The Halo and Horn Effect in Performance Reviews (And How You Can Avoid It)

Updated:

December 28, 2021

Ever been at a company where it felt like no matter how hard you were working, you were being negatively judged by something beyond your control? 

Or on the contrary, have you ever been at an organization where everything your colleague did was somehow seen as gold, even though their work wasn’t really all that stellar? 

You may have fallen victim to the Halo/Horn Effect—a type of implicit bias where work and performance are either positively or negatively magnified based on an unrelated attribute. Sometimes this attribute is physical, and work performance is unfairly judged based on appearance. Other times, this attribute can be past performance—if an employee did a poor job on one project, their boss may seem to find fault in all of their future projects. 

These implicit biases can cause inaccurate performance reviews and ineffective management, which can result in promotions going to employees who aren’t top performers, and good performers being held back unfairly. 

However, with some effective training and performance review standardization, the Halo and Horn Effect can be mitigated, ensuring that fair and accurate appraisals are conducted for all employees across your organization.

What is the Halo and Horn Effect?

The Halo and Horn Effect is a type of implicit bias where one’s performance is viewed through an unfair lens (either positive or negative) that comes from an unrelated attribute, such as personality, physical traits, or previous work experience. 

As an example, a coworker who is overweight is significantly less likely to be hired, promoted, or given a raise compared to a thinner employee. Their weight has nothing to do with their job performance, and yet a manager’s implicit biases can cause them to attach this unrelated attribute to the employee’s quality of work. 

The Halo and Horn Effect in Performance Appraisal

It can be very easy for the Halo and Horn Effect to creep its way into performance appraisals if your process isn’t objective or doesn’t allow for multiple reviewers. 

For example, if the performance review is simply a rating of 1-5 (where 1 is a poor performer and 5 is a top performer) and a reviewer doesn’t have an objective rubric to base their rating on, a manager’s implicit biases can easily color their perception of an employee’s performance. 

The Halo and Horn Effect in performance appraisals is an extension of a manager’s subjective feelings about the quality of an employee’s performance. When a performance appraisal is so loosely structured that it allows a manager’s subjectivity to dominate a review, these implicit biases can seep in. 

Even innocuous questions such as “How well does this employee work in a team?” or “Where does an employee need improvement?” can leave the door wide open for the Halo or Horn Effect to cloud the accuracy of an evaluation.

An Example of the Halo and Horn Effect in a Performance Appraisal

Sarah botched a major presentation a few months ago. It wasn’t great—she was nervous, some of her slides didn’t work correctly, and her data was outdated. 

Her manager, Jess, couldn’t move past this mistake. Instead of helping Sarah learn from her mistakes and work with her to correct them, Jess micromanaged Sarah for the rest of the year because she was convinced that Sarah couldn’t be trusted. Every time Sarah made a spelling mistake or a tiny error, Jess collected more proof that Sarah was a poor employee. 

When it came time to conduct Sarah’s performance review using a 1-5 scoring system, Jess simply checked 2: unsatisfactory. 

For her rationale, Jess wrote, “Sarah makes many mistakes and I am always having to correct her work. She can’t be trusted to work alone.” 

That doesn’t seem very fair, right? In this example, Sarah is suffering from the Horn Effect. But how can your organization avoid the Halo Horns Effect?

How Do You Avoid the Halo Horns Effect?

With some proactive planning, your organization can avoid and overcome the Halo/Horns Effect. Here are three specific tactics that can help. 

1. Create an Objective Review Process

For performance reviews, it’s essential to have a standardized and objective review process. Every employee evaluation should include the same questions and scores should be weighted the same. It’s often beneficial to have performance reviews based on quantifiable metrics, such as goals. 

If Sarah’s organization used a goal-based rubric, Jess could look at the data and realize that Sarah has made 125% of her sales this year. By using this data, she would objectively have to mark that Sarah had exceeded the goals that they had agreed upon. 

Even if Jess had written some poor comments in Sarah’s review, the performance-based data would be seen by HR, who could address the discrepancy between Sarah’s objective performance and Jess’s perception. 

See how PerformYard can help you create an objective review process. Learn More

2. Incorporate 360 Reviews 

360 reviews can also mitigate the Halo and Horns Effect in the workplace by increasing the number of reviewers per employee. Even if Sarah’s boss, Jess, unfairly docked Sarah on her performance review because of that one presentation, her colleagues would be able to give her glowing reviews based on her awesome sales performance. 

By increasing the number of reviews per person, a more accurate picture is developed and outliers can be quickly identified. If 360 reviews were incorporated, HR would be able to see that something is off with Jess’s review of Sarah.

3. Use A Performance Management Software

As mentioned previously, a standardized performance review process can help combat the Halo and Horns effect. Performance management software is a great way for HR professionals to standardize the performance review process for their organization. 

By using a performance management software, HR professionals can clearly define how employees are being evaluated and ensure that managers are using the same criteria for every employee.

Performance management software also gives you data to measure employee performance, which can be used to inform reviews. Using the data provided, HR can see how an employee’s performance has changed over time. 

If an employee had consistent glowing reviews that suddenly dropped once their manager changed, HR could investigate and see if there was a personality issue rather than a performance issue.

If you’re looking for a great performance management software to help you avoid the Halo and Horns effect, check out PerformYard. PerformYard has the ability to measure performance through more objective measures like goal completion, which helps prevent subjective pressures.

Request a demo and we’ll show you even more features to measure performance and streamline your process.

What to do next.

Here are three ways you can continue your journey to a more modern and effective performance management strategy:

  1. See PerformYard In Action. Find time with one of our product experts to get a live look at what it's like to use modern performance management software. Every call starts with a 5 minute discussion of your approach and then immediately dives into a live product demonstration that's based on your organization's process. Or start by watching a 2-minute video overview.
  2. Learn more about modern performance management. Start with our Guide to Building a Modern Performance Management System, or visit our blog to see the latest ideas from our team.
  3. If you know other HR Pros who would appreciate this article, share it with them through email, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.