Bias exists in each and every one of us. From where we choose to live to the people we date. Formed over the course of our lives through societal and parental conditioning, our biases are often held at the subconscious level.
Think about the hundreds of pieces of information your brain processes on any given day – you may not be aware of it, but your mind is unconsciously categorizing it for you. From gender and ethnicity to sexuality and body types etc. – what happens at a subconscious level influences what we think of people and our world.
That said, it’s only natural for our unconscious bias to show up in our professional lives, but what can you do to ensure that your organization’s people processes are as bias-free as possible?
While there’s no magical formula that will work for all, there are many opportunities for employers and HR professionals to cultivate a workplace committed to diversity and inclusion. A good place to start is through an understanding of bias types. Once you’re aware of what biases exist, you can use strategies to minimize their effects.
These common types of bias affect us all. Understanding what they are and how they can affect you can play a key role in minimizing bias in your workplace.
Experience bias can occur when we forget that our truth is not always the only option. Often enough, managers and colleagues can overlook the necessity for each individual to contribute their own value and experience to a decision. By listening to and understanding the individual input of the people around us we can strengthen our team and organization.
We tend to value what is closest to us, in terms of both space and time (recency bias). In a performance review that could mean a manager places more emphasis on an employee’s most recent achievements and less emphasis on what they accomplished earlier in the review period. Distance bias can easily skew the overall employee assessment.
Similarity / affinity / like me bias
An important bias to watch out for is affinity bias, sometimes called the “like me” bias. Managers and peers tend to rate colleagues higher when they have a shared characteristic, such as gender, race, school, or even a favorite band or sports team. A leader may not always notice the strengths of people who are different from themselves. This bias limits opportunities for employees if their boss does not strongly relate to them.
Halo occurs when you learn one great thing about a person and let the halo-glow of that learning shape your opinions of everything else about that person. When reviewing someone’s resume you may see they went to a prestigious school or that they had worked in a highly sought-after company. Due to the halo effect, we tend to see everything else about that person surrounded by the glow of a singular achievement.
Idiosyncratic rater bias
Idiosyncratic rater bias happens when managers evaluate the skills they’re not good at, higher. And in areas where they excel, they tend to rate employees lower. When a manager is good at something, they are more likely to have higher standards when it comes to the employee doing the work. When they are less familiar with the role, they can gravitate to being more lenient in their assessment.
Bias and the performance review process
Bias in performance reviews can hold back skilled employees from reaching their potential, in addition to preventing organizations from fully realizing their own team’s capabilities. That’s why it’s important for HR to identify and eliminate bias in employee performance reviews. By training managers to understand and avoid bias, you can improve employee performance management throughout the organization.
How to reduce bias in your performance review process
1) Develop a clear evaluation structure
The frequently used “open box” review process makes an evaluation prone to bias. The process, consisting of open-ended questions, is ambiguous by design. The questions are typically general and open-ended in order to apply to everyone in an organization, regardless of their seniority or function.
This lack of guidelines almost inevitably leads to bias. Studies have shown that without a specific review structure, people are more likely to make assumptions based on gender, race, and other stereotypes.
To help solve this problem, HR can work with managers and employees to create a clear evaluation structure. Rather than leaving a review to a manager’s discretion, a clear structure will help improve the accuracy of evaluations.
Agreeing on specific goals with employees will also help you create your review structure, see the next tip for more on this.
2) Agree on specific goals
Managers and HR can avoid bias creep by asking employees what their goals are well in advance of their performance review. This helps to track an employee’s performance and progress over time. HR can assist in this process by reminding managers to review the agreed-upon goals before they dig into their evaluations. That way, they’ll be using fair criteria to judge each of their direct reports.
3) Keep track
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.
Keeping performance records helps managers remember the work the employee did and how the manager felt about it at the moment. Logging employee performance information throughout the year is a powerful tool. By using this approach, the manager will have all the information they need for the employee’s performance review, rather than focusing on only the most recent event or performance. To assist you in this process you may want to look into HRIS software that can help you stay organized.
4) Find common ground
To avoid similarity bias, managers need to make an effort to find common ground with each of their direct reports. Hopefully, this is more than a one-time conversation. It’s important for managers to build and maintain positive relationships with their employees throughout the year. This will avoid the trappings of managers having an “in-group”.
5) Gather feedback from multiple sources
A good way to deal with idiosyncratic rater bias is to ask for feedback from your employee’s team members. This can include direct reports, peers, and clients. Getting multiple perspectives will give you a better understanding of how the employee is truly performing.
6) Remove the halo
It’s tough to unsee the crowning achievements of individuals, but in order to reduce the halo effect managers need to evaluate employees from multiple angles. Does your employee have amazing technical skills but rarely finishes their work on time? For a holistic view, managers need to assess at least 2-3 different aspects of performance so that one awesome or perhaps awful trait (horn effect) doesn’t overshadow their overall performance assessment.
You can do this
By recognizing bias exists, watching out for it, and correcting it you can dramatically improve your performance review process. Managers will provide employees with clearer guidance on how to improve, and employees will feel valued because their boss understands what they contribute throughout the year.
A fair and bias-free performance review process not only results in happier employees but also in improved organizational performance and a more positive company culture.
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