Performance Bias and Effective Ways to Avoid It

While performance reviews are often disliked for a variety of reasons, one of the main causes of dissatisfaction and scepticism regarding appraisals stems from the many inherent biases that poison their fairness. Here are some ways HR leaders can root out those unwelcome influences and even the playing field.

It would be ridiculous to deny the bias that creeps into every human perspective — after all, we’re only human. Problems arise, however, when such biases work their way into career-related assessments, particularly those crucial to a person’s future.

Performance reviews, for example, introduce a flurry of odd biases into employee-manager relationships. While most performance biases aren’t overtly hostile, these preconceived notions can still taint evaluations and diminish employees’ sense of value.

Read on to find out how you can provide a transparent and unbiased performance management process to help your employees be more productive.

Why is it important to eliminate performance bias?

Our psyches are wired to base our decisions on prejudices.

With his research on human decision-making, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist, showed that most human decisions are largely motivated by bias and instinct rather than logic and reason.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that intrapersonal biases are so prevalent during performance evaluations, even when managers try to maintain objectivity.

But the impact of biases during employee reviews is more profound than you may realise. Such biases can be detrimental to employees’ morale and interfere with your ability to make the best business. Therefore, it’s critical to ensure that performance reviews are as honest and unbiased as possible.

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So, let’s examine how you can facilitate an objective, unbiased, and equitable performance management process.

How can you keep performance bias at bay?

The adoption of effective performance management is only possible when you are aware of the biases you hold and how they influence your actions. So let’s go over some of the most common types of prejudice encountered in performance reviews and what you can do to avoid them.

Contrast bias

What is it?

Contrast bias is a common pitfall in performance reviews. Often, managers review their employees by comparing their performance to that of other employees rather than evaluating it within the broader company context. This results in a skewed ranking system that may cause an employee’s performance to be criticised even if they are exceeding the company standard.

How to avoid it?

Setting clear expectations at the outset and using them as a basis to evaluate an employee can help keep contrast bias from creeping into the equation. When assessing an employee’s performance, refer back to their individual goals, rather than asking open-ended questions like, “how did this person perform?” This will help provide you with a more objective understanding of their performance.

Halo bias

What is it?

The halo effect is a phenomenon that occurs when people let the positive feelings they have about some aspect of someone or something spill over to other parts of it. It describes a situation when you rate a person above average in all areas because of the perception that they are extraordinarily high in one particular (often unrelated) area. You might do this, for instance, by letting a cheery co-worker’s confident personality outweigh their poor management skills.

But if you continue to single out individuals without looking at the whole picture, you run the risk of producing inflated evaluations and letting valuable colleagues fall through the shuffle.

How to avoid it?

If your goal is to mitigate halo bias, consider using multiple criteria for performance evaluation. Open-ended evaluation criteria may trigger a halo effect bias by default. So, make sure to assess your employees on multiple performance scales so that one excellent or horrible trait doesn’t drown out the rest.

Horns bias

What is it?

The horns effect is how one negative attribute can make the score plummet down to the lowest mark. In the same sense as the halo effect, the horns bias causes a single unfavourable feature to wane all the other aspects of an employee’s performance appraisal. It is the cloudy lens that, for example, promotes the notion that overweight employees are lazy compared to fit ones, who are perceived as hardworking.

How to avoid it?

A uniform negative score might lead to unfair sanctions or wrongful employee dismissal. Those are business mistakes that destroy profits, alienate employees, and undermine morale.

Thus, when assessing employee performance, don’t focus solely on one characteristic, however perceptible it may be. Take into account at least two to three different dimensions in order to avoid having one particular bad skill dominate the whole picture.

Leniency bias

What is it?

Leniency bias ensues when supervisors give off-the-chart ratings to an employee with below-par performance. This creates an environment that fosters mediocrity and diminishes the potential for excellence within the company.

The leniency bias occurs when managers, for one reason or another, are reluctant to confront their employees about their mistakes or shortcomings. Some managers may even choose to give everyone in their team high ratings, thinking this will motivate them to work harder and perform better.

But by not providing accurate feedback and sugarcoating performance appraisals, managers may actually be doing their employees a disservice. For example, when everyone on your team gets a perfect 5-out-of-5 score, it’s impossible to tell who did an exceptional job and deserves a promotion.

How to avoid it?

To avoid leniency performance bias, managers should take steps in order to increase the frequency of their feedback with their employees. This would be imperative in helping the manager and employee communicate effectively. The managers should also master the art of delivering feedback by beginning it with a positive tone and gradually moving to the areas for improvement in a polite way.

Centrality tendency bias

What is it?

Some managers tend to give too high scores out of deference to their employees, making them complacent and less interested in progress (leniency bias). Others offer too low ratings, indicating that no matter how competent you are, you’ll still get dinged for not working hard enough (strictness bias).

And then, there are those who award scores that follow a straight line down the centre of the scale (central tendency bias). This type of performance bias usually results from managers being wary of assigning extreme ratings. They don’t want to be seen as prejudiced, so they end up choking their employees out of ever achieving extreme productivity.

How to avoid it?

Giving everyone identical middle-of-the-road ratings can lead to resentment from those who feel you haven’t accurately represented their value. That’s why managers must be frank about how their team members perform. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a jerk and give struggling employees a lower rating. The idea is to make sure the employee is aware of their frailties and present solutions for improvement.

Performance Bias and Effective Ways to Avoid It

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Similar-to-me bias

What is it?

The similar-to-me bias is a tendency whereby managers are inclined to ascribe higher ratings to others who possess similar interests, skills, and backgrounds as them.

Similar-to-me bias can be damaging to a company’s culture since people who are different from their managers typically get treated less favourably by their peers. And not only that, but it can make your workplace feel less inclusive and limit the amount of diverse talent brought on board.

How to avoid it?

You can lessen the effects of similar-to-me bias in appraisals by urging managers to base their decisions on the specified parameters and criteria. Because when you begin by agreeing to the terms of an assessment and then make the evaluation, you are less likely to rely on stereotypes, and your reviews are less biased, according to Yale University researchers.

Recency bias

What is it?

One of the most insidious forms of bias in today’s workforce is recency bias, which occurs when an employee is judged purely based on a recent victory and receives a positive review solely due to this success. For example, an employee who recently closed a big sales deal will see their performance marks increase dramatically, even though the rest of their work over the last year may have been lacklustre.

When supervisors focus on recent interactions and events to evaluate employees instead of assessing them over a more extended period of time, other significant wins and losses go unnoticed.

How to avoid it?

To avoid the trap of recency bias and get a more balanced view of employees’ performance, you need to cultivate a culture of collecting feedback and reviews that include assessments of all major events that occur during an employee’s year. This will ensure that you have more data from throughout the year, rather than just the results from last quarter.

Gender bias

What is it?

Due to the ingrained cultural bias that men are better than women and that it is natural for men to hold more positions of power in the workplace, women need to be twice as good as their male colleagues in order to move up the corporate ladder. And when women don’t meet the unrealistic expectations—the ones staked on the assumption that they aren’t as competent as men—they are more readily discriminated against.

A Stanford study found that managers often perceive the same behaviours differently based on whether a man or woman engages in them. The study further elaborated on how women are interrupted at higher rates during performance reviews and given fewer opportunities to develop skills that lead to promotion.

But it isn’t just female employees who suffer from the effects of gender bias on performance reviews. Men in the workplace face the same scrutiny when they fail to project power or exude confidence. Additionally, these gender biases also work against people who fall outside the gender binary.

How to avoid it?

The same Stanford study also highlighted that the presence of gender bias in the performance review process often comes down to a lack of clearly-defined standards. Unstructured feedback is liable to introduce bias.

As Stanford researchers point out, without set criteria, people are more likely to mould the criteria to fit what they want. Thus, a careful evaluation of your company’s performance review forms to eliminate open box questions might be in order if you are trying to prevent gender bias from rearing its ugly head.

In Summary

While we like to think that we are objective with our opinions and decisions, prejudices affect all of us. Sometimes these biases are apparent — such as those based on factors like age or gender — but other times, they can be more subtle. But it’s high time that companies break free from the biases that hold them back.

Managers need to start accepting their flaws and take responsibility for their role in perpetuating exclusion and employee dissatisfaction during performance reviews. By following the suggestions outlined in this article, your company can create a space where all employees can thrive and succeed.

About the Author

Ahmad Benny is a London-born lover of technology, e-commerce and digital marketing in general. I love learning, researching and curating value nuggets to save you time, money and help you achieve your goals.

Team 6Q

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