Performance reviews are an important process for the development of your team. If used properly they can really set the tone for the upcoming period. If done haphazardly and sloppily, they can be a waste of time at best, and biased and detrimental, at worst.

I am sure that as a manager, your intention is to provide the best feedback and to develop your direct reports in ways that contribute to their ongoing growth in their current and future roles. So, in support of that, I am going to show you some ways of engaging the performance review that lead to bias, so that you can avoid them currently and in the future.

There is a growing body of research that indicates women experience substantial bias in the course of their performance reviews. Some of the research has revealed the following:

If you read the recent HBR article on the overrepresentation of men in management, you can see the impact of these types of experiences in promotion and advancement.

It’s incredibly important to attend to this research when evaluating a female direct report. You should be conscious of providing concrete examples and coaching feedback that is clear around any areas where you have concern. You also need to watch how you may be giving men more latitude or overvaluing the actual content of their work. In order to eliminate this from your experience, you must first be conscious of ways that it may be occurring and then intervene.

There is also increasingly large amount of research literature discussing the impact of race and culture on reviews. Some of the literature has found:

  • Black employees receive lower reviews than White employees
  • Black professionals receive feedback around more specific concerns about interpersonal behavior especially aggressive and social skills issues in group and leadership contexts than their White counterparts
  • Asian and Latinx employees tend to receive more feedback on issues that are stylistic, cultural and concern language comprehension and articulation
  • Asian employees also received greater feedback around contributing in meetings
  • White evaluators tend to give White direct reports higher ratings
  • White evaluators tend to rate People of Color lower specifically on leadership and management qualities
  • Race effects are larger on subjective rather than objective criteria

It’s important to watch your cultural lens and understand when your cultural perspective is getting in the way of evaluating someone’s true skill and competence. It can be difficult to learn to value multiple cultural perspectives, and to see that hierarchical cultural preferences can be a blind spot to understanding that there are many ways to reach goals, add value, and contribute.

Additionally, there are other general ways that bias is more likely to enter into a performance review. Here are some of them:

  • Confirmatory Bias – When you rate someone in a manner that simply confirms your existing beliefs about them and you ignore any contrary information or data.
  • Shifting Standards – The bar that you set on specific criteria depends on the person that you are rating.
  • Halo/Horns Effect – When your rating is amplified based on your prior belief. It’s confirmatory bias on steroids.
  • Similarity Bias – When you rate someone more positively because they are similar to you in some way that you value
  • Primacy Effect – You rate someone based on something that occurred early on in knowing them (e.g., they made a colossal mistake in the first 90 days and you can’t get it out of your head, when you review them).
  • Recency Effect – A lot of managers are guilty of this one. It’s when you evaluate someone solely based on the most recent period and not the entire period of the review. (e.g., your report screws up a high stakes meeting weeks before their review, however, they did fantastic during the rest of the year. If you review, you focus on the meeting and miss everything else, then it’s recency effect bias).
  • Central Tendency Bias – When on scales, you rate most everyone in the middle of the scale.
  • Leniency Bias – It’s when you rate someone favorably even when they have notable room for improvement and it’s not noted.
  • Idiosyncratic Rater Bias – When managers rate others higher on skills they are not good at and rate others lower on skills that they perceive themselves to be very good at.
  • Self-Rater Bias – When an individual’s rating of themselves reflects more on their self-image or self-esteem than actual performance.

So, there’s a lot of opportunity for bias, what can you do about it? The research has pointed to several ways that you can improve the performance review process. The following strategies are useful:

  • Use consistent, objective criteria and stay away from open boxes – don’t allow for performance reviews not to have specific and operationalized criteria for evaluation, which can decrease subjective critique vulnerable to bias. Objective reviews that allow for examples and concrete consistent criteria across roles are your best bet.
  • Develop better questions – Both for evaluation and self-evaluation. They should really get at the skill or competency that you are trying to evaluate and ask for data and examples.
  • Have outside reviewers – Get outside reviews from laterals, your manager and/or your HR partner with specific focus on equity in the reviews

Here’s also another great resource on how to disrupt bias in the workplace.

Being conscious of equity and potential bias requires attention to the issues that I have laid out here, as well as an honest, open and vulnerable review of your process. Everyone is potentially susceptible to these forms of bias in performance reviews because of the culture that we live in (e.g., a woman manager can produce biases reviews of her female direct reports). It’s important to hold yourself accountable and to work on creating a process that attempts to eliminate bias in all forms.

For more information, check out this article for an in-depth review of the literature on race bias in advancement, promotion, and performance reviews.

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