The old-school performance review: a tense once-a-year sit-down with your manager, full of one-size-fits-all formats and one-sided pronouncements about your work. Then there’s the primary focus on past mistakes—not exactly inspiring, is it? This is one result of a company laking DEI in performance conversations.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality for many employees, particularly those from diverse backgrounds. Because the truth is, that traditional performance conversations often fall short in a modern workplace. If we truly value diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), we need to revamp how we think about evaluating and developing our people.

So, what does that look like?

Instead of a judgmental formality, we envision inclusive performance conversations as opportunities for growth, collaboration, and recognizing the full potential of every employee.

Here’s where inclusive performance conversations can make a huge difference:

  • Sense of belonging: Tailoring conversations to individual needs and goals signals that every employee is valued, regardless of their background or identity. And when employees feel like they belong, they’re more engaged, motivated, and likely to stick around.
  • Inspiring growth: Focusing on strengths, constructive feedback, and a collaborative approach helps everyone develop their skills.
  • Maximizing potential: When employees feel supported and included, they’re far more likely to bring their best selves to work.

More than just representation, true inclusivity means giving everyone a seat at the table and a voice in shaping their own development path. Here, we’ll teach you how to embrace DEI in performance conversations and create a workplace where all employees feel supported and empowered to be their best.

1.  Why diversity and inclusion in the workplace is so important: a refresher course

The idea that DEI is good for business isn’t exactly groundbreaking news, but it bears repeating because the numbers don’t lie. According to Forbes, diverse teams “make better business decisions up to 87% of the time,” and they make those decisions twice as fast (and within half as many meetings!).

Furthermore, data shows that organizations with strong DEI practices outperform their less diverse counterparts; a recent McKinsey & Company study found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.

This is about more than ticking boxes. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace has major benefits, like:

  • Increased innovation and creativity: DEI is a company’s secret weapon for problem-solving. People with different backgrounds, experiences, and thought processes attack challenges from fresh angles. It’s a recipe for those “aha!” moments that drive new ideas.
  • Enhanced decision-making: Like Forbes reported, a diverse team is better equipped to spot potential risks, consider a wider range of options, and ultimately make well-informed decisions that benefit the whole organization.
  • Improved employee engagement: When people feel like they belong — and especially when they see their unique contributions valued — they’re naturally more motivated and invested in their work.
  • Stronger company reputation: Businesses that prioritize diversity and inclusion in the workplace are seen as more progressive, ethical, and in touch with the needs of both their employees and customers. In an increasingly values-driven marketplace, DEI can attract top talent and the ability to connect with your customers on a global scale.

Why does DEI in the workplace matter to managers

Leading diverse teams builds valuable skills like cross-cultural communication and conflict resolution, and maximizes the strengths of individuals with varied talents. A wider range of experiences and viewpoints can also equal a boost to your bottom line — Boston Consulting Group finds that companies with diverse management teams see 19% higher revenue due to innovation.

Why does DEI in the workplace matter to employees?

Nearly 80% of employees consider diversity and inclusion in the workplace as an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. Diverse workplaces offer robust opportunities for mentorship, peer learning, and expanded professional networks, especially for those from minority backgrounds. Feeling included and respected can do big things for a person’s confidence, both personally and professionally!

Did you know?

Women are more likely than men to value diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Pew Research Center finds that about 61% of women say focusing on increasing DEI in the workplace is a good thing, compared with half of men. What’s more, larger shares of women than men say it’s “extremely or very important” to work at a place that is diverse when it comes to gender, race and ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation.

DEI in performance conversations

2.  Approach inclusive performance conversations with an open mind

As a manager, you have the power to make performance conversations a positive experience for every employee. Coming in with an inclusive mindset means setting the stage for a collaborative dialogue, rather than a one-sided judgment. Here’s how to create that kind of atmosphere.

Check your biases at the door

Let’s be real, we all have unconscious biases that can creep into our perceptions and cloud our decisions. Before you even sit down with an employee, take a second for some honest self-reflection so you can check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Some questions to ask:

  • What assumptions am I making about this person based on their background, identity, past performance, or communication style?
  • Are there any potential biases that could cloud my judgment or prevent me from seeing the full picture?
  • Am I giving this employee the same benefit of the doubt I’d give anyone else?

Research by Harvard Business Review shows that self-awareness is a critical first step in mitigating bias. The more we understand our own potential blind spots, the less likely we are to unintentionally let them influence our interactions. Challenging our own biases is an ongoing process — but it’s the only way to ensure DEI in performance conversations.

Build a safe space by prioritizing trust

The ideal setting for inclusive performance conversations is one where everyone feels comfortable speaking their mind, even when it’s difficult. That’s the kind of environment we’re aiming for: a judgment-free zone where all voices are valued, concerns can be raised, and sincere feedback is welcome.

A study by Google found that psychological safety — the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up — is the most important factor in high-performing teams. More research shows that people need to feel safe and supported to contribute innovative, creative ideas. So, how do you foster psychological safety?

  • Be approachable: Let employees know that they can trust you and that you’re there to listen, not lecture.
  • Encourage questions: Consider using phrases like, “I want to hear your honest thoughts on…” or “What are some challenges you’ve faced that I should be aware of?”
  • Value all voices: Make it clear that everyone’s perspective matters, regardless of their role or background.

Focus on strengths to set a positive tone

Everyone wants a little recognition for what they do well. Think about it: Would you rather hear about all the ways you messed up, or all the ways you’ve kicked butt?

Instead of jumping straight into areas for improvement, begin inclusive performance conversations by acknowledging and celebrating the unique strengths your employee brings to the table. This naturally forms a positive, supportive atmosphere and reinforces the message that you see their worth.

Research shows that focusing on strengths can lead to greater employee engagement and performance. In fact, a Gallup study found that employees who received strengths-based feedback were 7.8% more productive and 11.1% more profitable than those who didn’t. So start with the good stuff, then use constructive feedback to help them reach the next level (more on that later).

Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”  

Vernā Myers, Diversity and Inclusion Strategist

3.  Engage in active listening and two-way feedback

Let’s say you’re telling your friend about a stressful day, and they’re half-listening while scrolling through their phone. You’d be annoyed, right?

Active listening is like the opposite of that — being fully present and engaged in the conversation. And when it comes to inclusive performance conversations, active listening is the glue that holds everything together and bolsters DEI in performance conversations.

  • Tune in to turn it out: It’s called “active” for a reason. Don’t just nod along while thinking about your grocery list. Truly focus on what the employee is saying, both verbally and non-verbally. Are they excited, frustrated, nervous? Active listening means absorbing the message, understanding those nuances, and connecting with the emotions behind them.
  • Their voice matters too: Inclusive performance conversations should be a chance for both parties to exchange valuable information. A study by Salesforce found that employees who feel heard are 4.6x more likely to feel empowered to do their best work! Ask open-ended questions like, “What do you think went well this quarter?” or “What kind of support would help you reach your goals?” You can even acknowledge how tough it can be to bring up challenges or concerns — let them know that you appreciate their input, even if it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
  • Help them level up: Sure, nobody likes hearing about their shortcomings, but constructive feedback is essential for growth. Focus on specific behaviors (rather than personal opinions) and offer actionable solutions. For example: Instead of saying, “You need to be more organized,” try, “I noticed the deadline for the project was missed. How can we set up better systems to stay on track?” According to a Zenger Folkman survey, 92% of employees say that corrective feedback, if delivered appropriately, can improve performance.

Remember, you’re talking to a human! When you actively listen, invite feedback, and offer constructive guidance, you build a relationship of trust and mutual respect. That’s the foundation for a thriving, inclusive workplace.

Pro tip! Try paraphrasing what you’ve heard. “It sounds like you’re saying…” This not only shows you’re paying attention but also gives the employee a chance to clarify if you’ve missed anything.

RELATED: 10 tips for building a workplace culture that values feedback

Inclusive performance conversations

4.  Be aware of unconscious bias

Every single one of us has cognitive biases, whether we like to admit it or not. They’re those sneaky little mental shortcuts our brains take, often based on societal stereotypes or our personal experiences. Unconscious bias can subtly affect DEI in performance conversations, impacting how we evaluate and provide feedback. The good news is, once we’re aware of them, we can start to counteract their influence.

Recognize that our brains can play tricks on us

The saying “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are” is the essence of unconscious bias. In a Deloitte study, more than 60% of employees reported bias in their workplace. Some common culprits include:

  • Affinity bias: We tend to favor people who are similar to us, whether it’s in background, interests, or even the school we attended. This can lead to giving higher ratings to those we feel a connection with and overlooking the achievements of those who are different.
  • Halo/horns effect: If someone impresses us in one area, we tend to see them in a positive light overall (halo effect). Conversely, if they make a mistake, we might view them negatively across the board (horns effect). It’s like viewing someone through rose-colored glasses — or the opposite — and can cloud our judgment of their overall performance.
  • Confirmation bias: We’re actually hardwired to seek out evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. So if we think someone is a high performer, we might focus on their successes and downplay their mistakes.

How does implicit bias creep into performance conversations?

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 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.” Meanwhile, the term “overachiever” — typically applied to employees transcending low expectations — was most frequently used by managers to describe women of color.

That’s a pretty big swing, and it’s not fair to anyone.

Level the playing field with fairer evaluations

Unconscious bias may not be intentional, but it can still distort our awareness and result in discrimination. Thankfully, there are tools and strategies to help us keep performance conversations fair and square:

  • Structured performance forms: Use standardized criteria to evaluate everyone, rather than relying solely on gut feelings. This helps ensure everyone is assessed on the same metrics.
  • Multiple evaluators: Get input from different sources, like peers or other managers, to gain a more comprehensive view of an employee’s performance (and reduce the impact of individual biases).
  • Focus on objective data: While qualitative feedback is important, don’t forget to back it up with hard numbers! Sales figures, project completion rates, and customer satisfaction scores can all add valuable insights.

According to Deloitte, companies with inclusive talent practices in hiring, promotion, development, leadership, and team management generate up to 30% higher revenue per employee and greater profitability than competitors. In other words, inclusivity = increases!

Outsmart your brain with bias training

Awareness is key, but it’s not enough on its own. Unconscious bias training with an industry professional can give both managers and employees the tools they need to recognize and challenge their unconscious biases and further prioritize DEI in performance conversations.

This can include:

  • Workshops and seminars: Learning about different types of bias and how they manifest.
  • Role-playing exercises: Practicing how to give and receive feedback in a way that’s fair and unbiased.
  • Discussion groups: Creating a safe space to share experiences and learn from each other.

Whatever type of training you choose, make sure it’s engaging and relevant. Use real-world scenarios and encourage discussion. We can’t fix what we don’t understand — so the more people grasp how bias affects the workplace, the more likely they are to actively fight against it.

The goal here isn’t to eliminate bias completely (that’s impossible), but to become more aware of it and take steps to minimize its impact.

“‘Me? Biased?’ Unconscious bias is like jealousy: nobody likes to admit it, and often we’re unaware of it.”

Thais Compoint, Inclusive Leadership Consultant

5.  Keep goals and expectations inclusive, too

All employees need a destination (the goal) and a clear path to get there (expectations). It’s about finding the sweet spot where an employee’s individual aspirations align with your company’s objectives. But everyone’s path is different, and what works for one person might not work for another. This is where inclusivity comes in.

To set inclusive goals, we need to do things a little differently.

Partner up for goal-setting success

Sit down with your employees and figure out what makes them tick. What are their strengths and passions? Where do they want to grow? This is your chance to help them craft a personalized growth plan and tailor those goals to fit their unique skills and the needs of the business.

The collaborative approach isn’t just about being nice; it actually works. A study by Gallup finds that employees who help set their own goals are 3.6x more likely to be engaged in their work. That’s a huge difference!

Pro tip: Let them take the lead. Ask open-ended questions like, “What excites you most about your role?” or “What kind of impact do you want to make?” You’ll be surprised by the creative and ambitious goals they come up with.

No guessing games allowed

Nobody wants to play a game when they don’t know the rules. According to a Harvard Business Review study, when employees understand what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to meet those expectations (and go above and beyond!).

So, make sure your employees know exactly what you expect. This includes clearly outlining performance metrics, providing regular, light-touch feedback, and being transparent about the criteria for success.

What it does not include is vague phrases like “be a team player” or “show initiative.” It’s far more effective to work together to define OKRs and SMART goalsspecific, measurable actions like “Lead a project that increases sales by 10%” or “Mentor a new employee.”

Open, transparent goal-setting can:

  • Build trust and show that you value the employee’s contributions
  • Empower employees to take ownership of their performance
  • Help employees understand what success looks like

Review these expectations regularly and adjust them as needed. Business priorities change, so your goals should too!

Opportunities for all

In an inclusive workplace, everyone should have the chance to shine. That means providing mentorship programs, professional development opportunities, and equitable access to stretch assignments.

Don’t let unconscious bias steer you towards offering opportunities to only a select few. Make sure all employees have a chance to raise their hand and say, “I’m ready for this!” and regularly review your company’s policies and practices to ensure they’re not inadvertently creating barriers for certain groups.

Did you know?

Studies have shown that a lack of career development opportunities is one of the top reasons employees leave their jobs. By ensuring equal access to growth, you’ll drive engagement and attract and retain talent.

DEI in the workplace

6.  Foster a culture of diversity and inclusive performance conversations

Building diversity and inclusion in the workplace doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a team effort that starts at the top and involves everyone in the organization. Like a pyramid, the leadership team forms the foundation, and their commitment to inclusivity supports every layer above them.

Walk the walk

It’s not enough for senior leaders to just say they support DEI. They need to continuously demonstrate their commitment through their words, actions, and decisions. This means:

  • Making DEI a strategic priority: Integrating DEI into the company’s mission, vision, and goals.
  • Allocating resources: Investing in DEI training, programs, and initiatives.
  • Speaking up and taking action: Addressing bias and discrimination when it occurs (even if it’s uncomfortable).
  • Holding themselves and managers accountable: Regularly reviewing progress and making adjustments as needed.
  • Lead by example! Participating in diversity training, attending company-wide DEI events, and being open to feedback from employees.

Review the rule book

Even the best intentions can fall flat if your company’s policies and procedures are outdated or inadvertently discriminatory. It’s time for a thorough check-up!

  • Take a good hard look at everything from your performance management process to compensation to your hiring practices. Are there any hidden biases lurking in the fine print? Are opportunities for advancement equally accessible to everyone?
  • Get input from employees at all levels to identify areas where your policies could be more inclusive. They can provide invaluable insights into where the system might be falling short and offer solutions for a more equitable workplace.
  • A Deloitte study found that companies with inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. When you update your policies, you’re also boosting your bottom line.

Seeing is believing

They say “You can’t be what you can’t see.” When employees see people who look like them in positions of power, it sends a powerful message: “There’s a place for me here.”

McKinsey’s Diversity Matters Even Morestudyshows that companies with greater diversity on their boards of directors also outperform the competition. Organizations in the top quartile for board-gender diversity are 27% more likely to outperform financially than their peers. Similarly, companies in the top quartile for ethnically diverse boards are 13% percent more likely to outperform.

Here are four key ways to achieve a diverse leadership pipeline:

  1. Creating mentorship and sponsorship programs: Pairing high-potential employees from underrepresented groups with senior leaders who can provide guidance and support.
  2. Developing targeted leadership development programs: Offering training and resources specifically tailored to the needs of diverse leaders.
  3. Setting clear goals for representation: Tracking progress and holding leaders accountable for achieving diversity targets.
  4. Highlighting the successes of diverse leaders: Shouting out leaders from underrepresented groups to inspire others and showcases the value of diversity.

By fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, you’re creating a stronger, more innovative, and more profitable company. Inclusivity is a business imperative, so you’re better off getting on board.

7.  Seek continuous feedback (because nobody’s perfect)

Okay, so you’ve mastered the art of inclusive performance conversations. You’re actively listening, checking your biases, and setting collaborative goals.

But hold up, don’t pop the champagne just yet!

The journey to embracing DEI in performance conversations doesn’t end with a chat or two. It’s an ongoing process that requires staying in tune with your employees’ experiences and evolving your approach based on their feedback. Naturally, we have a few tips!

Keep the conversation flowing with regular feedback avenues

Feedback should always be a two-way street. It’s not just about you evaluating your employees; it’s about them letting you know how you’re doing, too. Encourage informal check-ins, 1:1 meetings, and open-door policies (maybe a quick chat over coffee, or even a Slack message?).

The point is, the more you think beyond the yearly review and normalize regular feedback, the less scary it becomes. It can also significantly improve employee performance: Gallup reports that employees are 3x more engaged when they receive daily (vs. annual) feedback from their managers.

Tools like Zensai’s Perform365 and Engage365 can be a game-changer here. They offer a centralized platform for collecting and tracking feedback throughout the year, making it easier than ever for employees to share their thoughts and for managers to stay on top of things.

Take the temperature in weekly check-ins

Rather than a top-down evaluation, consider weekly employee check-ins as a more casual, collaborative conversation. These pulse checks are a chance to see how your employees are doing, address any concerns, and course-correct as needed. It’s your time to:

  • Discuss progress: Instead of “How’s it going?” try open-ended questions like, “What’s one thing you’re proud of accomplishing this week?” or “What’s something you’re struggling with that I can help with?”
  • Provide support: What resources or guidance does your employee need to succeed?
  • Give and receive feedback: Share observations about performance, both positive and constructive.
  • Set new goals: What are the next steps for growth and development?

Create a structured agenda for check-ins, but also leave room for flexibility and organic conversation. And when your employee does share feedback, avoid getting defensive or jumping to solutions right away. Instead, acknowledge their concerns and be open to exploring their perspective. Keeping this balance helps ensure productive discussions while still allowing for a genuine connection.

Use employee feedback to iterate and improve

Feedback is a gift, so use it wisely! Research shows that employees who feel listened to are 4.6x more likely to perform their best work.

Take the insights you gather from employees and use them to continuously refine your approach. Then, communicate the changes you make based on feedback. This will reinforce the idea that their voices are heard and valued, and show that you’re committed to creating an inclusive performance management system that supports everyone’s growth.

Pro tip! Don’t be afraid to experiment with different methods and see what works best for your team! There’s no one way to do it, so be open to trying new things and adapting as you go.

Actively seeking feedback from employees — and using it to improve your DEI strategies — supports a more successful company overall. According to McKinsey, organizations with a strong focus on continuous improvement are more likely to outperform their peers. And who doesn’t love a good growth spurt?

RELATED: 10 questions you should be asking in weekly check-ins

Bringing together our tips for embracing DEI in performance conversations

Performance conversations don’t have the best reputation — they can be awkward, stressful, and unproductive. But we believe that when done right, performance conversations can be a vehicle for inclusivity and inspire massive growth and positive change in the workplace.

Here’s a quick recap of why DEI in performance conversations is so important:

  • Innovation and creativity: Diverse perspectives lead to better solutions and new ideas. According to research by Josh Bersin, companies that were ranked as more inclusive were 1.8x more likely to be change-ready and 1.7x more likely to be innovation leaders in their market.
  • Enhanced decision-making: A wider range of viewpoints helps avoid blind spots and promotes sound choices.
  • Improved employee engagement: When people feel valued and included, they’re naturally more invested in their work.
  • Stronger company reputation: A commitment to DEI attracts and retains top talent, not to mention builds trust with customers and partners.

And here’s what we’ve learned about how to make performance conversations more inclusive:

  • Start with an inclusive mindset: Create a safe space for open and honest dialogue, free from judgment or bias.
  • Practice active listening: Truly hear what your employees have to say and value their feedback.
  • Be mindful of unconscious bias: Acknowledge that we all have implicit biases and take steps to mitigate their impact.
  • Set inclusive goals and expectations: Collaborate with employees on personalized growth plans that get them excited to contribute their unique talents.
  • Foster a culture of inclusivity from the top down: Lead by example, review policies and procedures, and ensure representation at all levels.
  • Seek continuous feedback: Regularly check in with employees and use their input to improve your approach.

Embracing DEI in performance conversations takes continuous learning and a commitment to doing better. But the rewards(like, a workplace where everyone feels seen, heard, and respected) are totally worth it.

Ready to get started?

The world of work is constantly evolving, and so should your approach to performance management. By staying curious, learning from your experiences, and adapting to the needs of your employees, you’re setting the stage for a more successful organization.

Employing advanced AI technology, Zensai’s products are designed to help managers streamline performance conversations, understand employee engagement, and enhance 1:1 meetings. Our Human Success Platform offers a comprehensive software solution for anyone looking to master performance conversations of all kinds.

What are you waiting for? Book your demo now!