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We’re only human, and without knowing it we might be letting our biases impact performance management reviews. Which ones should we be watching out for?

Performance reviews offer a lot of benefits – they can keep employees motivated, they can keep them on track and they can provide managers with valuable insights into the productivity and progress of their workforce. Having said that, performance reviews are conducted by human beings and are, therefore, subject to human biases that can render a review unhelpful and unmotivating.

Performance management reviews are here to stay. They’re an integral element of any performance management system, but they need to be conducted properly. Managers need to be aware of certain prejudices and inclinations that might steer a good performance appraisal off course.

Below, we’ll discuss five performance review biases and how we, as managers and HR executives, can overcome them to ensure fair, meaningful performance discussions.

1. Recency bias

Recency bias is one of the most common biases that presents itself during performance reviews. Put simply, recency bias is a tendency to focus on events that have occurred lately, rather than evaluating or judging an employee’s performance as a whole, over a prolonged period of time.

If an employee acts spectacularly and performs beyond expectations the week before a review, it might overshadow months of half-hearted performance. Equally, despite a generally excellent performance period, if an employee doesn’t perform to expectations just before a performance review, a manager might look on them unfavourably. Clearly, this isn’t fair or reflective of an employee’s average performance.

A great way of avoiding recency bias altogether is by replacing annual performance reviews with regular one-on-one performance discussions. At Clear Review, we recommend monthly check-ins. This means that performance can be addressed much more frequently, management and HR have a much clearer idea as to progression and concerns, and manager and employee will be able to develop a relationship that encourages open, honest discussion.

2. The ‘Halo’ effect

Another important bias to look out for is the notorious ‘Halo’ effect. Some employees actively seek to establish a relationship with their managers, and as a result, they are able to make a connection. These employees will, naturally, emphasise their successes and downplay (or not mention) their struggles. This means that the manager is more likely to relate to the employee and like them, which causes them to look favourably on everything they do.

During reviews, this halo effect will cause managers to focus on areas the employee has excelled in, rather than assessing performance as a whole. This means the employee in question will never receive entirely honest, reflective feedback or advice.

To counteract the halo effect, managers should be mindful, and consider whether they are giving employees preferential treatment. Be wary of employees who are reluctant to discuss areas in which they feel they could develop. Try to be objective, and assess performance based on goal completion, impact and progression. This will give managers a clear indication of whether or not an employee is performing well.

3. The ‘Horns’ effect

The ‘Horns’ effect is the opposite of the halo effect. Some employees are introverted, or reluctant to openly and frequently discuss ‘wins’. They may also be less likely to strike up a relationship with their managers. As a result, their good performance is not noticed or acknowledged, and they might fare poorly in a performance review.

Managers should remember that many high performers are hard on themselves and would rate themselves poorly in a performance review. People like this often suffer from Imposter Syndrome, a psychological condition that causes us to believe we’re frauds, despite excellent performance.

This is another instance where the introduction of continuous performance management can help. Frequent discussions allow managers to develop relationships even with more introverted employees, and such conversations also allow managers to ask the right questions and get an accurate reflection on how the employee is faring, what they have accomplished and areas in which they would benefit from training.

4. Purposeful bias

Purposeful bias is relatively rare, but it can still crop up during performance reviews. This is when a manager intentionally sabotages an employee because they feel threatened by their talents. To protect their own position, such a manager might give a negative review to a high-performing employee.

HR can combat this bias with career progression. Employees should be given a clear idea as to how they can progress within the company, what steps they need to take and what training they need to complete. The company should make it clear that individual advancement benefits the whole organisation, and we should encourage, rather than discourage such ambition.

5. Gender bias

Whether we like to admit it or not, gender bias is still a concern in business, and this bias is clearly evident in performance reviews, where women are often shortchanged.

According to one study, women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to positive feedback or critical objective feedback) when compared to their male counterparts. The same source, which collected 248 reviews from 180 people, shows that when women receive feedback, it is rarely constructive or clear – but it often gets quite personal.

What was interesting from the study was the fact that the gender of the manager didn’t matter – both male and female managers were equally as critical to women. 58.9% of men in the sample received critical feedback when compared to 87.9% of women. Interestingly, language used in performance management reviews also changed, depending on whether a woman or man was being assessed.

The word ‘abrasive’ was used in 71 out of the 94 critical female reviews, whereas the word was never used to describe a man. Instead, men were labelled ‘authoritative’ or ‘assertive’.

Managers should be aware of the facts above, and be mindful of the language they use in performance reviews. Question whether you would use the same word to describe the opposite gender and whether your advice is constructive, clear and precise.

To find out how our performance management software can help you conduct fair, constructive employee discussions, get in touch for a free performance management consultation. Find out how your business can benefit from continuous performance management.