As humans, we’re all prone to biases. We constantly assess people and situations through the lens of our own prejudices – even when we don’t intend to. You can imagine how this can have a significant impact when it comes to performance reviews.
But once you’re aware of these biases, you can use a variety of strategies (and a good dose of self-awareness) to minimize their effects. Below, we share six of the most common biases when it comes to performance reviews and tips to help overcome them.
The impact of bias on performance reviews
Before digging into the biases themselves, it’s important to understand their implications. Consider what most organizations use performance data to inform – they’re responsible for driving decisions around hiring, promotions, compensation, and even firing. Given the weight of this influence, it’s critical to ensure that reviews are as fair and objective as possible.
1. Gender bias
Gender bias is the tendency to focus on the personality of women, but on the behaviors and accomplishments of men. Priya Sundararajan, Senior Data Scientist at Culture Amp, found a high prevalence of gender bias in a review of 25,000 peer feedback statements. She discovered that female employees are nearly 1.4x more likely to receive personality-based feedback from male reviewers and less likely to receive work-related performance review phrases.
Constructive feedback focuses on an employee’s skill set – which can easily be improved with the right guidance. Personality-based feedback is based on workstyle, which is often something that can’t be “fixed.” Gender bias is a huge contributor to the gender pay gap and unequal growth opportunities.
Overcoming gender bias
Give managers structured criteria for feedback. Offer a fill-in-the-blank feedback approach that puts emphasis on the behaviors and accomplishments of your employees – not their personalities. The more structure, the less likely managers are to fall into the trap of gender bias.
2. Leniency bias
Leniency bias occurs when managers give inflated ratings to employees with notable room for improvement. Leniency bias can weaken the objectivity of your data and make it challenging to distinguish your top performers. As a result, it becomes impossible to identify who deserves a promotion or raise, and it can leave your high performers feeling frustrated.
If an employee who consistently produces average-quality work receives the same rating as someone who goes above and beyond, this can lead to a breakdown in morale, motivation, and ultimately performance.
Overcoming leniency bias
Consider adjusting your rating scale and running calibration sessions. If your managers seem hesitant to give any employees a negative rating, use a five-point rating scale that goes from “Below Average” to “Top Performer” with “Above Average” in the middle. With this scale, managers can give positive feedback and clearly distinguish top performers.
3. Idiosyncratic rater bias
Idiosyncratic rater bias happens when managers evaluate the skills they’re not good at, higher. Conversely, they rate others lower in areas where they’re excel. This presents a huge problem in performance data because it tells us more about the rater than the person being rated.
When a manager is good at something, they are more likely to have higher standards for this skill, whereas they are more likely to be lenient with unfamiliar skills. In other words, their feedback reflects more on their own skills than the employee’s.
Overcoming idiosyncratic rater bias
One way to help mitigate idiosyncratic rater bias is to rewrite your performance evaluation questions from the manager’s perspective. For example, put review questions in the first person:
- If this person resigned, I would do anything to retain them.
- I would always want this person on my team.
- I would hire this person again.
These questions focus on the manager’s own behaviors and intentions instead of the employees. Research has found that people are much more reliable when rating their own intentions versus rating other people.
4. Centrality bias
Centrality bias is the tendency to rate most items in the middle of a rating scale. Like leniency bias, this can weaken the objectivity of your data. When everyone is receiving a rating of 3 out of 5, it’s impossible to distinguish the low-performing employees from the top-performing employees. This is common as many managers don’t like being extreme in their reviews.
Overcoming centrality bias
By simply removing the neutral option from the rating scale – so instead of having a scale of 1 to 5, make it from 1 to 4 – your managers won’t have the option to give everyone a middle-of-the-road score.
5. Recency bias
Recency bias is the tendency to focus on an employee’s most recent performance instead of the total time period. This is also sometimes referred to as “what have you done for me lately?” bias. While it’s natural to focus on the most recent behaviors and accomplishments of employees, this doesn’t actually provide a holistic view of an employee’s performance.
Overcoming recency bias
Encourage managers to develop a habit of collecting feedback on employees throughout the year. After the completion of a project or training program, ask the employee’s teammates for feedback and record it. That way, the performance review will provide a more holistic view.
6. Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for information that confirms a preexisting belief. That’s why you find it easy to believe people who align with you on specific facts, beliefs, or stances. And why you’re likely to be skeptical of people who don’t agree with you. While this is a normal human tendency, it can skew the interpretation of valuable performance data.
Overcoming confirmation bias
Train your managers to think like scientists by seeking out information that goes against what they already believe about an employee. Encourage them to pay extra attention to feedback that challenges their beliefs to encourage more objectivity in performance evaluations.
While we’ll never be completely free of bias, we all have the ability (and responsibility) to educate ourselves and improve our practices. There are a wealth of tools to help you mitigate unconscious bias in your people practices – take the time to do this work before your next performance review cycle.