Have you experienced bias in your workplace?
According to a Deloitte survey, 86% of respondents said that they experience bias frequently. Further, 83% categorize the biases they have experienced in the workplace as subtle and indirect.
Bias might be a part of being human, but it can have damaging effects in the workplace. Managers need to consider how bias might impact employee feedback conversations and performance reviews.
Bias is an error in judgment that takes place when people allow their unconscious or conscious prejudices to affect their evaluation of another person. Especially when it comes to performance reviews, biases have a huge impact.
For example, if a high-performing employee arrives late for a meeting, you might excuse them due to something out of their control, say an unexpected issue.
On the other hand, if an employee with mediocre performance arrives late, you would assume they overslept or have poor time management skills.
We subconsciously make quick judgments based on previous experiences and act accordingly.
There are many types of unconscious bias that affect performance reviews. Here's listing out a few:
We tend to like people that are like us. Similarity bias is the tendency to give a higher rating to people with similar skills, backgrounds, and interests as the reviewer.
Example - A manager grew up in a particular town. When conducting a performance review of someone from his hometown, the manager may rate the employee higher because of his fondness for the hometown they both belong to.
Prevention - Managers should first agree to the criteria used in an assessment and then make the evaluation. This way, they are less likely to rely on stereotypes, and their judgments can be less biased.
Recency bias can also be called "what have you done for me lately?" bias. It simply highlights the tendency to focus on the most recent time period instead of the total time period.
Example - Imagine there is an employee named Ivy in your organization. She acquired a huge deal for the company at the beginning of the year and received a ton of recognition. But in the last three months, her performance has dropped. Unfortunately, her manager focused only on the recent events during the performance review and didn't acknowledge her valuable contributions in the past.
Prevention - To limit the impact of recency bias, managers should develop a habit of collecting feedback on employees frequently and at different points in time throughout the year.
When conducting performance reviews, some managers tend to focus more on the attitudes and personalities of women. On the contrary, they focus more on the accomplishments and behaviors of men and masculine-presenting individuals.
Example - Sam and Emma are two employees that are up for promotions. They're both highly qualified, hardworking, and have similar years of experience. Imagine the feedback they received was -
"Sam could work on his technical expertise."
"Emma is challenging to work with."
Sam's feedback is based on his skill set, which can easily be improved with the proper guidance and training. But Emma's feedback is based on her work style. As a result of this feedback, Sam gets the promotion, and Emma doesn't.
This situation is too common and contributes to the gender pay gap and unequal growth opportunities experienced by women.
Prevention - Managers should be given a format for conducting reviews. Additionally, one can remind them specifically to talk about behaviors, situations, and impacts rather than personality or style.
The tendency to allow one good or bad trait to overshadow others is called halo effect bias.
Example - A particular manager may have a soft spot for outspoken, proactive individuals. Suppose an employee tends to be quiet and withdrawn during meetings. In that case, the manager may give him a lower score, even if the employee offers other valuable qualities and contributions.
Prevention - Evaluate performance on multiple dimensions instead of leaving it open to interpretation. Assess at least 2-3 aspects of performance so that one awesome or awful skill doesn't overshadow everything else.
To drive better performance and reduce bias in reviews for everyone in your workplace, you need clear objectives as well as a consistent structure. Here are some simple ways to do that:
Setting clear goals is an obvious way of evaluating performance. Even a study from MIT shows that the best-performing teams usually have clear and ambitious goals.
Reviewing performance against goals allows you to track progress more effectively and reduces the impact of recency bias.
You won't have a comprehensive and accurate view of employee performance if you rely on annual or semi-annual performance conversations. Consider conducting frequent (monthly or even weekly) one-on-one meetings with employees.
This will help build a trustful relationship and ensure alignment. You'll also get continual updates on employee goals, roadblocks, perceptions, and successes.
Busy managers may not interact with employees as often as their coworkers do, and these voices can provide valuable insight when evaluating employees. Consider sourcing feedback from other team members or customers. It can give you more context and help eliminate the Halo Effect and similarity bias.
It is significantly easier to spot potential bias from the data. When an employee receives negative feedback, but you can see that they directly contributed to the broader business goals and hit all their targets.
Treat these insights as opportunities to identify which managers need additional coaching and ensure that the employees speak up if they feel like the review process is unfair.
Bias is a part of the human experience. Making managers aware of how their unconscious bias affects their decisions around performance is a difficult but necessary exercise.
Following the steps above won't erase your biases, but they can reduce them. Remember, to create a workplace that fosters trust and mutual respect; you need to proactively try to bury your biases and approach employee performance with an open mind.