How to conduct performance review calibrations

TL;DR: Performance review calibrations are key to a great organizational feedback culture. They ensure management evaluates each employee fairly and accurately, and lead to higher employee engagement levels. You can run performance calibrations at your company alongside your normal review sessions in six steps.

Performance reviews are essential tools for giving feedback and encouraging continuous improvement.
But it can be hard to get them right — only 14% of employees* believe performance reviews actually help their professional development. So, what’s the key to making reviews work?

One crucial element is fairness. Unconscious bias from managers can undermine performance reviews. Plus, employees who perceive bias are more likely to disengage from the process and not participate actively or fully.

Many companies turn to performance review calibrations to ensure their employee evaluations are objective and consistent. And while they take time and effort to coordinate, this process is key to eliminating bias in the review process.

*Gallup, 2019

What is a performance review calibration?

A performance review calibration is a process that standardizes how managers evaluate their reports. Its aim is to ensure that management administers and grades all reviews fairly by:

  • Making the assessment process as consistent as possible
  • Agreeing on the metrics managers should use to measure performance
  • Reducing subjectivity
  • Eliminating unconscious bias

In other words, an excellent performance review calibration would mean that if a group of managers evaluated a single employee, there wouldn’t be any meaningful differences between their assessments.

Performance calibrations are necessary because no matter how data-driven your performance review process may be, it’ll still have an element of subjectivity.

For example, some team leads might grade more leniently than others. One manager may think employees deserve a 5/5 (“excellent”) unless they have a specific problem with their performance. But another may think staff members deserve a 3/5 (“meets expectations”) unless their performance is truly exceptional. 

In the performance review calibration process, managers can compare their assessments, find inconsistencies like the above, and come to agreements on what guidelines everyone should use for their evaluations.

The importance of performance calibrations

Performance calibrations are essential to the success of your review cycle. They have many benefits that all feed into one another:

  • Increased accuracy. Calibrations make your reviews more objective and, therefore, more accurate. And when your reports get honest, specific feedback about their performance, they’ll be able to better understand their areas for improvement and take action more effectively.

  • A better idea of your organization’s performance. Variations make it more difficult to develop a clear “big picture” of performance across your organization. You might feel uncertain whether departments are performing well due to excellent results or lenient assessments. Calibrations ensure you know exactly how all your company’s teams are doing and how their performance fits into your organization’s overall progress.

  • More faith in the performance review process. Employees who feel their performance reviews are fair and consistent will become more invested in them. This also lowers the risk of team members feeling less engaged after they get evaluated. Instead, employees will feel motivated to act on their manager’s feedback.
  • Acknowledgment and awards for high performance. Lenient managers can deter top performers by praising their colleagues for standard performance. Likewise, biased managers may cause resentment among employees by never acknowledging their best work. Calibrations can address issues like these, uncover which managers need guidance or correcting, and ensure credit is always given where it’s due.
  • No unconscious bias. Issues like favoritism can quickly cause a toxic work environment. Some employees may quit due to colleagues being given preferential treatment. But calibrations can help you maintain a healthy work culture at your organization by eliminating bias and leveling the playing field.
💭 Remove unconscious bias and create fair, consistent reviews

Our customizable templates and frameworks let you build trust among your people.

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A photo of management and HR holding a calibration session in a well-lit office with soft furniture.

Calibration sessions provide value-driven organizations with an excellent touchpoint for ensuring performance reviews still reflect their principles

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Wann Sie dieses Playbook verwenden sollten

When to use
this playbook

You can use this playbook to progress toward your DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) goals by reducing unconscious bias. You can also use it while redesigning performance reviews — why not start integrating performance review calibrations into your process?

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Was Sie für dieses Playbook benötigen

What you’ll need for
this playbook

The right analytics tools

To calibrate performance reviews, you’ll need an easy way to compare reviews across different managers and teams. People enablement tools make this task a lot easier.

For example, Leapsome allows you to see the big picture with visualizations like the heatmap and 9-box. You can also use it to easily calibrate performance review scores, keep track of who calibrated which score, and ensure employees see only the final scores.

Hinweise & Tipps
  • Calibrating performance reviews can be time-consuming. You may need to hold multiple calibration sessions with managers, HR staff, and/or external partners. Since performance review calibration is crucial for review accuracy, set aside enough time for meaningful discussions. 
  • Performance review calibration can help build trust among employees. Be sure to communicate to employees the steps you’re taking to ensure the review process is fair.
  • It may be frustrating for a manager to have their rating challenged. During the calibration committee meeting, the HR staff member’s job is to serve as a moderator and ensure everyone’s opinion is fairly heard.
  • Don’t worry if you see a lot of variation in ratings the first time you run the calibration process — this should improve over time. The calibration process will help develop shared expectations across each department.
  • During the calibration meeting, keep an eye out for outliers in the data. These may be an indicator of manager bias. 

How to run this People Ops Playbook:

Wie Sie dieses People Ops Playbook durchführen:

1. Decide on your approach to performance review calibration

When you begin designing your performance review calibration process, you’ll need to consider what you’re aiming to achieve and the best strategy to get there.

Does performance review calibration make you think of rating employees on a bell curve? Some companies choose to use this approach, also known as “forced ranking.” But forced ranking is controversial, and you’ll want to think carefully about whether it’s right for your organization.

Advocates of the bell curve claim it incentivizes employee performance and disincentivizes “too soft” grading by managers. This method forces managers to consider how employees stack up against one another, rather than succumbing to the temptation to rate everyone highly and avoid conflict.

But rating on a bell curve can create a culture of cut-throat competition. You risk frustrating employees, discouraging teamwork, and invoking accusations of unfairness — the exact thing you’re trying to avoid.

For some teams, performance may not accurately fit the bell curve model. Perhaps all employees truly are five-star or one-star performers, and forced ranking would misrepresent their competencies.

Besides deciding whether or not to use forced ranking, you’ll need to consider if your current performance appraisal form is effective. Ask yourself:

  • What does each number on the ranking mean?
    Is the phrasing we’re using to describe each number accurate (e.g., 1 = “needs improvement”)?
  • How will this data hold up during the performance review calibration process?

Once you’ve given these issues some thought, set up a meeting with relevant stakeholders and outline the goals you’d like to achieve with your performance review calibration process. Then, use these goals to create a set of standards you expect all managers to meet with their grading.

2. Plan out how your calibration sessions are going to work

After deciding on your preferred approach to performance review calibration, you’ll need to plan how your sessions will work from a practical standpoint.

Depending on the size and structure of your organization, this process may involve HR staff, external partners, senior executives, mid-level managers, or a combination of these. All parties will need to meet as a group to calibrate employee scores.

There are a few different ways to run performance review calibration meetings. You could schedule individual 1:1 meetings between HR staff and managers. You could also create a calibration committee made up of multiple managers in a single business unit and led by an HR staff member.

Whatever you choose, it should be based on a realistic assessment of your timeline and resources. Once you’ve determined what works best for your company, put this plan into writing.

“We do calibration via live discussion and minimize an asynchronous process. That, for us, is more beneficial, but it means there is a high degree of coordination (scheduling), and discussions can run long if not well-facilitated and focused.

We could discuss everyone at length (and we love to say lots of positive things about people), but we also have to be efficient. So, over time, we’ve learned to focus more on individuals where there has been a change from the last cycle.”

— Krystall Fierens-Lee, Chief People Officer at Proxyclick

3. Have managers run performance reviews

Do you already have a pool of performance reviews ready to calibrate? If not, now is the time to check our playbook on running performance reviews and kick off review cycles.

Make sure managers know what’s expected of them in terms of grading, particularly if you plan to use a forced ranking system.

If you’ve already run a performance review cycle, or if employees at your company are reviewed asynchronously, you can skip this step and go straight to the next.

🤩 Build a reliable feedback process

Leapsome’s calibration tools let you pinpoint and fix outlying scores in your performance reviews.

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4. Meet for calibration sessions

It’s now time to meet for calibration sessions. Go ahead and schedule your 1:1 or calibration committee meetings based on the plan you created in step two.

“Essentially, I will sit with each functional management team to hear their first- or second-level calibration. Then I roll up all those discussions and share a summary with our executive team, including the CEO. And we discuss where there might be surprises, and we challenge the results that we have questions or doubts about.

My role is coordination, consistency, and of course, to participate in that calibration toward fairness and meritocracy.”

— Krystall Fierens-Lee

5. Adjust performance ratings

Performance review calibration meetings are your opportunity to go over everyone’s ratings and adjust them together as a group.

During this process, you can use your people enablement software to get a big-picture overview of how managers are rating their employees.

Work together to reach a consensus on how employees should be rated, then tweak your ratings to ensure all team members are being held to the same standards.

6. Communicate and share feedback with employees

The last step is to share the final, calibrated scores with employees. To avoid confusion, don’t share scores until performance review calibration is entirely finished.

Managers should be prepared to explain their ratings and comments, and offer action items and next steps for each employee. At the end of the process, employees should clearly understand why they have received their ratings, what they are doing well, and how to improve.

A photo of two professionals engaged in a performance review meeting.

Performance calibrations help team managers explain scores to their reports

Follow-up best practices for performance review calibrations

Continue to track employee performance over time

To ensure reviews remain fair and unbiased, continue to conduct performance review calibration meetings after each review cycle. This process should become easier over time, as managers become more familiar with review standards.

Calibrated performance review scores should give a good indicator of an employee’s progress at your company. Review scores can be used to make future decisions on compensation and promotion.

However, you may want to separate compensation discussions from performance review talks so that employees can focus fully on their professional development during the review process.

Keep managers up to speed on expectations

Remember those performance review guidelines you developed in step one? You may have already shared those with your managers; if not, be sure to do so now.

Managers should be able to easily access and refer to these guidelines. Your managers may also benefit from continuous learning and DEI training to fight unconscious bias.

🚀 Performance reviews are crucial for employee success!

Check out our playbooks on how to write a performance review and how to run a leadership performance review. 😉

Make your reviews fair, accurate & consistent with Leapsome

Factors like different managing styles and staff friendships can undermine performance reviews and render them ineffective.

But Leapsome’s people enablement platform helps you make the most of your performance reviews. Our review analytics let you see score distribution by managers, teams, and cycles, so you can easily identify outliers and spot bias among your management.

And if you find appraisal inconsistencies and need to adjust employee scores with your current cycle, you can do it with the click of a button — just select those you want to fix. That way, you maintain a fair employee assessment system that builds trust among your people.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are performance calibration sessions?

Performance calibration sessions are meetings where managers and HR personnel discuss how to score their teams. Their aim is to find a fair and consistent way to evaluate all employees that reduces subjectivity. These sessions can also help organizations spot managers who score their reports too harshly or too leniently. That can also inform who might need training to reduce their unconscious bias.

How do you facilitate performance calibration?

You can facilitate performance calibration by taking these steps:

  1. Define your aims and the best strategy to achieve them. For example, do you want a scoring system that rates employees against each other and encourages healthy competition? 
  2. Decide which managers and HR personnel will attend your performance calibration sessions.
  3. Have managers and team leads run performance reviews.
  4. Once the reviews are complete, meet for your calibration session and adjust scores or your evaluation system as necessary.
  5. Share the outcomes with your team.

How often should I calibrate performance reviews?

We recommend you hold performance review calibration meetings after every review cycle. Depending on how your business is structured, these review cycles may be annual, biannual, or more frequent. Employees may be reviewed all at once or at different times. The most important thing is to keep your performance review calibration process consistent.

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