[Email exchange with my manager]
“Do you have another picture?”
“This is my LinkedIn photo. Is it not good enough?”
*Goes over to manager’s desk to discuss why my picture is even required for a 1-pager meant to accompany my year-end review*
“You are snarling. Wouldn’t you want to calibrate someone who is actually smiling?”
“I don’t think I’m “snarling” in the photo. Do you want to choose a picture from my Facebook?”
“How about this one,” I say annoyed moving from picture to picture on my phone with Facebook pulled up.”
“This one. Look at that smile!”
I went back to my desk, emailed myself the photo and included the following petty message. “I’ve updated the 1-pager with the new picture. I also lightened the photo so that no one confuses me with [the other black guy on the ~80 person team]”
When I first saw that I was being asked to fill out a comprehensive document for my year-end review, I was happy to be able to provide information on my achievements for the year. And then we were asked to boil down the comprehensive version that went into the system into a 1-pager that would be used in calibration. At Amex, each employee is rated and ranked by his manager, their manager, etc until there’s a rank ordered list that dictates raises and year-end ratings (we call it calibration).
What stood out to me was that in the upper left hand box there was a space to include a picture. I was confused by that (psychology background went into action) and decided to ask peers who were in the group longer than me if a) that was typical and b) if there were any concerns they had about including a picture. No one thought that it was strange or didn’t care to vocalize concerns. I asked someone that I knew was pretty well connected to voice concern. Most said it was useful because it allowed those who didn’t remember your name to associate a name with a face.
If it’s not clear why this might be an issue, if someone doesn’t know your name then how can they speak for your work? If they don’t remember your work, then is their input in calibration useful? The social scientist in me recognized the potential for bias. Someone gets to weigh in on your “performance” even if you’ve only ever passed each other in the hallway, exchanged glances in the elevator or really if they just had a reaction to the photo + 1-pager of your accomplishments.
Initially, I was really annoyed with my manager for what she said. Later, I realized how awful our performance measurement system was. Yes, she gets some blame for participating in a biased system, but her insistence on choosing a picture of me with a wider, visible toothed smile was in my best interest. My new picture had a more respectful smile. A pleasant and inviting smile. A smile that would influence how my “objective performance” could be measured.
It is really unfortunate that that particular group chose to execute their performance reviews in that way (different from the other group that I was in). In trying to understand the basis for this odd practice, I asked why wouldn’t they just pull the photos from everyone’s ID badge. There’s no posing, no subjectivity. It’s the photo that we have to see every day we badge in and out, and is the photo from our first day on the job. What bias is introduced when someone chooses a glam shot or a heavily edited picture (pre-Instagram)?
In an interesting turn of events, I voiced my frustration with that performance evaluation system during my exit interview (leaving for business school). It just so happened that the person I spoke with in HR had created that system and couldn’t see its potential flaws. The original intent was to better distinguish between our IT teams in Arizona where managers struggled to tell their employees apart. I pointed out how unfortunate it was that a manager could not tell his people apart but would be rating their performance. To make this encounter solutions-oriented, I made recommendations that ranged from super simple to very impactful.
It’s also important to note that the HR person was a person of color. This matters. Minorities also have blind spots and can perpetuate discriminatory systems.
If someone comes to you with concerns about an “objective” system and its flaws, please try to hear them out. If you have the power to change the system or your words could influence the system changing, please speak up. Or even explain to your employee, peer, friend that the system indeed does not make sense and provide your advice about making the most of the system (as my manager had). But the latter case is still pretty frustrating…
Part of a 28-day series of reflections, stories and feelings for Black History Month 2017. Read all parts (here).