Whether conscious or unconscious, everyone has bias. To say otherwise is to ignore the brain’s innate tendency to make connections and “fill in the blanks” based on previous experiences or perspectives to come to faster conclusions, says Ben Weber, director of human resources and training at VRM Mortgage Services. Although bias is part of being human, it can impede leaders’ ability to evaluate performance objectively.
Biased performance reviews can hold high-performing employees back from reaching their career goals. They also create additional barriers for underrepresented groups in the workplace. For example, a series of studies by behavioral economist Dr. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio found that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback, as opposed to positive feedback or critical objective feedback, than men. Data also shows that black employees receive more scrutiny from bosses, leading to worse performance reviews, lower wages and even job loss.
Unfair performance evaluations can also have major consequences on the business, with research showing that unfairness at work costs U.S. employers $64 billion annually. They can also decrease engagement and productivity and “hinder the relationship between the manager and the employee,” Weber says. On the other hand, if a performance review is biased in favor of an employee, it can lead to overconfidence and/or giving rewards to team members who haven’t earned them — which can diminish company morale and waste resources.
How can leaders stop bias in its tracks to ensure performance reviews are fair for all involved? Consider these tips:
1. Improve Your Awareness
The business world has become increasingly diverse, with multicultural individuals, people with disabilities, women and members of other underrepresented groups bringing valuable talent to the workforce. However, due to cultural differences, stereotypes and leaders’ past experiences, they’re more likely to receive biased feedback.
Nadia Nassif, founder and chief executive officer of Springboards Consulting, says, “Culturally-informed behaviors are misunderstood so often by managers as subpar performance or [as] not a ‘style fit’ within their culture.’” To objectively evaluate performance, leaders must start by improving their awareness of underrepresented groups. After all, “[raising] awareness is the first step toward behavior change.”
Marcia Scheiner, president and founder of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, echoes the importance of awareness, especially when managing employees with disabilities. “Education and training is really what’s going to get leaders over their engrained views on what it might mean to be someone that’s autistic or [to] have a disability.” With this knowledge, leaders can “modify their management style” based on how employees with disabilities learn.
Unconscious bias training can be effective in helping leaders identify and overcome their bias for good by helping them put themselves in their team members’ shoes and better understand their perspectives, Weber says. It can close those knowledge gaps previously filled with inaccurate assumptions.
In fact, participants in an unconscious bias workshop at Google reported that it increased their “awareness and understanding of unconscious bias, and motivation to overcome it.” A month later, a follow-up survey found that workshop participants were “significantly more likely” to perceive Google’s culture as fair, objective and valuing diversity than employees in a control group.
2. Be Clear
Even the highest-performing employees can’t read minds. Leaders should make performance expectations clear upfront so there’s no surprises down the road — which means establishing clear goals to ensure everyone’s on the same page, Weber says. When an employee is aligned with his or her manager on what success looks like, performance reviews are more likely to be objective.
Often, bias can cause leaders to give ambiguous feedback. For example, Nassif has seen several multicultural employees receive “very general and unclear” feedback on their communication styles, particularly when they have an accent. Similarly, she says, soft-spoken employees may be told to develop a “more executive” communication style to resonate better with clients. “There’s a lot of bias in that [feedback],” Nassif says. “It’s not a level playing field.”
Some leaders may be tempted to avoid giving direct feedback for fear of hurting an employee’s feelings. However, by failing to give clear and candid feedback, leaders are doing their employees — and the organization — a disservice. They’re withholding the guidance employees need to succeed in their role.
3. Offer Continuous Feedback
A lot can happen in a year. Clients may come and go, policies may change, projects have begun and ended, and much more. When leaders try to evaluate employees’ performance across an entire year in a single review, they’re more likely to exhibit recency bias, focusing on their most recent performance. As a CultureAmp blog post explains, “If someone recently rocked a presentation or flubbed a deal, that recent performance is going to loom larger in a manager’s mind. Why? Because it’s easier to remember things that happened recently.”
To avoid recency bias, leaders should determine whether they’re rating an employee’s performance based on a single event or a trend, Weber says. Documenting employees’ performance throughout the year can help identify any relevant patterns — such as missed deadlines or absenteeism — to address during the review.
Another way to combat recency bias reviews is to rethink the annual review process altogether. Numerous innovative companies have already switched to a culture of continuous feedback. Netflix ditched the annual review years ago in favor of “regular, but informal, reviews in which people hear what they should stop, start, or continue — from their colleagues.” Similarly, in 2015, CEO Pierre Nanterme announced that Accenture would implement a “more fluid system, in which employees receive timely feedback from their managers on an ongoing basis following assignment.”
The more touch points there are for employees to receive feedback, the more accurate their reviews will be, Nassif explains. Further, by giving employees more direct support, continuous feedback can drive engagement on the job: Officevibe reports that 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once per week, compared to only 18% of employees with low engagement.
Aside from a birthday celebration or visit from a long-lost friend, most people don’t like surprises — especially in their performance reviews. Weber says, “If you’re getting ready to issue a review, and the rating on that review is going to be a surprise to the person that you’re issuing it to, then you’ve done something wrong.”
When employees leave a performance review surprised, it’s a “big red flag” that they either didn’t receive adequate feedback throughout the year or that the review may be biased. When leaders set clear goals and give feedback on a regular basis, Weber notes, “Employees should almost be able to write their own reviews.”
Evaluating performance is never easy. By following these tips, leaders can review performance and provide feedback as fairly and objectively as possible. Be prepared: In doing so, leaders may, themselves, be surprised — by just how much their people have to offer.