Women and employees of color receive the lowest-quality feedback from their managers during performance reviews and are leaving their organizations at the highest rates, according to a recent analysis of 13,000 performance reviews by software company Textio in Seattle.
Jackye Clayton, vice president of talent acquisition and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Textio, called the findings "frustrating but certainly not surprising.
"Textio has been researching language bias for over a decade, and the same patterns of bias continue to show up year over year," she said.
As Clayton explained, high-quality feedback is clear, actionable and work-focused. For example, telling an employee that they're doing a "good job" while also mentioning the specific actions that led to the compliment is an example of effective feedback.
Conversely, low-quality feedback consists of comments that employees can't use to improve their performance. For example, commending an employee for their work without any further details can result in the worker not knowing how to replicate the performance in the future, Clayton said.
According to the analysis:
- White and Asian men receive the highest-quality feedback overall and are significantly more likely than other groups to be described by managers as "brilliant" and "genius."
- Women of all races, Black workers and Hispanic workers receive the least actionable and direct feedback.
- Black employees get 26 percent more "unactionable" feedback than other employees, despite only receiving 79 percent as much feedback as other groups.
- Women received 22 percent more personality-related feedback—such as being "opinionated" or "nice"—than men did.
- The term "overachiever"—typically applied to employees transcending low expectations—was most frequently used by managers to describe women of color.
Further, 83 percent of men said they understand what's required to earn their next promotion compared with 71 percent of women, nonbinary, transgender and gender nonconforming people overall. Only 54 percent of Asian employees say that they understand how to earn their next promotion.
Why High-Quality Feedback Is Important
Textio researchers identified a direct connection between the quality of feedback a person receives and the likelihood they will be at an organization a year later: Employees who receive low-quality feedback are 63 percent more likely to leave their organizations than everyone else.
"The equation is simple: Poor feedback equals poor retention," Clayton said. "People who don't receive actionable and direct guidance will likely exit within a year. That is an expensive problem to have. Replacing them costs upwards of two to three times their annual salary."
But low-quality feedback isn't just about financial loss, she added. It's also about missed opportunities for "growth and excellence." A team empowered by precise feedback exceeds expectations, enhancing performance and innovation that accelerates the business forward.
"It isn't enough to recruit from underrepresented groups—that is just the starting line," Clayton said. "Retention and development are where the race is won."
Talia Fox, CEO of consulting firm KUSI Global in Washington, D.C., and author of "The Power of Conscious Connection: 4 Habits to Transform How You Live and Lead" (IdeaPress, 2023), said employers that ignore or patronize employees or provide low-quality feedback, particularly to minorities, are engaging in what she calls "quiet discrimination."
She added, "This behavior could be rooted in different factors, including intentional bias, unconscious bias leading to low expectations or fear of potential backlash."
Want to Give Better Feedback? Train Managers
Companies looking to improve the quality of feedback, particularly for women and people of color, must first reframe managerial accountability as a cornerstone for inclusive leadership, Clayton said.
"Accountability isn't just a KPI [key performance indicator]," she said. "It's a performance expectation so crucial that failing to meet it should be a fireable offense."
She noted that HR professionals must set explicit, measurable objectives for managers:
- Require that managers provide written, bias-free feedback at least twice a year.
- Construct personalized growth plans for every team member annually.
- Ensure these documents pass rigorous inclusivity checks, perhaps even garnering a high Textio score for gender-neutrality.
Organizations must also implement ongoing training for managers that tackles unconscious bias and fosters effective, equitable feedback delivery, Clayton added. Companies should invest in real-time coaching tools or software that provides managers with immediate, constructive feedback on their own communication.
"That way, we ensure that the loop of high-quality feedback extends from the managerial level to every individual," Clayton explained, "creating an environment that is not only diverse but genuinely equitable and inclusive."
Many companies do not understand how challenging it can be to give effective feedback, Fox noted. But providing managers with leadership workshops that equip them with the necessary skills to contribute to companywide feedback strategies and practice communication that aligns with company values can be helpful.
"Effective feedback is the absolute most critical skill for managers," Fox explained, "directly impacting team innovation and performance."