Have you ever encountered a performance review in which a manager criticizes a behavior that’s tied to an employee’s cultural norms rather than to performance issues?
As more multicultural employees join the workforce, organizations are challenged to identify, interpret and assess potentially biased evaluation input on these workers. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “while biases can affect any of an organization’s talent decisions, they can be especially harmful when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts.” And there is perhaps no setting that shapes careers, salaries and lives like annual performance evaluations.
When it comes to developing and advancing multicultural employees, performance reviews can be a double-edged sword. Too often, reviews are either underutilized, resulting in missed opportunities to intervene, or administered with a lack of cultural awareness. This can leave multicultural employees feeling isolated and unable to make reasonable advancements, ultimately deeming them a retention risk.
After seeing more than one multicultural employee depart after a disappointing performance review, I’ve wondered if a different review experience could have prevented that outcome.
Common Review Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
From coaching many multicultural clients over the years, I’ve compiled some best practices that may be useful for HR and learning and development practitioners, as well as managers faced with these performance review challenges.
- No Surprises! Give Feedback Early and Often
When concerns over his clarity of speech were expressed for the first time, one multicultural coaching client said, “I had no idea they felt that way. It’s good to know now, but I had never heard that from them before.”
Negative or constructive feedback coming late in the cycle can unintentionally put multicultural employees at a disadvantage. Addressing language and communications development needs (presentations and writing skills, interpersonal communications or dimensions of emotional intelligence) requires extra time. These “higher order” skills are progressively learned and attained, so infrequent feedback, or feedback that relies too much on human memory, can limit multicultural employees’ progress.
- Don’t Let Comments Get ‘Lost in Translation’
Performance review comments are not always written in a way that is clear or actionable. Or they are overly nuanced, reflecting the commenter’s lack of comfort with direct, straightforward language.
For example, a consulting firm employee of Asian background was given the vague advice to “get verbal presence training,” instead of being told that he might explore speech coaching to help improve his speech clarity and articulation. Another multicultural coaching client noted, “It is always disappointing to get my work back with so many corrections — and no explanation of why it is wrong.”
A better way: Focus on clear, actionable steps, as in these recommendations excerpted from a multicultural employee’s review:
- Speak louder — both in person and on calls.
- Inject energy — vary tone and place emphasis on key words.
- Be direct — clearly tell listeners what you have to say and recap if necessary.
- Provide coherent structure — organize your points clearly so your key messages are not disjointed or confusing.
- Read between the Lines
Some managers are (understandably) reluctant to be too direct in their critiques for fear of giving offense or being politically incorrect. Others may display unintended bias or lack understanding of how cultural differences play into behaviors.
During a manager review feedback conversation, one Springboards coach was told: “My employee is an incredibly strong technical contributor, but accent gets in the way — wait, are we allowed to say that?”
When a senior level employee is either receiving or providing performance feedback, the process is especially delicate. It could benefit from having a neutral third party like a specialized coach who can assess communication, language and culture needs and present recommendations. A well-designed peer review tool really helps managers to articulate potentially sensitive development needs in a way that’s impartial and actionable. This tool also provides a clear roadmap for coaching follow-up.
Managers can zero in on specific employee competencies, for example:
Based on an effectiveness rating scale from 1 to 5, to what extent does the employee:
- Speak English with clear pronunciation, appropriate word choice and proficient grammar?
- Deliver the appropriate, essential message to the audience: high level or in-depth summary to colleagues/team as necessary?
- Guide her audience through complex material with appropriate storytelling, leading them to a strong conclusion and clear takeaways?
- Present analysis effectively to a range of audiences?
- Speak clearly and at the right pace, pausing appropriately, allowing audience to absorb, interject, and engage naturally and comfortably; display a confident cadence and vocal style?
- Mind the Gap
In coaching engagements, we’ve often seen three to five month gaps between the review and the onset of follow-up training. By that point, the next talent review cycle is already well underway. Ideally, employees should immediately have a clear set of recommendations and goals and the appropriate resources to get there, like internal mentoring, coaching or skills training.
Given the extra time multicultural employees often need to address feedback recommendations and make training progress, for some, the writing may already be on the wall.
- Unintended Consequences: ‘There’s nowhere to go here’
Consider how frustrating it must be for an individual who has been given constructive feedback but has not been pointed in the right direction for immediate upskilling. “I feel embarrassed that people don’t understand me,” a multicultural coaching client recently shared. “Sometimes I think they are pretending to understand me so as not to hurt my feelings, but it is awkward either way.”
Thoughtful messaging can eliminate any stigma or suggestion that the employee needs to be “fixed.” If coaching is perceived by multicultural employees as remedial or as a last-ditch effort, their next step may well be to contemplate opportunities elsewhere. But when managers frame their feedback and subsequent recommendations to be both constructive and inclusive, performance reviews can be a positive force in advancing career development and opportunity for all employees.