performance review biases

6 Performance Review Biases That Are Harming Your Organization

Sarah Katherine Tucker

Performance reviews are a staple in every company, big and small. Most happen annually, but some organizations break them down into quarterly or maybe even monthly reviews. Regardless of how your company conducts performance reviews, they serve as a chance to have honest discussions with your employees on what goals they have been achieving or what they are missing the mark. These conversations are crucial for increasing employee engagement and decreasing burnout, and the overall health and growth of teams and the company. 

However, performance reviews often fall short in one category, and that’s because of the biases that many managers unconsciously act on. These are biases that have accrued from childhood and over years of education and work. While it may be difficult to remove a bias from someone’s schema, they can consciously note them–Patricia Devine’s Dissociation Model of prejudice found that people with low prejudice can suppress their biases with cognitive control. 

Biases can be dangerous in many circumstances, including performance reviews. A manager cannot give an accurate assessment of an employee if they are clouded by these biases, which is why we will introduce you to some that may be clouding your judgment and impairing your review skills.

Racial Bias:

Racial bias in the workplace is often implicit but damaging. The Society for Human Resource Management has created an Implicit Bias Resource Guide full of resources designed to interrupt these workplace biases. No manager can do an accurate performance review without acknowledging and interrupting these biases. 

Gender Bias:

Gender bias is also often implicit in the workplace, but like racial bias can have damaging, long-term impacts for individual employees. As said above, if these biases cloud a manager’s vision, it is impossible to give someone an accurate performance review.

Racial Bias and Gender Bias can have less impact on reviews when managers create a detailed and objective rubric for performance reviews. One of the most significant issues is that performance reviews are often subjective and left up for interpretation. Instead of asking “Is this person a team player” and just filling in the blanks, write out clearly what “team player” means to the company, create a rating system for the question(s) (1-5 stars or whatever works best), and then ask an explanation for that rating and depending on the question, examples. This forces people to think harder and more objectively when answering questions and push against biases, especially when being asked to explain their answers. 

Confirmation Bias:

Confirmation Bias is defined as “The tendency to look for information that supports, rather than rejects, one’s preconceptions, typically by interpreting evidence to confirm existing beliefs while rejecting or ignoring any conflicting data.” In simple terms, we like to believe that our preconceived notions about a topic or other people are correct, and it comes as a surprise when we are wrong. Confirmation bias could impact a performance review very quickly. Perhaps you are doing a performance review for Kate, and when you first met her, she was nervous and didn’t give off a great first impression for someone who would need to be confident in sales.

When preparing for Kate’s performance review, don’t fixate on the first time you met her—comb through all of the evidence—Kate’s performance numbers, how she’s adjusted to the team, etc. Don’t go off that first impression that Kate wouldn’t be a great salesperson, and apply it to her performance review months later. 

Recency Bias:

Recency Bias, or the recency effect, is “the tendency to remember the most recently presented information best.” Ever want to be the last person to perform at a talent show in grade school so that the judges would remember you? This may come into play in performance reviews. Take Robert, for example-if Robert recently underperformed managing a marketing campaign, you may remember that and be more likely to write Robert a negative review.

However, unless Robert’s just a horrible employee, his underperformance on a single marketing campaign does not comprehensively reflect on him as a team member. This is why it’s essential to frequently take notes and analyze the performance numbers of your team members throughout the evaluation period, so you can remember the 95 percent of the time that Robert has been an asset to the team. 

Affinity Bias:

Affinity Bias is the tendency to prefer people similar to ourselves or someone we know or like. While we know at the end of the day that as long as someone is doing a good job at their role and working well with their team, it’s hard to remove that innate “favoritism,” we may have those who we may have other things in common with (which is why managers often have to tread a fine line when forming relationships with their employees—they can’t necessarily become friendships).

Say that you and Katherine get along well—but Katherine has quite a few things she can improve on that you don’t notice because you like Katherine so much. However, it would be irresponsible for you as a manager (even if not on purpose) and bad for Katherine and the company if you were to ignore Katherine’s weaknesses when writing her performance review. To combat this, once again turn to objective data. Look at numbers, and take notes on what your team members are doing throughout the evaluation period so when it comes to performance reviews, you don’t accidentally play the favoritism card. 

Halo/Horns Effect:

The Halo/Horns effect, similar to our recency bias example, is essentially zoning in on someone’s one bad trait or one good trait and letting that influence your judgment of them. For example, Joey may be a great employee overall, but he always talks over people, and when you sit down to do your performance review, that’s all you can think about. 

To combat this, the same guidance goes—make sure to have objective, detailed notes on your employees throughout the year, and in this specific instance, try to look at things from a bird’s eye view. Joey is great at getting at being innovative on projects and taking on challenges. While you may have to judge Joey more harshly on “works well with a team,” don’t let the frustration of yours take away from everything that Joey contributes. Afterall, if Joey tends to speaks over people, you’ve identified a perfectly coachable opportunity to discuss in your performance review. 

As you can see, biases can creep into performance reviews without managers even really realizing it. Still, the results of a biased performance review are harmful, especially for the review subject, who isn’t getting the best possible feedback to help them grow as an employee. In short, when doing performance reviews, keep yourself and your biases in check, and aim for objectivity, not subjectivity.

Want to learn more about how to conduct a great employee performance review? Check out this article: 7 Tips For Productive Performance Reviews 

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