Why My Company Got Rid of Performance-Based Pay Raises
In high school, I had a computer teacher who just didn’t think I was all that. The rest of my teachers did, to varying degrees, but he was nonplussed by my contributions to his class. He gave me a 3 out of 5 on my final project — a HyperCard presentation about cats — which earned me a “B” for my final grade.
Three years later, upon reviewing the long tidy column of As that comprised my high school academic record, a college counselor would remark, “Too bad about that freshman-year computer class, huh?”
He was joking of course, but to tell you the truth, I was still a little sore. It wasn’t just because I strove for perfection (which I did). It wasn’t just because I hated the way that one B interrupted an otherwise seamless narrative (which I did). It was also because the B had seemed so arbitrary at the time. We’d been told we could choose any subject for our final presentation that interested us, and I had seen no discernible difference in quality between my presentation and anyone else’s. The grade came with no comments, no rationale. Just a hastily scrawled 3/5.
I had a sneaking suspicion that my computer teacher just didn’t care much for cats. I had another sneaking suspicion that he didn’t care much for his female students. But I had no way to prove that either of these things were true.
We all had teachers who “played favorites” and teachers who clearly disliked or disregarded certain classmates. Teachers are human, after all, and even the most rigorously defended grading system is still vulnerable to human bias. Often, these human biases are also wrapped up in gender and racial biases.
Little did I know that when I entered the professional working world, I would encounter a grading system that was far more arbitrary, far less transparent, and far more prone to bias. I spent most of my 20s bartending and trying to co-found a nonprofit. My bartending performance was largely evaluated in the form of tips and the slurred praises of drunken men. My entrepreneurial adventures were blissfully free of performance evaluations, and it wasn’t until I was 29 years old and had gotten a “proper job” that I was subject to my first review.