Bias in performance reviews can hold back highly qualified employees from reaching their goals while preventing companies from fully utilizing their capabilities. Thus, every HR department should commit to identifying and eliminating bias in employee performance reviews. By training managers to understand and avoid bias, you’ll improve employee performance management throughout the organization.

Types of bias

The following are several common types of bias that affect many companies. Helping managers understand them plays a key role in minimizing bias in your workplace. 


Experience bias: We privilege what seems most obvious to us, based on what we already know. This means we might miss information that could enhance our perception of an employee’s work. 


Distance bias: We’re most likely to value what is closest to us, in terms of both space and time. That means managers may place more emphasis on an employee’s most recent achievements and less emphasis on what she accomplished earlier in the review period, which can skew results.


Similarity bias: We tend to value the contributions of those who are most like us, which means a boss may not always notice the strengths of people who are different from him. Thus, similarity bias can limit opportunities for women and people of color when their boss does not relate to them as strongly, for example. 


Confirmatory bias: A manager is more likely to see evidence that affirms her existing beliefs about an employee. This is very similar to the halo effect: when an employee excels in one component of his job, his boss is more likely to see him as excelling in all aspects.


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How to identify and correct bias

1. Develop a clear evaluation structure

A lack of guidelines for the evaluation process almost inevitably leads to bias. This means the “open box” review process, which consists of open-ended questions that managers answer in each review, makes an evaluation prone to bias.

To solve this problem, create a clear evaluation structure for all managers to follow and train them on how to use it rather than leaving the review to their own discretion. This clear structure will help improve the accuracy of evaluations.

By taking this step, your organization will improve gender equality and accuracy in its performance reviews. Lack of structure in a performance review tends to advantage men, leading their managers to perceive them as possessing more leadership strengths than women. Include a list of clear, specific criteria for each evaluation question to help eliminate this bias.


2. Agree on specific goals

Managers can avoid experience bias by asking employees what their goals are well before the performance review, allowing them to track employees’ progress over time. Remind managers to review their agreed-upon goals for the employee before beginning an evaluation so that they’re fresh in their mind. That way, they’ll be using fair criteria to judge each of their direct reports. 

Similarly, to avoid distance bias, managers should keep a log of employee progress so they won’t forget the value of what employees did throughout the year.


3. Find common ground

Managers can work to avoid similarity bias by striving to find common ground with each employee. Before the review, they might discuss a work-related event that they both took part in, like a recent volunteer day or work party. They should also strive to find common ground all year round so that each employee becomes part of their “in-group,” which will minimize similarity bias.


4. Look at performance metrics

Use analytics to track performance so you can compare data against a performance review if need be. Analytics allow you to evaluate employees more objectively. If necessary, your HR department can review this data, compare it against the results of the performance review, and discuss any discrepancies with the manager to determine whether his evaluation is accurate.


5. Gather feedback from multiple sources

Seek input from different people who work with an employee, like direct reports, peers, and clients. Getting multiple perspectives through a 360 review will give you a clearer understanding of how the employee is performing.


6. Ask relevant questions

Reevaluate your evaluation questions as well. A strong question could ask managers to name three strengths of an employee in a specific area. That way, they won’t write lengthy lists of goals for the employees they are biased toward while ignoring the strengths of others. Such questions challenge them to dig deep for answers rather than allowing their preconceptions to guide them.


Take these steps to reduce bias, and you’ll dramatically improve your review process. In turn, managers will give employees clearer guidance on how to improve, and employees will feel valued because their boss understands what they contribute throughout the year. As a result, you’ll see morale improve throughout your organization!