Are Performance Reviews Biased?

If you’re not a fan of performance reviews and you’re a woman, there is evidence you have every right to be frustrated. It turns out women receive vague feedback, that’s not tied to measurable goals, more often than men. According to Stanford University professor Shelley Correll, 60% of men and just 40% of women had their feedback tied to business outcomes. This begs the question, are performance reviews biased?

A recent Korn Ferry article mentions, “Men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.” The article also notes that, “About 30% of firms don’t have clear and specific criteria set before performance reviews begin. And, in light of the #MeToo era, some men fear giving candid feedback to a woman.” 

This article harkens back to Harvard Business Review (HBR) research, Vague Feedback is Holding Women Back. According to their research, “women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. In other words, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.”

According to the HBR research the bias is unconscious. While that may be good news in the sense that it is not intentional, the flip side is that unconscious bias is far harder to address. And the bias may run deeper than anyone expected. According to a Yale Study, “found that—when given the choice between two similar candidates, one from each sex—college faculty preferred hiring male candidates who they perceived to be more competent and worthy of commanding higher salaries. It didn’t matter whether faculty members were male or female; all were biased against women applicants.”

So what can you do to try and eliminate the bias? Another HBR article may have the answer. The first suggestion is for the leadership team to have informal yet structured performance review calibration discussions that encourage an open dialog. This can help uncover someone’s unconscious bias and encourages specifics to support a position so everyone gets the same level of feedback.

Another suggestion is the use of a checklist with predetermined criteria to be met. Again, this type of performance review aid ensures everyone gets the same level of feedback. This type of approach also helps the reviewer to be more confident during the review as they felt they had been more thoughtful for every person they were reviewing. 

The article mentions three simple steps you can take that have a big impact in eliminating the bias. The first is to create a rubric for evaluations. You need to define what criteria you’ll be using to assess the employee’s performance. With this in place, you’re better able to determine if they met their goals. This also helps you as the reviewer avoid a gut feeling. Remember, not everyone is like you and that diversity is a great thing.

The second step is to create better prompts. It’s easier to write a review for some people, than it is for others…unconscious bias in action. Good prompts keep your responses consistent for each person. The final step is running a consistency check. Review each of the reviews a day or two after writing them and look for any patterns than you unconsciously applied. 

Even with the awareness that you have unconscious biases, they are going to be there, and it requires diligence and honesty to uncover them. The benefit of providing better performance reviews is stronger, more highly engaged employees, and that’s great for any business.

To learn more about creating better (less biased) performance reviews, send us a note.