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Are you grappling with how to conduct equitable performance evaluations?

Things were not okay in 2020 and the jury’s still out on 2021. COVID continues to intensify long-lived inequities, especially for BIPOC and people with disabilities. People are juggling work and caregiving with little respite. Many staff are directly impacted by the violence of white supremacy, political turmoil, and the loss of community members.

In the deluge, you kept the raft afloat. You shifted strategies and staved off layoffs. You moved the work along despite reduced capacity, uneven workloads, and tragedy. Now, many of you are figuring out what to do about 2020 evaluations.

While we can’t offer a comprehensive guide, we do have some tips. (If you’d rather skip the tips and go straight to sample language, click here.)

1. Start with you

Reflect on how you managed in 2020. Did you…

  • …get input from those most impacted as you set more realistic goals?
  • …keep checking in?
  • …create the conditions for staff to reprioritize, set boundaries, and re-ground in purpose?

Where did you succeed and where could you have done better? It’s okay if you didn’t manage perfectly, but if there are expectations you could have been clearer about or feedback you should have given along the way, you’ll need to be prepared to acknowledge that in your evaluation conversation.

2. Adapt the form

Your goal for evaluation is to recalibrate, align, and share feedback. If you’re not offering promotions or raises this year, consider letting go of ratings and focusing more on feedback. Update your rubric to name the essential goals and lift up qualities that took on more significance like flexibility, problem-solving, and continuous learning.

3. Get beneath the surface

Women, LGBTQ folks, and BIPOC often carry added pressure to prove their inherent worth and this often shows up in performance. As a manager, part of your job is making sure you understand the factors behind a staff member’s dip. Get curious about the new employee who gave 200%: Are they an emerging high performer, or are they someone with multiple marginalized identities who is worried about their job security (or both!)?

In your next one-on-one, ask questions to understand more about their performance:

  • Where do you feel like you really showed up this year? What made that possible?
  • Where did you most need support? Where do you think you’ll need support moving forward? What does that look like?
  • How are you feeling about your workload?

4. Hold the bigger picture

This year, you can’t evaluate solely based on results—weigh circumstances and effort, too. In 2020, you probably saw examples of varied performance. You might have a staff person who put in a lot of effort but experienced hardship that made it difficult to achieve gold star—or even good enough—results. Give feedback, but think twice before giving a harsh evaluation. On the flip side, if someone went above and beyond, consider whether their circumstances may have enabled them to do so, or if their coping mechanism was to throw themselves into work. While you should celebrate wins and acknowledge hard work and strong results, be mindful about doling out individual rewards.

5. Give useful (but predictable) feedback

The feedback you share in your evaluation conversation should be a summary, not a surprise. It’s also your opportunity to show your staff that you see the bigger picture, and offer coaching that will deepen connection, effectiveness, and overall sustainability.

Here’s a mini-formula:

  • Share the headline message you want them to take away from this conversation.
  • Acknowledge:
    • The context that they were working in.
    • What was in their control, including: what they did to overcome obstacles, wins they achieved, key pivots, and lessons learned.
    • What was in your control (see tip #1).
    • Pre-pandemic bright spots (don’t let recency bias skew your review).
  • Align on new expectations or goals (including developmental or corrective ones)—recognizing that the new year doesn’t mean the pandemic has suddenly ended—and specify any concrete support you will provide along the way.

Struggling with what to say? Check out our sample language for giving feedback in performance evaluations during COVID-19.

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