically, we all encounter ups and downs in a career. You need to know how to bounce back if your manager calls you out on poor results, declining performance, or other career setbacks, and yes, you can recover from a career setback.
That said, what if you disagree with a bad performance review, or worse, what if you suspect bias as the source of the negative feedback? Werk posted findings from a study by tech founder Kieran Snyder, which showed a pattern of gender bias in performance reviews:
Women receive far more negative feedback than men, she discovered, and are far more likely to be critiqued for their personalities than they are for their skills.
Here are four proactive and productive actions to take if you suspect that your company has a bias problem, resulting in your bad performance review:
Ask for specifics—examples or measurable criteria—for all subjective feedback.
In Snyder's study, she gave an example of a female employee being called "abrasive." Feedback like abrasive is subjective, which makes it hard to counter and therefore hard to fix. If you get subjective feedback, ask for examples or measurable criteria so that both you and your manager are clear. It could be that simply asking for more details will make your manager realize that the review isn't based on a verifiable foundation. Or you might discover actions or behaviors you do regularly that are negatively perceived and that you need to change.
Look outside your immediate area—is bias just in your group or elsewhere?
If you can't get specifics on the feedback but your manager still stands by it, don't feel like you have to resolve the issue right at this review. Take a step back, and look at your broader company. Talk to others about their reviews to see if other women and/or people of color have similar subjective feedback in their reviews. Look at the composition of staff, especially senior management, to see if gender and racial diversity is a priority in hiring and retention. If the company overall seems inclusive, it could just be your manager—which is still a problem, but a contained one, and now you know you may get support from other areas. If the entire company has a diversity issue, it will likely be harder to resolve this—which you still might choose to work toward, but now you have a better idea of what you're facing.
Work with Diversity & Inclusion, HR, and Affinity Groups
One place to look for support within your company is with the Diversity & Inclusion group, if your company has dedicated D&I staff (typically part of HR), with your HR contact (both your official HR contact but also your personal HR friends), and with any affinity or employee resource groups that might have affected members and therefore be supportive to your cause. If you don't want to directly discuss your review, you could simply share Snyder's bias study and ask that the company use the findings as a platform to review its own practices. Or you can share the study to segue into your review and point out how the negative feedback and lack of backup details match the issues highlighted in the post.
Call Out the Bias
Whether you do it in concert with D&I, HR, and affinity groups or solo, if you feel that bias, as opposed to actual performance, has caused your bad performance review, then you should call it out. Naming the issue is the only way you can discuss it and resolve it with your manager. This should be the last step, well after you have had a chance to digest the feedback, do some introspection on your part in the review, research your company, and talk to others. Share your case objectively—this topic will be emotionally charged even if you are 100% neutral so you need to stay even-keeled. Give your manager a graceful exit—share the study and point out how this can be an unconscious problem and more common than people realize. Ask for reconsideration on your review, and be prepared to highlight specifics (measurable criteria and examples!) as to why you deserve a good performance review.
No one likes to be accused of bias, so calling out bias will not be an easy conversation with your manager, HR or management. But the alternative is to stay silent and enable the bias to continue—for your next review or someone else's. There is more being published about unconscious bias, and some companies are implementing training to avoid these issues. Your company might already have something in the works and may pleasantly surprise you. If not, you can take the steps above to try and improve the situation.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine coaches executives and entrepreneurs and is a member of the Columbia Career Coaches Network. She is a career columnist for Forbes.com and formerly wrote for Money.com, Time.com, CNBC, and Portfolio. She is the author of three books: "Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career" (2015, Forbes), "Six Steps To Job Search Success" (2011, Flat World Knowledge), and "How the Fierce Handle Fear: Secrets to Succeeding in Challenging Times" (2010, Two Harbors Press). She teaches Professional Development and Negotiation courses at Columbia University and received a grant from the Jones New York Empowerment Fund for her work with the mid-career professional. A classically trained pianist at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music, Ceniza-Levine stays active in the arts, performing stand-up comedy. Contact her here.