One of the most difficult aspects in the performance appraisal process has to do with biases. A bias is defined as a prejudice in favor of or against someone or something. It should go without saying that employees expect their performance evaluations to be fair and free of biases.
Many different kinds of bias can show up during the performance appraisal process. Here are five common ones:
- Contrast – This occurs when the manager compares an employee’s performance to other employees instead of the company standard. When employees are ranked in comparison, someone must end up at the bottom, even if they are exceeding the company standard. The problem isn’t the employee – it’s the goal or standard that has been set.
- Halo – An employee is rated highly in all areas because of one thing they do really well. I’ve seen this happen with sales people. She hits the numbers and senior leadership loves it. But behind the scenes, she creates havoc and doesn’t have the respect of her co-workers.
- Horn – On the flip side, an employee is rated as a poor performer because of one thing they don’t do well. For example, the administrative assistant who is great at everything but filing. It piles up because he puts it off – resulting in the company hiring a temp to get the filing caught up. In all other areas, he’s a rock star.
- Leniency – A manager gives everyone on their team a satisfactory rating. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this occur a lot when a manager has a large span of control coupled with a common review date. The manager has dozens of reviews to work on and a heart full of good intentions. But somewhere around review number 17, the manager gets burned out and starts giving everyone a satisfactory response. Because it doesn’t require any written supporting statements.
- Recency – The employee’s most recent behavior becomes the primary focus of the review. This can go both ways. A poor performer does something terrific and their past performance is forgotten. Or an excellent performer makes a mistake and it weighs down the rest of the review.
If you’re looking for some resources to help managers better understand these biases, I found a good book during the SHRM Annual Conference. “The First-Time Manager’s Guide to Performance Appraisals” by Diane Arthur goes into biases and much more. This book would be very handy for organizations that don’t need a full-blown performance appraisal training session – maybe because the company has just a handful of managers who give appraisals or only a couple managers need a refresher.
I’d also suggest pairing it with the book “2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews” by Paul Falcone. I know, I know, some people are anti-phrases books but for managers who are looking for creative inspiration when it comes to writing about employee performance, it’s helpful. Even for managers with solid writing skills, it’s not easy to find the right words when an employee needs to improve their performance.
One thing I found useful in the “2600 Phrases” book were the phrases for meeting/exceeding expectations. As a HR pro, I’ve often had to work with managers to make sure when an employee’s performance was being reflected as either meeting or exceeding expectations; it was truly expressed in the proper area. You know, “meeting the standard” isn’t misinterpreted as “exceeding the standard”.
The more resources we provide to managers, the more comfortable they will get at discussing performance. This only benefits employees and the company.
Image courtesy of HR Bartender55
Hi Sharlyn, in my company “contrast” is called calibration and it is an integrated part of the performance review process. Managers compare, calibrate and rank employees against those standards. This is how we are able to reward the best performers. How else could they be identified?
Duncan from Vetter says
I wonder if the previous year’s review creates a bias too? If someone got a bad review last year, and has improved somewhat (but still is not up to the ‘company standard’), will most managers over-estimate the improvement and give them a good review?
Similarly, will an employee who got a good review last time, get another good review this year as a lot of managers would fear the reaction that negative feedback would get?
Sharlyn Lauby says
Thanks for the comments!
@Alessandra – Companies should definitely compare employee performance to the company standard. A difficulty can arise when, as often happens, they compare employees to each other. Here’s an example:
Let’s say there are 10 sales managers. Each one has a goal to sell $1M. The director of sales ranks each person relative to each other based upon their annual sales results. Someone will be ranked last on the list. Which can send the impression that they are the “worst” sales person in the company.
But in looking at their actual sales, they sold $10M. So the “worst” sales person exceeded the company standard times ten. The issue in this case isn’t performance, it’s the goal – and the ranking.
@Duncan – Yes, I can see where previous reviews create incredible pressure. I’ve seen it happen in situations where an employee gets a new manager. Will this new manager be the one to break the trend?
I have seen time and again, horn and recency result in a really poor rating for people who otherwise deserve better rating than what they end up getting.
We can standardize the processes but cannot take the human bias out of it.
What I found works really good in countering this is to have metrics based feedback and have continuous feedback periods (monthly or bi-monthly) and consider the cumulative average when evaluating the final rating/review.
Sharlyn Lauby says
Thanks for the comment Aadi. I find the best review processes are a combination of many different methods. And ultimately, we all know a review shouldn’t be a surprise because employees should be getting regular feedback.
Makrus Baldauf says
Many thanks for this interesting article and the links!
Greetings from Vienna
Headhunter in Vienna
Curtis Whitler says
Unfortunately no-one can secure oneself against a biased review either as a manager or as an employee. People are doomed to be subjective as they are physically unable to rationally assess the whole year of achievements and failures. We mostly rely on the most recent impressions because it’s in our nature! Therefore if we really want to make performance appraisals work it’s better to do them more often.