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There are no shortcuts to making work fair for women. After all, shortcuts are a big part of the reason why women still feel held back in their careers. When, as humans, we find ourselves in situations that are uncertain, intense or overwhelming, we rely on mental shortcuts that let unconscious bias creep into our decision-making and judgments of others.
High-growth companies are nothing if not uncertain, intense or overwhelming — even mature private companies like Thumbtack that are considered great places to work. That’s why I’ve encouraged my team to buck the trend, calling for a more structured approach to people management, particularly in 360 reviews. So far, that bet is working.
Before we added more structure to our 360 review process, we completed a sobering internal analysis that showed women were more likely to get failure-focused feedback. Phrases like “don’t be afraid” and “be better” appeared more often in reviews for women than for their male colleagues. By contrast, reviewers were more likely to say “nothing comes to mind” in constructive feedback for men. When they did give men constructive feedback, they used optimistic, future-oriented phrases things like “find ways to” and “you should think about.”
In response to this research, we mobilized not just our people programs team, but also 40 people managers from across the company to introduce more structure within our 360 review process.
This matters because 360 feedback is an input for decisions that directly impact career progression. With this additional structure, we are able to more clearly see that women and men have been given similar performance ratings and promotions over the past year.
Note: Due to the way we’ve structured data to comply with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reporting requirements, our research only reflects differences between two gendered groups — men and women. We recognize that gender isn't binary, and we encourage everyone to remember this when discussing gender identity in the workplace.
There were four primary ways we overhauled our 360 review process to introduce more structure:
High-growth companies scale quickly without having clear career levels defined, making expectations, promotions and career growth unclear for individuals. On a company scale, it can sometimes lead to uneven career growth across teams, or inability to track progression and fairness at a company level. Our People team set standard levels and career paths across the company.
With levels in place, we were able to work with 40 leaders to explicitly define criteria — expectations and outcomes for each role at each level from engineering to operations to analytics. Criteria is the single most important part of countering bias because it makes the implicit consistently explicit. We ensured that each set of criteria anchored on a holistic view of a role that included impact, expertise, people skills and company citizenship. This allowed reviewers to understand the actual behaviors and outcomes expected for the role instead of their own pre-defined stereotypes.
We then redesigned the feedback form to reference the criteria. Instead of blank boxes, we continually prompted for constructive and positive feedback along the four standard criteria dimensions; impact, expertise, people skills and citizenship. This reminded people to constantly reference criteria when giving feedback instead of leaning on their own perceptions or preconceived ideas for the role.
Finally, we added ratings and calibrated. There’s a push to throw out performance ratings, but we’ve found that with new or inexperienced managers, ratings are essential to calibrating how evaluations were being handled across departments, teams, and managers. We’re encouraged that the structure we introduced helped ensure employees weren't subject to bias from a specific peer set or manager in their 360 reviews. After all, reviews are a core component of an employee’s career progress in general, and this is one big step to help level the playing field.
Underrepresented team members shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of creating space for themselves to belong and thrive at work. People teams have a responsibility to put the right structures and processes in place to level the playing field for every employee.
In a high-growth, fast-moving company, the imperative is even clearer. Our organizations are often the first to offer employees a chance to manage people. If we don’t create thoughtful structures for these new managers, we may inadvertently create the conditions for unconscious bias to take place. The People team has to set the standard for management, or else the culture will default to the status quo. And as we know, the status quo is not fair across many dimensions of identity.
So what’s next for us? We have more work to do to make sure feedback is meaningful and the effort is manageable during our semi-annual 360 reviews. In the meantime, we’ve proven that structure can help make feedback more fair at Thumbtack — and now we’ve got the data set we need to measure ourselves as we make more improvements.
* This post was originally published on LinkedIn in December 2019.