Combating Bias in Performance Reviews

Performance bias has no place in your organization, but the sneaky nature of bias means it can show up despite your best intentions.

You have to dig deep if you want to reduce or eliminate bias in your performance appraisals, feedback and goal-setting. Below we start with the causes of performance bias and then share 3 must-do tactics for combating bias.

Are you considering centralizing performance management in order to combat bias? Learn more about PerformYard

What Causes Bias in Performance Feedback?

Although the concept of bias brings up negative connotations, it isn’t inherently bad. It is biases that allow us to navigate the world with ease, helping us to avoid negative outcomes while encouraging positive ones. For example, biases are the reason you avoid food you don’t like and they encourage you to spend more time with people you love.

The trouble is that bias can show up in negative ways too, and because many biases are unconscious, you may not know exactly how your personal biases affect you and others around you. 

This can be especially devastating in the workplace.

Bias in performance reviews, for example, can unfairly affect your employees’ careers trajectory. It can also cause managers to unconsciously set less ambitious goals for some employees. Worst of all, biases can skew who is offered development opportunities.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to just be aware of performance bias. Countless personal experiences can lead to biases in ways that we may never be able to understand fully, especially since everyone navigates life with so many different experiences that unconsciously affect their behavior.

These experiences can range from only ever seeing a certain type of person in leadership roles during one’s careers, to overestimating the importance of certain characteristics, to being fixated on only one definition of success.

The good news is that there are things you can do to make your performance management process more fair and less biased.

How to Avoid Bias in Performance Appraisals 

If you want to eliminate biases from performance reviews and appraisals, you have to infuse certain strategies into the review process that increase the chances that every employee will be reviewed fairly every step of the way. When the strategies you use stamp out bias, everything from setting new goals to the professional development opportunities that follow are unbiased too.

Here are three ways you can modify your performance reviews so bias doesn’t sneak into the process.

1. Ensure Your Review Forms Are Objective

How you structure your review forms, the questions you ask and the expectations around answers can impact how much bias gets into reviews.

For example, one law firm discovered bias in performance reviews because questions were left too open-ended, and managers were not required to justify their ratings. This was causing troubling correlations between certain groups of employees and poor reviews despite lack of any clear justification.

They developed a new approach that focused manager feedback on what the organization determined really mattered and forced clearer justification of ratings. This included things like concrete evidence being shared in feedback.

Make sure your review forms and accompanying documents provide clear explanations of how they should be filled out and what acceptable examples of feedback are. Focus feedback on outcomes or concrete examples of living up to competencies or cultural values. “Seeing something” in an employee should never be enough to justify a strong review.

2. Gather Multiple Sources of Feedback

An employee’s performance will almost always impact more than the direct manager who is conducting the review, and yet, in many organizations, it’s only the manager who provides input. Having only one person provide feedback greatly increases the chances of bias having an outsized impact on the review process.

HR departments can mitigate performance bias by gathering multiple sources of feedback when reviews come around. At a minimum that should include a self-review where the employee is given an opportunity to advocate for themselves.

If an employee lays out a clear, evidenced case for the quality of their work over the period and their manager submits a poor review with some lazy explanation that includes lines like “leadership potential” you’re well on your way to uncovering bias. 

Peer, upward and external feedback can also uncover additional points of view for a more holistic perspective on the employee’s contributions.

When looking at multiple sources of feedback it’s just as important to consider the feedback as the differences in feedback between different sources.

3. Provide Employee Training

Employee’s biases won’t go away, but training can help.

The two types of training you should pursue are first how to recognize bias and second how to provide feedback that is less likely to be clouded by bias.

Bias training will start to put names to common biases and show examples that your employees can look for in their own experience. Just recognizing bias is often enough to diffuse it. All of your employees want to be recognizing and working with the best talent, bias training can help them get there.

The other useful type of training is feedback training. Well constructed feedback is already largely immune to bias. For example quality feedback will be based on specific actions and outcomes and will be given with the goal of helping an employee improve and develop. We’ve written extensively about quality feedback if you’d like to learn more.

Bias is already in your organization, but if you can spark unbiased feedback with effective forms, get a more holistic view with multiple sources of feedback and train your employees to recognize and avoid their own biases, you’ll be well on your way to mitigating the effects of bias on your people.