Performance Review Bias: What Is It and How Can You Avoid It?

Anthony Santa Maria

Anthony Santa Maria

“Articulate.”

“Competent.”

“Friendly.” 

All of these seem like perfectly nice words with positive connotations, right? On the surface, yes. These are all qualities you’d be happy about a friend or coworker associating with you. However, when they show up on performance reviews, these words might actually indicate bias. How they’re used has everything to do with identity.

Unfortunately, not only is bias all too common in performance reviews, it is something every single person inherently possesses. That doesn’t mean that we should throw our hands up and give up. In fact, there are steps managers can take to become more aware of their biases, mitigate bias, and make the performance review process more equitable for all employees. 

This article will take you through some tips you can put into practice today and explain why all companies should strive to reduce bias in their performance review.

What is Bias and How Does it Show up in Performance Reviews?

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines bias as ‘partiality: an inclination or predisposition for or against something.’ Another word closely associated with bias is prejudice, or ‘a negative attitude toward another person or group formed in advance of any experience with that person or group.’ 

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has dedicated much of his career to studying bias, concluded that the vast majority of human decisions are actually based on biases, beliefs, and intuition, not facts or logic. 

This is where performance review bias come in: even when well-intentioned managers believe they are evaluating employees based on “hard facts” or “quantitative metrics,” bias almost always seeps through.

In performance reviews, biases have major implications in situations that inform decisions about promotion, compensation, hiring, or even firing. What does this mean for employees from diverse backgrounds?

How Review Bias Harms Employees from Underrepresented Groups

The relationship between performance review bias and the experiences of diverse employees in the workforce has been studied extensively. Academics across disciplines generally agree that people from different groups are often rated differently for identical behavior. Additionally, expectations for certain functions, like leadership, can themselves be gendered or racialized.

Often, these biases are difficult to quantify because they do not typically rely on standardized rubrics or numerical measurement. Instead, bias is revealed in the type of language used. 

For example, recent research by Correll and Simard showed that “women were described twice as often as men as supportive, collaborative and helpful, and their appraisal contained twice the number of references to the team as opposed to individual accomplishments. In contrast, men’s appraisal focused on assertiveness, independence, and self-confidence, and feedback was much more often linked to business outcomes or technical expertise.”

Obviously, “supportive” and “collaborative” are positive attributes. Yet these traits can hinder women who want to be seen as leaders and promoted to managerial roles. 

In an article for Harvard Business Review, the Center for WorkLife Law detailed the “sobering” results of an audit they conducted at a U.S. law firm’s performance evaluations. Most dramatically, they reported that fewer than 10% of people of color received mentions of leadership in their performance evaluations. This was more more than 70 percentage points lower than white women, and these leadership mentions typically predicted higher competency ratings the next year.

Luckily, following the audit, they were able to help the firm deploy some tactics that actually work to reduce performance review bias. Let’s explore those tactics and how you can put them into place. 

The Solution: Ways to Reduce Performance Review Bias

Bias creeps into our performance reviews whether we realize it or not. The good news is that there are actionable steps leaders can take to confront and mitigate performance review bias.

1. Recognize Your Own Bias

The first step is admitting there is a problem. Simply recognizing that bias exists is not enough. That’s where a comprehensive Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) program comes into play. 

While educational DEIJ initiatives — especially immersive ones — create a deeper understanding and context for the types of biases a manager might have, it is important to note that recognizing bias is an ongoing process. The reviewer or evaluator should be able to identify bias throughout the evaluation and check in with themselves or colleagues at several points in the process. 

One should always start from a place of empathy and understanding. This applies not only to the person you might be reviewing, but to yourself as well. 

2. Reconsider Performance Indicators and Metrics

The subjects brought up in performance reviews should never be a surprise. Managers should work with their team to craft a performance review process that works for them. This means talking through specific, measurable goals well ahead of the final review.

Additionally, an organization should create a clear evaluation structure for all managers to follow and train them on how to use. This will help improve accuracy and remove bias in the process. Otherwise the reviews will be left up to individual discretion with potentially open-ended, bias-producing questions and criteria.

This is a continuous process. Managers should review employee progress on established goals throughout the year, not just during annual review time. It is often helpful to source feedback from other coworkers throughout the year, as it can help check your own biases.

Bias Reduction as a DEIJ Initiative

Reducing bias in performance reviews is a key step towards unlocking opportunities for your employees, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. 

While bias is ever-present, being aware of it and consciously working to reduce it are incredibly important. These steps may appear small, but they can have massive implications for individual employees’ career paths. 

The more managers and middle-managers understand the extent to which their word choice matters in performance reviews, the more aware they can be about their own biases. In turn, they can build a more equitable employee experience within their team and company. 

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