There are a number of ways that bias can impact our decisions at work, and one significant area where this occurs is with performance reviews. On the one hand, bias is natural—it’s the brain’s way of taking shortcuts so that it can focus on things that it deems to be higher priorities. But, when it comes to making decisions and assessments that have a very real impact on your employees, it’s important to take a step back and try to reduce this bias as much as possible.
First, let’s take a look at some of the common types of bias that occur in the review process.
Idiosyncratic rater effect refers to the fact that people tend to rate another person’s skills based on their own strengths and weaknesses. That means that a manager who’s not particularly analytical will have a lower bar for rating their direct reports’ analytical abilities. On the other hand, a manager with strong communication skills will tend to have higher standards in that area when rating their direct reports. In other words, it’s all relative to the person who’s making the assessment!
Central tendency error occurs when using a five-point scale. Most reviewers will tend to place whatever they’re evaluating in the middle and avoid giving a high or low score. This means that everyone who’s evaluated will tend to have a score that’s somewhere in the middle of the range and is not necessarily indicative of their true performance or abilities.
Recency bias means that people tend to focus on things that happened more recently rather than looking at an entire performance cycle. It makes sense—it’s difficult to look back on an entire quarter (not to mention an entire year) and remember every single project or accomplishment. The things that happened most recently will naturally be the things that stand out.
Confirmation bias occurs when people are more likely to notice and remember information that validates an opinion they already have (and also more likely to forget or dismiss information that conflicts with their opinion). If a manager believes that their direct report is good at handling deadlines, they’ll remember all the times the person finished projects on time and forget about the times when they were late. Or, on the other hand, if a manager believes that someone isn’t good with deadlines, they’ll forget about all the times they did finish work on time and only focus on the occasions when they missed deadlines.
Gender bias refers to the way behavior is perceived based on gender stereotypes. This bias can have serious implications when it comes to evaluating and advancing employees. Research by Paola Cecchi-Demeglio and Kim Klegman shows that women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical, subjective feedback rather than positive feedback or critical, objective feedback. Their research also shows a double standard by which the same traits can also be rated positively for a man—for example, a man might be praised for “careful thoughtfulness” while a woman is rated negatively for the same trait and criticized for her “analysis paralysis.”
Another study published in Fortune showed that in tech company reviews, women were much more likely to receive negative personality criticism than men. Research by Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard demonstrated that women tended to get vaguer feedback that was less tied to business outcomes. It’s not just women who are affected, either—it’s especially difficult to give critical feedback across any dimension of difference, such as gender, race, or age. We’ve also conducted some of our own analysis on this topic—check out SK’s article “Measuring Gender Bias to Create an Inclusive Culture” to learn more.
4 ways to reduce bias
Now that we have an understanding of some of the common types of bias and how they might affect performance reviews, let’s examine a few ways to reduce these types of bias.
Use objective criteria
You can introduce more objective criteria to your performance measurement process by outlining the specific skills an employee needs in order to be successful in their role. Reviewers should always be asked to evaluate an employee based on that skill set. This will help create a more consistent process and more actionable reviews for employees.
When it comes to rating others, people are notoriously inconsistent. In a Harvard Business Review article, “Reinventing Performance Management,” authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall cite a study from the Journal of Applied Psychology which found that 62% of the variance in ratings could be attributed to “individual raters’ peculiarities of perception.” In other words, traditional approaches to performance reviews tell us more about the person who’s giving the rating rather than the person who’s being rated.
Buckingham and Goodall argue that while people are unreliable when rating other people’s skills, they’re consistent when rating their own feeling and intentions. One way to overcome this “idiosyncratic rater effect” is to ask about the reviewer’s future actions with respect to that person, such as “I would always want this person on my team.”
Follow a structured template
It also helps to provide a structured template for reviews. The Situation-Behavior-Impact model is a common and effective framework for delivering actionable and unbiased feedback. The focus of this type of feedback is on the impact of an individual's actions, rather than on the individual. In this model, the person giving feedback describes the situation, details the behavior they witnessed, and characterizes how this behavior impacted those involved. The model is a useful tool as it delivers clear, situation-specific feedback, allowing employees to focus on adjusting one behavior at a time. Interested in learning more about this model? Download a copy of the eBook “How to Deliver High-Quality Feedback That Drives Performance” for a more in-depth look at structured templates like the Situation-Behavior-Impact model.
Conduct frequent check-ins
Setting a pace of consistent, frequent reviews can also have several benefits. It gives employees more opportunities to hear how they’re doing and adjust their actions accordingly, it helps reviewers hone their evaluation skills so they give more actionable feedback, and it also creates a larger set of data to draw upon. This is significant, because when it’s time to conduct annual reviews, managers will be less susceptible to recency bias since they’ll have a record of regular feedback from throughout the year to draw upon. Additionally, by removing bias from the review process at the outset, companies can ensure that managers are not relying on biased decision-making criteria.
Remove feedback from performance review process
Part of the trouble with biased feedback is that it can also lead to biased performance reviews, which impacts people’s chances of promotions and raises. Many companies are moving towards decoupling performance measurement and performance development. When raises and promotions are not on the line, feedback can become more focused on helping employees grow and develop. Making the distinction between feedback (development) and measurement (promotions and raises) won’t automatically remove bias from the process, but it can help ensure that feedback is more focused on development and business outcomes than personality traits or other subjective criteria.
This doesn’t mean that peers should never be involved in the performance management process. Due to the changing nature of the workforce, where an employee may work closely with a number of people (and not necessarily their own manager), it can be helpful for managers to collect feedback from the people who work most closely with their direct reports. In these situations, the manager is collecting this information to help inform the performance review of their direct report.
However, when it comes to performance development conversations, when peers have suggestions for how their coworkers can learn and improve, this type of feedback should not be part of compensation or promotion discussions.
Whether the conversation is centered around performance management or development, following a structured template can help ensure consistency and reduce bias from these discussions.
The first step to overcoming bias is understanding and acknowledging that it exists, but it’s also essential to come up with an action plan. We’ve provided a few concrete steps that you can take to reduce bias in your performance review process—now it’s up to you to choose which ones you’ll put in place!