31st July 2018

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Categories: Engage for Success Blog

Fight Your Bias: Biases That Need To Be Addressed In Your Performance Reviews

Are your performance reviews accurate and objective? Can you be sure that cognitive biases aren’t distorting the way you review your employees? Even if you think your processes are fair, chances are, they’re subject to bias. After all, we’re only human and bias is a malfunction deeply embedded within each of us. Studies show that 62% of a rater’s judgement of an employee is a reflection of the rater, rather than of the person being reviewed. That’s a challenge. When reviews are informed by biases, they are unhelpful and unmotivating.

So how do you fight bias? Bias is a difficult beast to tackle because it can be hard to spot. To fight bias you first need to be able to identify it when it occurs. We break down five common performance review biases and show you some tips for overcoming them.

Recency Bias

Recency bias is the tendency to focus on recent events, rather than looking at the employee’s performance over a prolonged period of time. So even if an employee performs well consistently, one mistake before a performance review can completely overshadow the manager’s view. The same applies in the reverse situation, where an employee might consistently underperform but achieve a positive result prior to their review. When recency bias rears its head, the review is neither fair nor accurately reflective of the employee’s actual performance. With recency bias, a performance review becomes nothing more than a memory game.

How to avoid it?

To fight recency bias try swapping out annual performance reviews for regular one-on-one check-ins. Continuous performance reviews give a clearer picture of how an employee is doing at regular intervals and encourages open and honest conversations.

The ‘Halo’ Effect

The ‘halo effect’ occurs when an employee plays up their successes and downplays their struggles in an attempt to establish a positive relationship with their managers. In turn, managers look favourably on the employee — idealising them to the point that they ignore flaws or shortcomings. It’s natural for an employee to want to give the best impression of themselves during a review, but when a manager fails to recognise the ‘halo effect’ in action, they lose their objectivity and it becomes impossible to give constructive feedback and valuable advice.

How to avoid it?

To make sure your performance reviews aren’t rose-tinted, stick to assessments based on goal completion, impact and progression. Steer clear of personal preferences and encourage conversations around problem areas.

The ‘Horns’ Effect

The ‘horns effect’ is the flip side of the ‘halo effect’. Introverted employees that are reluctant to boast about their wins often fail to strike up good relationships with their managers. The result? Managers fail to recognise these employees’ achievements and instead emphasise their weaknesses. Many employees suffer from imposter syndrome, a psychological condition that makes us believe that we’re frauds, even if our performance says otherwise. It’s vital that managers don’t take insecurity or a reluctance to boast about achievements as evidence of under-performance.

How to avoid it?

Continuous performance management can help. Introverted employees benefit from frequent discussion that helps them foster relationships with their managers.  

Purposeful Bias

Purposeful bias is when a manager intentionally sabotages an employee because they feel threatened by their talent and success. In an attempt to protect their own position, these managers might give a scathing review to a high-performing employee. Although certainly rarer than the other types of bias on the list, it’s still something to look out for. Jealousy and insecurity can unknowingly inform performance reviews and can affect company morale and culture.  

How to avoid it?

The tonic to purposeful bias is career progression. Rather than discouraging ambition and success, help employees excel by identifying career steps and offering training opportunities. Remember that individual advancement and having a high calibre of staff benefits the entire organisation.

Gender Bias

Gender bias refers to the preferential treatment of an employee based on their gender. An example of this is reflected in the gender pay gap, with more men than women holding higher-paid positions. A recent study reveals that women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback compared to their male counterparts. It seems that, when women receive feedback, things can get personal. The word ‘abrasive’ was used in 71 out of 94 female reviews, but was never once used to describe a male employee.

How to avoid it?

Interestingly, it turns out that gender bias occurs regardless of whether the manager is male or female. To tackle gender bias, managers need to be mindful of the language they use. Try asking yourself: ‘would I use the same word to describe someone of the opposite sex?’ If not, you need to choose a different word.

Performance reviews can keep employees motivated and provide managers with valuable insights. Make sure you get the most out of yours by taking bias out of the picture.

Author: Stuart Hearn has over 20 years of experience in HR and is the current CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software company.

Photo by Adrian Smith on Unsplash