Challenging your performance review is one of the most difficult things you might need to do when you are employed. It is awkward and extremely delicate, not to mention having to deal with the anger, frustration, and sense of unfairness that arises from the situation. It is tempting to want to march to HR or call an employment lawyer immediately, or to think that you should quit. But what if you do not want to go down that route?

A client went through a similar situation, and recently told me, “I love my job, I love the work, I like my clients and my colleagues. The firm has a great reputation and I worked so hard to get here. I do not want to rock the boat, so how should I raise this? I cannot just let this go by.”

Here is the plan of action I shared with her, which involved three steps, and may be helpful to you too:

Start with the first step: gather evidence of all the things that you have achieved during the past year. These could be sales results, projects or milestones, initiatives, process improvements, or skills development. Clearly list the complexities you had to overcome to achieve these results. This could be, for example, the work streams that were ‘x’ times higher than your peers’ average; or the type and levels of effort that went into securing a long sought-after client; or what you needed to put in place and the relationships you had to build to bring about an internal initiative; or any other instances which demonstrated personal development.

The second step involves forming allies. This will depend on the relationships and dynamics within your team and firm, but speak to your male colleagues about the discrepancies. You may well be pleasantly surprised to find at least one of them is willing to step up and become your ally. This could be done in several ways: if you share the same manager, he can raise the topic directly. If you do not have the same manager, but he is a peer by level and by role, then he can either raise it with his own manager, or raise it with the department head whom your respective line managers report to. He could also allow you to share evidence of his own allegedly better performance. Typically, this is reflected in the male colleague’s bonus, salary rise and/or promotion.

Other allies could be those who are more senior than you and/or your manager, such as a mentor, a Diversity and Inclusivity champion in the company, or someone who is part of the performance review board. Essentially, if you can have a second opinion (or more) from someone more senior and more neutral to the situation, and they confirm the gender bias, then this can help build your case when you go back to your manager, which leads me to…

The third step. This is preparing for the subsequent discussion with your manager. By subsequent, I mean the separate meeting you will arrange to ‘discuss the review deeper’. In preparation for this, step back, reflect, and review your own performance against what others have done. Do a comparables analysis. If someone else has achieved a higher score on a specific category, identify what the individual has done to achieve that score and compare it with what you have done. Put yourself in the shoes of a third-party advisor and go through the questions that would be asked to justify your case. As hard as this will be, park your emotions aside, and review your case as rationally as possible.

As Clare Taylor, a first-class employment lawyer at BDBF, a top ranked specialist employment law firm in London, points out, “How accurate is your own rating versus your manager’s, and how do these ratings stack up against the organisation’s KPIs? Think about how you want to present your evidence and how you will answer rebuttals during the discussion. And if you feel you deserve a higher rating, explain why that is the case or ask what you need to do to achieve that rating – it may be that you have already done it and by drilling down into the point you can persuade your manager to change your rating.”

But what happens if you have been away, for example, on parental leave? As another client said, “I was told that it was my choice to have a family and that I did not get as much done compared to others who had been around the whole year.” In such cases, apply the same comparables analysis and time frames. Consider what you have achieved during the period you did work and how this compares to what others have done in the same period/months.

So, when do you raise a grievance? Clare advises that you raise a grievance when “all informal avenues are exhausted. It can be seen as an aggressive move by an employer and quite often leads to an exit. As much as possible, try to resolve the dispute with your manager(s) informally so that you can continue to have a productive working relationship. However, if this is not possible then a grievance is typically the next step.” If you feel that your employer is withholding information from you, then alongside a grievance you could make a ‘data subject access request (DSAR),’ to obtain copies of your personal data, which you can use to support your position. However, as Clare alerts, “this is not necessarily the golden ticket it could be, as information is often delivered late and heavily redacted. Therefore, submitting a DSAR does not replace the need to form allies.”

So, if you feel there is gender bias in your performance evaluation, choose to challenge it. However, remember to be honest and constructive with yourself, and your comparables, when you: