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How To Guard Against Bias During Performance Reviews

Posted by Insightlink on 02/23/17

We all want performance reviews to be fair but biases exist and we know that too. All of us have biases and it is human nature to show a preference for people that share similarities and reject people with characteristics that we are unfamiliar with.

teamwork is a puzzleBias is of particular interest to us as employee researchers because of the way it plays out in the workplace between employees and their supervisors. Performance reviews offer real insight into how biased opinions trickle down from supervisors towards their staff. And for this reason, it is essential that companies that do annual reviews work diligently to reduce or eliminate bias from the process so that every employee is given a fair and accurate review.

Many HR managers are aware of our human tendency to be biased so they adopt and implement programs they believe are free of bias. Even with this awareness though they still fail to address unconscious biases. These are almost impossible to overcome because they are implicit; we ourselves, are unaware of them. Even if you try to get people to explore their own hidden biases they cannot as it can be difficult for people to acknowledge that their biases even exist.

Most of us are simply unaware of our own unconscious biases.

Here are five common biases published by Sharlyn Lauby that often appear in performance reviews:

  1. Contrast – This occurs when the manager compares an employee’s performance to other employees instead of the company standard. When employees are ranked in comparison, someone must end up at the bottom, even if they are exceeding the company standard. The problem isn’t the employee – it’s the goal or standard that has been set.
  2. Halo – An employee is rated highly in all areas because of one thing they do well. I’ve seen this happen with sales people. She hits the numbers and senior leadership loves it. But behind the scenes, she creates havoc and doesn’t have the respect of her co-workers.
  3. Horn – On the flip side, an employee is rated as a poor performer because of one thing they don’t do well. For example, the administrative assistant who is great at everything but filing. It piles up because he puts it off – resulting in the company hiring a temp to get the filing caught up. In all other areas, he’s a rock star.
  4. Leniency – A manager gives everyone on their team a satisfactory rating. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this occur a lot when a manager has a large span of control coupled with a common review date. The manager has dozens of reviews to work on and a heart full of good intentions. But somewhere around review number 17, the manager gets burned out and starts giving everyone a satisfactory response. Because it doesn’t require any written supporting statements.
  5. Recency – The employee’s most recent behavior becomes the primary focus of the review. This can go both ways. A poor performer does something terrific and their past performance is forgotten. Or an excellent performer makes a mistake and it weighs down the rest of the review.

In an article published by SHRM, titled “An Impartial Review,’ Eric Krell explains how ‘Bias exists in all forms of manager-employee interactions. And performance reviews, by nature, rely heavily on human judgment, which is susceptible to bias’.

Ways to Reduce Hidden Biases

Krell suggests managers use the following tactics to help them recognize and eliminate biases that can hinder performance evaluations.

  1. Conduct training, raise awareness.  Training should raise awareness that we all have biases. It should focus on a range of cultural norms and teach skills useful in conducting performance reviews.
  2. Define and communicate the purpose. Communicate with employees so they know how your organization handles performance reviews. Employees who know understand the process will know what to expect and can be prepared.
  3. Enlist help.
  4. Pull together a panel of performance reviewers who possess diverse backgrounds and perspectives to keep a check and balance on biased attitudes.
  5. Use a 360-degree feedback system to explore biased attitudes in the workplace
  6. Have a manager review their evaluations with their supervisor before they meet with employees to help keep biases in check.
  7. Establish comfort before during and after the evaluation.
  8. Give employees copies of the evaluation one to two days before the discussion takes place so they are better prepared and have an opportunity to discuss the results with people they trust.
  9. Ask managers to sit next to, not across from, employees when performing evaluations to help reduce employees' discomfort with the process.

As Krell boldly points out, ‘The biggest mistake supervisors can make when addressing cultural, age and sex-related biases during performance evaluations is refusing to believe they are biased’.

Ways to help supervisors understand what biases they may bring to a review include:

  1. Formal evaluation forms
  2. Informal exercises
  3. Hire bias-reduction experts
  4. Use a free, confidential, online program: Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test

Workplace bias exists and none of us are immune from it but as our worlds become increasingly more diversified we must all make the effort to be aware of our own implicit, subconscious biases and make a real effort to overcome our tendency to judge others unfairly. To what extend bias is eroding relationships, productivity and turnover in your organization is important to understand so you have a baseline to work from to improve the problem if one exists. We recommend implementing a confidential employee survey to assess the well-being of your staff. For more information please call Lynn Gore at 866-802-8095 ext. 705, visit our website for more information at or email us at


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