Proactively reduce bias in performance reviews by incorporating "bias blockers" into each step of the process.
- Poorly set goals sow the seeds for bias throughout the performance management cycle. Goals of uneven quality or with vague metrics make it more challenging to coach for, and fairly evaluate, performance. Reduce bias in the goal-setting process through a goal calibration process to check to see whether goals within a function or group are set at a relatively consistent level of challenge. This reduces bias by ensuring that no team member has goals that are meaningfully more or less challenging than others.
- Ensure that goals are specific and objective and directly relate to the job requirements.
- Ensure that goals are communicated or agreed employees at the outset.
- Another way to reduce bias in goal setting is a goal review by the manager two levels above the person who sets the goal. In this process, the 2-level up manager gets a list of every goal set by their direct reports’ team members. The employee’s name isn’t listed with their goals.
- Adjust goals and targets appropriately for part-time employees.
- Enable instant feedback: Lisa Kepinski, Founder and CEO, Inclusion Institute, recommends using automated, real-time communications tools, which are similar to social media approaches, enabling employees to receive instant feedback from multiple sources on their performance. Further information is in the Inclusion Nudges guidebook.
- Managers should look for opportunities to provide constructive feedback whenever they have a chance - particularly to individuals from underrepresented groups. Be specific - focus on suggestions for developing a particular skill(s) or, if providing praise, the specific actions that are valued. Textio's 2023 Report on Language Bias in Performance Feedback showed that women of all races and people of colour of all gender identities are the most likely to get low-quality feedback. The report recommends 'If you want to improve employee retention, especially among underrepresented groups, you must commit to and invest in the accountabilities, tools, and systems that help managers give direct and actionable feedback'.
- Feedback is a gift—whether it’s a pat on the back or a course correction. Set expectations that managers provide feedback to all people not just to those with whom they feel most comfortable. According to Dr. David Thomas in this HBR article, protective hesitation is when a leader fails to give constructive criticism to an employee out of fear of being perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other prejudice. “When leaders withhold critical feedback that can help improve one’s performance, especially a marginalized person, the person in question then continues to underperform because they are not given any [helpful criticism],” says Dr. McCluney. In turn, she says, this may confirm pre-existing biases that a leader already has around why a person isn’t well-suited for a role. While it might be harder for managers to give feedback to someone different than themselves, they must do this equitably so everyone on their team has the chance to grow and improve.
- Define manager accountability for providing quality, non biased feedback to all of their direct reports. According to this Textio report, 'If you’re a talent or DEI leader, the most important step you can take to make real improvement in employee retention is defining the manager accountabilities that you’re serious about. If you want to close the feedback gap, then you have to set accountabilities for how managers provide feedback,
including around frequency, quality, and avoiding bias. Then you have to be willing to use these accountabilities as an essential part of how managers in your organization are reviewed and rewarded', Language in performance feedback 2022.
- Involve multiple perspectives when collecting feedback: Have several people (who have direct experience of working with an individual) to evaluate the individual's performance against their goals, assigned tasks and exhibited behaviours. This will engage numerous data points and include a broader, more objective perspective on performance.
- Eliminate mandatory self-reviews: If self-reviews are considered by managers when they rate employees, there are opportunities for multiple types of bias to influence the assessment. There are also cultural differences in self-ratings related to variations across cultures in cultural norms regarding self-promotion. 'Studies repeatedly show that women are more likely to underrate on self-assessments while men are more likely to overrate. Also, whereas women tend to credit their achievements to the efforts of the others such as their workgroup or to luck and their failures to intrinsic flaws, men tend to credit their achievements to their intrinsic strengths and failures to external circumstances', Eliminating bias from performance appraisals, Felicity Menzies.
- To address recency and affinity bias, encourage managers to keep a record of performance snapshots for each team member throughout the performance year. Ensure feedback statements focus on situations, behaviours and impacts, rather than personality or style.
Calibration and talent review meetings
- 'Prime’ the conversation by discussing a real-life case study. At the start of the meeting, participants read and briefly discuss a story about a real event that involved some form of bias. Discussing what can be learned from the experience often unconsciously nudges people into a different frame of mind in the ensuing discussions.
- Wherever possible, schedule important performance-related meetings when people feel most energized - e.g. in the morning or after a meal/snack. Research suggests that it is harder for people to resist biases & stereotypes when their mental energy levels are low, as they revert to automatic, fast, intuitive & emotional thinking.
- Set expectations that you aim to create an environment where everyone involved feels enabled to call out/ check and validate each other’s approach.
- Train and appoint people (in the business, not in HR) to take on the role of 'bias buster' for meetings where the purpose is discussing readiness, performance or potential.
- Incorporate bias blockers into each step of the talent review / calibration process to
make reviews and feedback conversations as objective as possible. There is a free de-biasing checklist on Google Rework that can be downloaded and rebranded by any organisation.
- Some companies use a physical card with bias-blocking questions on it as simple reminders to help managers avoid being influenced by an employee’s personality and bring the focus back to the employee’s work. Below is a list of common performance review biases from Culture Amp's 'Raising the standard for performance management: How to align development and compensation with business strategy'.
- In meetings discussing talent and performance, have the most senior person in the room to share their views last (to encourage an environment where more junior managers feel comfortable to challenge).
- Be wary of criticism about a person's 'style'. One study found criticism of style came up in 61% of women’s performance reviews and just 1% of men’s.
- Use a structured approach to discussing performance and potential to help prevent managers from shifting criteria (and gather multiple perspectives to make better decisions), or favouring 'expected' strong performers and ensure guidance for meetings is sent out well in advance and managers collect real evidence so they are not relying on assumptions.
- Apply proportionality to performance and potential ratings. Check whether the number of people rated ‘high potential’ or 'exceeds expectations' at different levels is consistent with the demographic split at that level. If it’s not proportionate, consider if the criteria need to be changed to be more inclusive. Consider if there are patterns in who appears where on the nine box grid? Creating an Inclusive Culture, Corporate Research Council.
- Reframe discussions. In succession planning meetings, consider who is classed as ‘ready in three to five years’ whereas others (generally from majority groups) are designated ‘ready’ in shorter timeframes. Reframe the conversation to “what’s stopping us from appointing them now?” or “what needs to happen for them to be ready?”.
- Use live tracking tools to measure the proportionality of decisions. There is a case study from Ashurst in the 'Women in leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way' report showing how this works for them: 'Ashurst had long looked at multiple cuts of its performance and pay data, including on gender outcomes. However, Ashurst recently decided to step it up by introducing a live tracking tool, which shows the evaluation team how the scores are panning out in real-time, on-screen. The tool is able to pinpoint potential sources of bias in the evaluation of men and women, both part-time and full time, across divisions, teams, practice groups and locations. ‘Live on-screen means we are aware of the gender split at the critical moment of annual performance evaluations,’ says Knox. ‘What we found was a negative bias for part-timers, as they are less likely to do the high levels of overtime typical of the big transactions, which is typically tied to higher ratings. We are actively working on this – our work allocation tool is helping to overcome some of these barriers by distributing the work more systematically.’
PwC created a video about “blind spots” to show before performance review meetings. The piece educates reviewers about specific biases, such as the halo and horns effect, and describes how individuals can be more objective. The team leader who runs the meeting is responsible for making sure participants view the video before the assessment conversation begins. Laszlo Bock, Google’s Head of People Operations, discovered that sending emails immediately before performance reviews, reminding people that women are less likely to put themselves in the frame for promotion resulted in more women putting themselves forward.
Further information and resources
- Article: Article How to Crush Bias in Performance Management, The Talent Strategy Group
- Article: How to Crush Bias in Performance Management, The Talent Strategy Group
- Research Report: Creating an Inclusive Culture, Corporate Research Forum
- Article: 3 Biases That Hijack Performance Reviews, and How to Address Them, HBR
- Guide: Promoting Fair Performance Appraisal, Include-Empower.Com
- Guide: Inclusion Nudges, Tinna Nielson and Lisa Kepinski
- Checklist: Unbiasing performance, Google
- Report: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way, McKinsey
- Guide: Raising the standard for performance management, Culture Amp
- Article: Feedback Is Love — and Avoiding It Leaves Women of Color Behind, Chief
- Article: Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work—5 Ways to Actually Make a Difference, Greg Lewis
- Report: Language Bias in PERFORMANCE FEEDBACK Data Analysis and Survey Results 2023, Textio