How to avoid unconscious bias in performance reviews

TL;DR: Performance reviews are an essential people enablement process that gives employees a chance to understand where they shine and where they need help. Unconscious bias in performance reviews can harm employees and make it harder for them to advance in their careers and feel fulfilled at work. What’s more, unconscious bias is extremely harmful to your company culture and your business. This playbook will show you how to understand and avoid unconscious bias at work.

What is unconscious bias? How does unconscious bias affect the workplace?

To understand unconscious bias, we first have to understand bias. Bias, put simply, is a prejudice that we hold against a person, group, or thing. People can be overtly, explicitly, or consciously biased. Hopefully, you don’t fall into that category, but many of us have unconscious biases that impact how we think and feel about people — even if we don’t see or understand those biases.

“In my experience, one of the aspects regarding unconscious bias that companies should be mindful of is that many employees think they would be the last person to have bias toward someone else. But simply being progressive or aware of diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns, does not negate our natural mindset of judging others.

It doesn’t make anyone better or worse, but means that we simply need to keep reminding employees of those unconscious biases and how to overcome them.”

– Catharine Montgomery, social causes communications leader

Unconscious bias can have a significant impact in the workplace and it can be a hard topic to approach. Being seen as biased isn’t easy to digest for many employees who might feel like they are doing their best, especially if they’re part of dominant groups (e.g., from a racial, gender identity, or sexual orientation perspective). 

People Ops leaders need to take this conversation seriously so that you can have productive discussions with staff members. According to Catharine Montgomery,

“[i]t takes continuous feedback to educate your people to avoid unconscious bias. It can’t be something done only during performance review time, but needs to be reiterated daily in various ways so that the message is received by employees in the manner that most resonates with them.

These channels of communication can be through 1:1 meetings, staff trainings, company newsletters, presentations, mailings, guest speakers, articles, and several other ways that might seem mundane, but are highly effective.”

Types of unconscious bias

There are several different types of unconscious bias that might impact performance reviews. Let’s dive deeper into a few forms of unconscious bias employees might face while being evaluated in their performance appraisal.

Affinity/similarity bias

People resonate with people that look like them. This bias can be damaging in a performance review because you might be less likely to empathize with colleagues who look or think differently than you do.

Expedience bias

Some aspects of a person’s career are easier to measure than others. For example, you might judge a marketer by the number of campaigns launched instead of the quality of the campaigns they worked on and the results these campaigns delivered. Therefore, it’s important to dig deep to uncover the true value your staff members bring to the table, even if this value isn’t as obvious as it is for people working in specific positions and departments.

For example, it’s very easy to see the value of a sales rep’s work through the number of deals they close, but what you may not see is the work of people generating awareness for the company and making sales conversations possible in the first place.

Recency bias

When judging an entire year’s worth of work, being bias-free can be a challenge. For example, an employee might have had a particularly excellent month, which might prompt you to give them a favorable review. But another employee may have had a difficult month for personal reasons, but crushed it the rest of the year. That’s why your performance assessment must encompass a larger time frame.

Contrast effect

As your organization grows and you handle more performance reviews, the contrast effect becomes more present. The contrast effect posits that if you sit in on a fantastic performance review and an average review in rapid succession, that standard review might seem worse than it actually is, in comparison. This form of unconscious bias can hurt team members who may have a hard time discussing their work or opening up to their colleagues.

Halo/horns effect

Last, let’s discuss the halo/horns effect. Humans are complex. All humans have traits seen as negative and positive. And depending on which attributes you notice first, you might be making an unfair judgment on the whole person, even if that assumption isn’t valid. So you might see that a person is coming to work looking disheveled and assume that that person doesn’t care about their job, even if they were just having a bad day — like we all do sometimes.

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Wann Sie dieses Playbook verwenden sollten

When to use
this playbook

People Ops professionals should use this playbook as you strive to make your organization more diverse. As your company attracts people from different cultures and backgrounds, you need to have a performance review process that can handle all the personalities and diversity you have in your organization.

You’ll likely uncover the need for this playbook after you’ve run some 360° performance reviews. During that process, you might notice a discrepancy in how employees are judged by their managers, peers, etc. If you see a considerable lapse in how people are being judged, it’s probably time to use this playbook.

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Was Sie für dieses Playbook benötigen

What you’ll need for
this playbook

Expert support

Sometimes you need outside help to navigate the waters and help your staff members hear the feedback. DEI educators can create a program that helps managers understand that having unconscious bias doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but that it exists and organizations and leaders need to educate themselves to uproot it.

A culture that values learning and continuous improvement

A professional educator can only help if you’re open to it. Your culture needs to thrive on continuous improvement to take feedback on this issue and act upon it. Encourage employees to reflect on the ways they can individually improve and how this can impact the larger organization.

Hinweise & Tipps
  • Leaders with unconscious bias can have a negative impact, but so can all employees. Don’t forget to include individuals when doing unconscious bias training. After all, you shouldn’t have a top-down approach to reviews; with a 360° review model, you’ll also have peers assess one another and reports assess their managers.
  • Bring more DEI knowledge into your organization by adding learning resources to your employee handbook and onboarding documentation. This will help foster a fair organization and will contribute to bias awareness.

    You can ask the DEI expert hired by your company to record the unconscious bias awareness sessions and, with a learning platform, easily create a learning path that all new hires will be prompted to follow.
  • Look to other companies for help with reducing unconscious bias. Joining Leapsome’s People Over Perks Slack Community is the best way to connect with People Ops leaders just like you. You don’t have to work on this issue alone or start from scratch.
  • Reducing unconscious bias should be a continuous process. As your organization grows, employees will be further removed from your initial playbook work. Continue to revisit this playbook and work on the strategies and exercises we’ve shared with new hires.
  • Don’t confuse identifying the problem and documenting the solution with taking action. Your proposed solutions only work if your organization actively works on the problem. Work with your team members to make sure that solutions are well-utilized.

How to run this People Ops Playbook:

Wie Sie dieses People Ops Playbook durchführen:

1. Examine your current performance review practices

Your current performance reviews process is the ideal place to start. One of the most effective ways to examine your current performance review process is to host an anonymous survey to know what your staff are thinking. You can use Leapsome’s survey comments feature to have further conversations with staff members if you need more context.

Here are some questions you can ask during this survey:

  • If you could describe the performance review process at [company] in one word, what would it be?
  • I felt like my performance review at [company] highlighted an adequate reflection of my work.
  • I wish that my manager discussed ____ during my company performance review.
  • I feel like the company judged my performance based on the merits of my work.
  • If you managed performance reviews at [company], what would you change?

2. Educate company leaders about unconscious bias and how it impacts performance reviews

As a People Ops leader, you have a fantastic opportunity to educate other professionals about the role unconscious bias can play at work.

We highly suggest finding an experienced DEI educator to cover this topic. They can talk with your staff, answer questions, and work with you to help your organization understand the purpose of removing unconscious bias. It’s important to go beyond just sharing an article with your people and work with someone who can speak to your exact needs and challenges.

While working with your team, it’s important to highlight how vital performance reviews are to your organization. Although not every company ties compensations to performance reviews, many organizations promote, give raises, or let go of employees based on them. Therefore, performance appraisals must be as fact-oriented as possible so that everyone gets a fair shake.

3. Set up expectations and goals around reducing unconscious bias

After you’ve gone over the results of your surveys and your colleagues are educated about unconscious bias, it’s time to set new goals and expectations around performance reviews.

Start by sharing how employees felt during the process. If you can, send out results by department to the respective leaders of those departments. You should also send the total results — especially if your company values transparency.

You’ll want to work with company leaders to solve any pressing or glaring issues first. After that, you can move on to set tangible goals, expectations, and actions around how to reduce bias during performance reviews.

For example, you might suggest the following actions:

  • Holding a yearly company-wide performance review training that educates employees on performance reviews, bias in those reviews, and how to give a proper review.
  • Having more than one manager sit in on formal annual reviews to share a different perspective.
  • Creating a more standardized performance review rubric so that employees are getting judged by similar criteria.
  • Building a performance review committee that meets to address any concerns employees get once they get their reviews back.

Make sure that you discuss who will own any goals or action items you suggest during this process.

4. Create a tangible reference document that company leaders can use

Once you understand the goals, actions, and commitments you want to make to employees, write it all down in a first draft of the document. Open that document up to comments and thoughts from other company leaders. After some debate and conversation, you can create the final document for your employees.

5. Involve your employees

After you’ve settled on your documented procedures, you need to let employees know so they can hold you accountable. You can include this document as a part of your employee handbook or company’s internal wiki.

During your company’s all-hands meeting, take some time  to go over these changes and how they will impact employees. If you had any relevant discussions during the surveying phase, now is a great time to close the loop and make sure those team members know what you’re doing going forward.

Follow-up best practices for reducing unconscious bias in performance reviews

Send out an additional performance review survey to staff members

After a few months of running your current performance review processes, you can start sending out follow-up surveys to team members. You can easily do this with an employee survey tool like Leapsome. Ask them how they liked the changes made to the process, if the result of their review was more accurate, and if these changes helped with the mission of reducing unconscious bias.

After several employees have taken the follow-up survey, it’s time to examine the results and see if there are any glaring changes or red flags with your current process. Gathering feedback from employees is crucial right now. It’s also a good idea to use a tool with advanced analytics capabilities (like sentiment analysis and post-survey action recommendations) to help you make the most of quantitative and qualitative data.

Recalculate until your performance reviews are appropriately remedied

Sometimes you have to take a few stabs at a process update to get it right. If you don’t see any significant improvement in performance reviews, it’s okay to revisit your original fix to try and get to the root of the issue.

If you’re having trouble understanding the issue, go back to the initial survey you conducted. Are you addressing those concerns? Maybe your company’s growth has sped up dramatically since then, so the information is out of date. There’s usually an answer if you dig deep enough.

If needed, restructure how performance reviews work

If your recalibration just isn’t working, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. You could restructure how your performance reviews work or the weight you give them.

For example, you might decide to:

  • Increase the number of performance reviews per year; and
  • Take some of the weight off performance reviews at your organization and decouple it from compensation, promoting a more learning-focused approach.

A massive performance review restructuring takes time and planning. Again, this should never be your first idea if performance reviews just need a minor tweak.

⭐️ Would you like to learn more about how to implement performance reviews or improve the review process in your company? We’ve got you covered!

Access our step-by-step guides on running a 360° performance review, conducting a leadership performance appraisal, and writing an employee review (as a respondent). And make sure to download our free pack with best-practice questions for performance reviews, including specific questions to ask leaders at your company. 😉

Leverage survey analytics to improve your performance reviews

Leapsome is the only platform that closes the loop between performance management, employee engagement, and learning. 

After conducting surveys to assess your performance review process, Leapsome will give you powerful insights to inform improvements. Watch this video to learn more about analyzing employee survey results with the Leapsome platform.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can unconscious bias affect inclusivity in an organization?

Unconscious bias can have a profound impact on inclusivity within your organization. Many implicit biases impact underrepresented group members like women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Organizations need to learn how to prevent unconscious bias at work so that employees of all backgrounds feel comfortable, confident, and have fair opportunities to develop their skills and careers.

What is unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias training helps employees understand the different biases that impact work/life, how to spot them, and what to do to mitigate this problem. The best training disarms employees and helps them understand the danger of bias without placing too much blame.

How do I outsmart my own unconscious bias?

Outsmarting your own unconscious bias can feel tough at first. It’s unconscious, after all! Try these activities when dealing with unconscious bias at work:

  • Take unconscious bias training seriously. Learn from DEI educators who should have helped you define types of unconscious bias and how to spot them;
  • Pause. If you’re making an assumption or judgment about someone, try to take a second to pause and collect more information; and
  • Lean on the support of others. There are other company leaders for a reason. Reach out to a colleague at work that you trust. Get a second opinion on your initial judgment.

Is unconscious bias discrimination?

Unconscious bias isn’t discrimination, but it can result in discriminatory behavior (such as giving unfair performance reviews). You might have seen conversations around intent versus impact. You might not intend to hurt someone, but the effect of the situation on that person matters.

Leaders should uncover their own biases and work to outsmart them so that their impact can align with their intentions.

How to avoid unconscious bias in recruiting?

Unconscious bias can show up as early as the recruiting process. As a People Ops leader, here are a few things you can do to keep this bias to a minimum:

  • Remove certain characteristics like name, age, gender, race, etc., from job applications and resumes;
  • Use a hiring committee so that more than one person gets to know each candidate;
  • Create a hiring rubric to make the hiring process more standardized;
  • Take a look at your recruitment materials to ensure that you attract a diverse group of people based on the imagery you provide;
  • Look at job descriptions to ensure that requirements are kept to a minimum. Putting too much emphasis on hiring people with Ivy League educational backgrounds, for example, is a way to only hire and better compensate people from privileged backgrounds and dominant groups, whether you realize it or not.

    Someone else who attended a community college or didn’t pursue formal education may be as driven — or even more! — to make an impact and be a great employee. Give people chances and learning opportunities.

What does DEI mean?

DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It can be easy to mix these terms up or try to use them interchangeably. Each part of DEI is important to create an environment where underrepresented groups can thrive at your company. People ops/HR professionals use the term to describe all the activities that help organizations create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture at work.

  • Diversity: Diversity addresses all the ways that we can differ from one another. Companies trying to understand diversity at work may try to increase the diversity at the table. Diversity is a great starting point, but you need equity and inclusion to make it stick.
  • Equity: Equity acknowledges that we all come from different backgrounds. Some groups might need more resources to level the playing field and ensure that they can participate fully in work. Equity helps break down barriers so that people from all backgrounds can succeed at work.
  • Inclusion: The concept of inclusion shows that getting more underrepresented employees doesn’t solve the problem over night. Some of your employees may struggle to feel included or they may feel tokenized. Inclusion encourages companies to take a look at how people from underrepresented groups are treated or supported in the workplace.

There are other variations of this term like JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) or just D&I (Diversity and Inclusion). All of these acronyms hope to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace, even if they have different ways of saying it.

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