By Melissa J. Anderson

Stereotyping continues to be a persistent factor in evaluating individuals for new jobs, new assignments, promotions, and compensation – and this can cost companies money.

When the wrong people are given jobs or responsibilities based on unfounded assumptions about individuals based on their gender, ethnicity, or other demographic status, productivity decreases and top talent goes elsewhere. Companies lose their competitive edge.

Yet stereotyping is often done unconsciously, and despite decades of work around creating inclusive workplaces, it continues to influence decisions about who gets what job.

This is the dilemma a set of Harvard researchers approach in a new working paper published last month. The study,  “When Performance Trumps Gender Bias: Joint Versus Separate Evaluation” [PDF], offers a simple solution to the problem, which should appeal to those interested in fairness as well as those interested in maximizing cost efficiency.

According to the researchers, engaging in joint performance reviews rather than individual ones causes managers to focus on past performance and behavior, rather than on stereotypical assumptions, and can offer a corrective to unconscious bias moving forward. Here’s how.

Influencing Behavior

The researchers, Iris Bohnet, Alexandra van Geen, and Max H. Bazerman, suggest that joint performance evaluations cause researchers to rely on comparisons of individuals’ performance, rather than on “cognitive shortcuts” (stereotypical assumptions) about their abilities. They write, “Evaluators are more likely to focus on individual performance in joint than in separate evaluation and on group stereotypes in separate than in joint evaluation, making joint evaluation the money-maximizing evaluation procedure.”

The reason, they suggest, comes down to the science of decision making. They explain:

“A change in assessments depending on the evaluation mode is compatible with the System 1/System 2 distinction made in behavioral decision research where people have two distinct modes of thinking that are variously activated under certain conditions: the intuitive and automatic System 1 and the reflective and reasoned System 2…”

System 2 thinking can provide better, more informed decisions about individuals’ performance. It can be triggered by comparison. But it has another benefit. The researchers explain:

“While an information-based approach assumes more consciousness than an automatic switch between systems of thinking, it is also behavioral. It allows for evaluators to take into account irrelevant group characteristics that are not predictive of future behavior and then update their biased beliefs based on the new information received.”

Not only will do joint evaluations produce better, more reasoned evaluations of each individual’s performance, when managers engaged in the rational thinking state brought about by comparison, it can change their minds about stereotypes they might have employed in the future.

Improving Outcomes and Fairness

The researchers are careful to point out that benefits of joint performance evaluation should appeal to individuals motivated by different factors.

First of all, they say, joint evaluations level the playing field and engender fair decisions about promotion and development of key employees. Joint reviews also simply produce more accurate evaluations of employees’ abilities, which should benefit the company’s productivity. They explain:

“Organizations may seek to overcome biases in job assignment and promotion because they want to maximize economic returns. They may worry about the inaccuracy of stereotypes in predicting future productivity, or they may hold gender equality as a goal in itself. If so, they may be able to nudge evaluators toward taking individual performance information into account rather than gender stereotypes by introducing joint rather than separate evaluation procedures.”

The research shows how fairness and efficiency go hand in hand – by ensuring a level playing field, a company is better able to promote and retain top performing talent and maximize its returns. While this study focused on gender, because of the focus on behavioral decision systems, the joint evaluation method is likely to reduce the impact of other kinds of stereotypes as well. By accurately evaluating employees, companies can maximize their effectiveness of their workforce.