Performance management bias can undermine your best DEI efforts and reinforce inequitable outcomes and discriminatory structures. By ensuring an inclusive performance management system, your employees will be motivated to give their best contributions to your organization - knowing they will be recognized and appraised for those contributions.
In the equation of employee engagement, performance reviews weigh in heavily, whether it’s having your contributions recognized and valued or receiving the specific constructive feedback you need to meet your advancement goals.
When a performance assessment is fair and brings clarity to growth areas, it is validating and motivating. If a performance assessment is vague and distorted by (negative) bias, it can be confusing, frustrating and demotivating and perpetuates a cycle of employee disengagement. 85% of employees would consider quitting if they felt their performance review was unfair.
Ultimately, performance management bias undermines your best DEI efforts and reinforces inequitable outcomes and discriminatory structures.
Many kinds of bias can impact upon performance reviews. Reviews are a documented reflection of the systemic bias that is essentially at play every day and impacting opportunities, promotions and rewards.
Consider performance appraisals in the military. When looking only at objective scoring, men and women’s scores appeared equitable. But in subjective descriptions, more task-oriented adjectives were used for men and more relationship-oriented adjectives for women. In fact, classically ambiguous performance reviews systemically disadvantage women. Research has show that women receive vague and shorter reviews - lacking specific feedback tied to outcomes and specific developmental advice on what they can do to advance. Women receive both vague praise and vague guidance. The research suggests that stereotypes about women’s capabilities means reviewers are less likely to acknowledge their technical expertise or connect women’s contributions to business outcomes. And that relational stereotypes may cause reviewers to attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than their team leadership, holding them back.
Data collection on performance reviews in a U.S. law firm also found that while less than 10% of people of color received mentions of leadership, mentions were over 70 percentage points higher for white men. Leadership mentions predicted higher competency ratings the following year.
Other common patterns of bias were identified in performance evaluations. Individuals from demographic groups that are stereotyped as less competent have to repeatedly prove themselves and are judged more on performance (with mistakes being scrutinized more) whereas white men are judged more on potential. Also, women and people of color must fall in a narrower range of workplace behavior to be judged positively and are more likely to have personality comments in their evaluations. Another pattern that shows up is the assumption that maternity means non-commitment to advancing. Racial stereotypes, such as those that often keep Asian Americans out of leadership roles, are also a visible pattern in reviews.
It’s often too easy for like/dislike between manager and employees to play into performance review dynamics, which is influenced by affinity bias and feeling more comfortable with those who are like us. There are many ways to reduce systemic bias in performance management.
A lack of structure to the performance review process contributes to reviews being highly susceptible to personal bias and based primarily upon manager feelings about the employee performance, not the objective results the employee has created. When reviews are based on job descriptions, rather than focused on aligned goals, job effectiveness is left open for subjective interpretation. When managers are doing several reviews at once, and have no goals against which to measure performance, they are likely to default to common biases.
Open-ended questions are a problematic performance management practice that amplifies bias. As HBR authors write, ‘open box = open to bias’ and open-ended questions rarely prompt specific and evidence-based feedback equally among demographic groups.
Instead, structured reviews based on goals that have been agreed between manager and employee are more accurately tied to performance. Goals-based reviews help the employee to focus their work efforts with more awareness of what they will be rated against. Further, using a performance rubric that outlines evaluation criteria and correlates results and behavior to performance ratings helps to remove bias.
In order to assure that performance ratings are tied to behavior and outcomes, and to ensure more individuals receive specific feedback and guidance, it’s important that reviewers are prompted to make their ratings evidence-based.
For example, as a bias-disruptive intervention, reviewers in the aforementioned U.S. law firm were required to rate employee performance on particular competencies and to give three forms of evidence to justify each rating. This helped to neutralize the positive halo that white men receive and the negative penalty other groups experience. Having to identify behavior-based and outcome-based evidence for competencies disrupts the speed of bias. It means that reviewers will surface more performance-based comments and specific constructive feedback for different individuals, and reviews will become more effective in reflecting performance outcomes. Leadership-based characteristics that were previously attributed mostly to majority white men began to appear more for other groups when appraisals became evidence-based.
Seeking evidence disrupts the generalized story. The more specific reviewers have to be, the less they can default to generalized stereotypes.
In one study, 92% of workers wanted performance feedback more than once a year. More frequent and documented conversations help to improve communications lines between manager and employee, are overall good inclusion practice, and allow for faster course-correction towards more positive outcomes for everyone. A culture of healthy feedback helps to keep your people engaged.
Multi-rater feedback - from peers, direct reports, and managers - can be valuable in creating a more comprehensive picture and reducing bias. When collected through a bias mitigating review format, 360 degree feedback allows multiple individual voices to create a composite picture of performance effectiveness, reducing blindspots and the importance of personal dynamics in one relationship. In contrast, calibration meetings, where many people discuss one score, have been argued to increase bias through the ‘tyranny of consensus.’
Equally, providing bias prompts that help reviewers to check their own bias can be extremely helpful. Sometimes, it’s easier to see bias through an external example, but within a growth culture, the ability to get more honest at recognizing one’s own bias can be developed as part of education around de-biasing performance management.
Without accountability, nothing happens in business. While reportedly 70% of companies say that DEI work is critical, only 25% are formally recognizing this work. Less than one third of companies are holding managers accountable.
If inclusion is a priority, then the managerial practices that support inclusion need to valued in performance reviews. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for individuals to divest inclusion as somebody else’s job. Inclusive behaviors can range from supporting employees in work/life navigation and overall well-being to managing workflow and burnout to revamping processes to eliminate or mitigate bias to recruiting from and sponsoring underrepresented groups.
Research has shown that the leaders who disproportionately carry the “deep cultural work” (predominantly women) do not feel this work is recognized or rewarded within performance reviews.
One clear way to raise bias awareness around performance reviews is audit them and gather data on the patterns that result from your performance review process. Do certain groups disproportionately receive certain kinds of feedback, certain kinds of comments, and certain ratings? Does one gender receive more feedback and different feedback? Are certain groups judged more by personality traits (covert bias) or mistakes? Where you see the patterns, you see the bias.
Additionally, there are the biased outcomes that result from biased performance reviews - such as biases in pay, hiring, promotion, career development and firing practices. Correlating how this data lines up to skews in your performance review and feedback processes can throw a light on how appraisal processes are perpetuating exclusion in your organization.
The more inclusive your performance management system, the more employees will be motivated to give their best contributions to your organization - knowing they will be recognized and appraised for those contributions.