Keeping it Equitable: Conducting Annual Performance Reviews-- In a Pandemic

A new year means it’s performance review season. In 2020, Covid-19 upended our world and workplaces in dramatic ways. For many organizations, schools, and companies, work transformed overnight. The need to pivot was immediate. Adjustments were necessary, and action swift. Now, almost a year later, we’ve adapted to new work realities brought on by the pandemic. Yet, employers hold the opportunity to adjust work norms in ways that seemed impossible only several months ago. Employee performance reviews are one of those areas.

Here are four things that we know:

  1. Circumstances created by the pandemic differ by race, gender, place, and family composition.
  2. While the pandemic’s trauma is collective, we — as individuals — experience it differently.
  3. People manage stress using a variety of strategies. Some will work harder, others will do what they can, and that effort is their absolute best. Both hold value.
  4. Applying an equity perspective means that we accept that staff are situated differently, based on the factors noted above.

A client has asked me the following question:

“We are concerned about our ability to evaluate performance equitably, given that there has been an uneven distribution of labor (with good reason). How do we make sure that we’re not unintentionally and unfairly rewarding/punishing people for doing more/less work while still recognizing their contributions and accomplishments?”

Building on what we know, below are a few strategies to think about as you plan annual performance reviews.

Exploring in greater detail...

Center equity in your process. It is critically important to intentionally center equity as people are dealing with loss and trauma. Remember that white dominant cultural norms abound in most workplaces, even in a pandemic. Without disruption, those norms become the standards we use to assess performance. Intentionally, center equity. Given the question above, the way to do that might mean re-weighing adaptive skills, flexibility, and agility, to create equity in your process where the pandemic created inequity. For example, given the “uneven distribution of labor” noted in the client’s question, this year might be a good time to review your salary structure and make equity adjustments. Look for disparities by race and gender within salary bands, especially if your organization does not have a written compensation


Review your existing process and indicators. Perhaps the current work environment presents an opportunity to make substantive changes to performance reviews. In a survey by McKinsey & Co and, about 30 percent of companies said they adjusted their performance evaluations to account for challenges created by the coronavirus, and 5 percent had put reviews on hold or canceled them, according to a survey of 317 employers. Identify the places in your existing process that reward behaviors that reflect white dominant culture in your workplace. De-emphasize these criteria. Several analytic tools can help identify these areas. For example, if attendance is an indicator, then add clarity as to what that means in terms of work presence, given the workplace shifts created by Covid-19.


Find the equity points within your current process. Equity points are the places within your current process that align with your organization, school, or companies equity values. Identify how these values are represented as competencies in the performance review. Increase the importance attached to these areas. If you use an evaluation with numerical weighting, then weigh equity consideration more heavily. For example, if one of your performance indicators is to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into work projects, then add weight to that indicator over something like taking on new projects. This shift rewards how an employee works versus the volume of work taken on in a given year.


Consider replacing your existing system with a more adaptable process. This year requires a greater focus on goals and flexibility. In another piece of data, a survey of 1,330 human resources officials by Aon, a consulting and insurance firm, found that 47 percent of companies had made changes to their employees’ performance goals or were considering them. For your organization, this might mean changing the template you use to foreground the equity-centered considerations noted above. Given the outlook for 2021, make shorter term, quarterly goals versus annual goals. Schedule specific check-in points.


Communicate changes to the staff. Share changes with your team. Transparency is the cornerstone of equitable practices, so it is essential to communicate any performance review changes often and clearly. Make space for questions and assure when necessary. Any changes to the process should be documented, shared with staff, and clearly communicated with employees, particularly if there is an impact on compensation.


The pandemic requires adaptive change. Shift when necessary as challenges arise. It is important to support staff in the best ways you can as the pandemic keeps work remote in the months ahead. 

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Tools you can useRacial Equity Impact Analysis
Author: Joanna Shoffner Scott
Joanna Shoffner Scott is an experienced management consultant with deep expertise in racial equity. She is the founder and principal of Stamey Street Consulting Group, LLC, and is a Senior Consultant with the Race Matters Institute of JustPartners, Inc. Joanna has consulted with numerous organizations all over the country on unpacking race in their every day work.