How to Make Evaluations a Level Playing Field
9 April, 2018
When I was working at a small startup we hired someone as a full-time developer. She had been at companies in the past where she was consistently overlooked for promotion. Because of this, she asked me straight away about how I would be fair in making sure that she would get ahead at the same rate as everyone else. She said she didn't want any special favors, she just wanted the exact same treatment as everyone else. The problem was, I didn't know how to prove to her or to myself that I was evaluating her and the rest of her teammates in exactly the same way.
After talking to various members of the team, I realized that they all wanted the same thing - they all wanted the system of evaluation to be something they could read, something they could decide on together, and something they could objectively measure independently. Basically, they wanted to know that my gut instincts and subjective opinions had no say at all in the evaluation of their performance. I wanted that too. I reserved the right to have my gut tell me what type of work we should be focusing on as a team and how to best encourage people. But as far as promotions, compensation, and evaluation, we used a very structured system. We started using the Radford levels of IC contributions. They use a rope-making analogy - level one can make basic knots with help, and level six invented nylon. Engineers are somewhere along that scale. We used this to come up with ways to describe breadth of influence. We then talked about what specific behaviors and influences a person will have at different levels, and how we were going to distribute work and how projects would be selected. Through this process, we realized we had a real bias in our system, where anybody who was confident got to do all the best work, as they would just start doing it. We moved away from this, so that if we identified any work that needed to be done, we would post about it in our public Slack channel and would then talk about who would be best at it. The woman who had originally asked for assurance of fairness never actually changed in terms of level. However, she was happy as she could see clearly that the systems we had put in place were fair.
One of the most practical steps I took to make my team safe for a person who was a minority was to give her the rubric for how she would be evaluated, and to ensure it was clear and fair and that she bought into it. It's really hard work to make your gut instinct about how someone is doing objectively measurable but it's worth it. Ultimately, it cut down on my workload, as team members didn't come to me anymore wondering if they would get promoted, because the system we had in place made it very clear what they needed to do to be promoted.
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