An Impartial Review

Guard against hidden biases when conducting performance evaluations.

By Eric Krell Oct 1, 2011
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October Cover

The biggest mistake supervisors can make when addressing cultural, age and sex-related biases during performance evaluations is refusing to believe they are biased.

"People say, ‘I don’t have any biases,’ " reports Daryl Dixon, chief diversity and equity officer for Multnomah County in Oregon. "I always want to respond with, ‘Well, what planet did you come from?’ Having bias is human nature. A manager’s biggest challenge is in learning how to manage those biases appropriately."

This challenge may be steeper and more pervasive than HR professionals realize. While many organizational hiring processes address bias, HR professionals and bias-reduction experts say the issue generally receives less attention in the performance review process.

The problem of biased performance reviews is becoming more common, says Liz Hocker, director of HR services with Austin, Texas-based vcfo, a professional services company.

"The work world is getting smaller every day, and employees are expected to embrace diversity more," Hocker says. First, "make sure managers have adequate sensitivity and diversity training so they can be aware of their own unintentional biases and know how to handle them when managing and evaluating employees."

As one HR manager recounts, "An applicant walked into the room, and I had an automatic negative reaction based solely on a physical characteristic of the applicant. I clearly remember acknowledging the bias and telling myself that this reaction is extremely inappropriate, and I needed to get over it and give this applicant a fair opportunity."

The manager says he overcame his initial reaction. Yet he is hardly alone. Bias exists in all forms of manager-employee interactions. And performance reviews, by nature, rely heavily on human judgment, which is susceptible to bias.

"Because bias is an attitude, it is—except in the most extreme circumstances—difficult to judge by looking from the outside if a given manager is biased," notes Sondra Thiederman, a bias-reduction trainer and author of Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace (Kaplan Publishing, 2008). "It is, however, possible to tell if the evaluation was based on objective criteria."

It is possible for managers to avoid exhibiting bias during performance evaluations by developing awareness and bias management skills.

Performance Review Basics

To recognize and reduce bias in performance evaluations, HR professionals must carefully examine their overall performance management system, including job descriptions, objective measurement methodologies, and other relevant policies and procedures.

"It is already too late when you start with the performance review," Dixon says. "Being aware of our blinders and lifting them should occur before the review and should happen every day."

Performance reviews that suffer from a lack of clearly defined objectives, ineffective communication, too many subjective criteria, uncomfortable dynamics and other shortcomings are more susceptible to bias than better-designed reviews.

A performance evaluation has three objectives, according to Lee Gardenswartz and AnitaRowe, partners with the Los Angeles-based consulting company of Gardenswartz & Rowe and authors of Managing Diversity: A Complete Desk Reference & Planning Guide (SHRM, 2010). Performance reviews:

  • Improve performance by giving feedback about what employees do well and areas they can improve.
  • Are part of measurement systems that enable managers to distribute compensation increases and performance rewards equitably.
  • Help spur individual career development and growth through feedback and goal-planning.

The objective of the exercise and how it works should be clearly defined and communicated to all employees who receive reviews, says Brian Acker, SPHR, director of human resources for Paulding County, Ga. To minimize bias, have "a more productive evaluation process," Acker explains, noting that a job description that outlines a role’s primary duties can be translated into measureable expectations.

Recognize and Reduce Hidden Biases

The following tactics can help managers deal with the tough task of recognizing and eliminating subtle biases that can hinder performance evaluations.

Conduct training, raise awareness. Lee Gardenswartz, a partner with Gardenswartz & Rowe, says training should raise awareness that we all have biases. It should focus on a range of cultural norms and teach skills useful in conducting performance reviews. Daryl Dixon's knowledge of cultural norms extends to his left-handedness: Dixon, chief diversity and equity officer for Multnomah County in Oregon, keeps an extra pen available for employees to sign their reviews because the left hand is considered unclean in some cultures. Hence, he avoids offering some employees a pen that has been in his left hand.

Define and communicate the purpose. "Communicate, communicate, communicate," asserts Liz Hocker, director of HR services with vcfo, a professional services company. Every organization has its own way of handling performance reviews, including ways to tie performance to employee metrics, behavioral competencies, organizational goals and timelines. "All employees need to know what the process will include so they know what to expect and can be prepared," she adds.

Enlist help. Consider three methods:

  • Bias-reduction trainer Sondra Thiederman recommends convening a panel of performance reviewers who possess diverse backgrounds and perspectives. "This variety serves as a check on any one attitude—and any one bias—that might be held by one person," she explains.
  • Thiederman also recommends 360-degree feedback.
  • "A manager should review evaluations with his or her own supervisor before presenting the evaluation to an employee," says Brian Acker, SPHR, director of human resources for Paulding County, Ga. "This provides more upfront accountability and helps keep biases in check."

Establish comfort. Strive to remove employees' discomfort before and during the evaluation. Dixon recommends the following tactics to help reduce bias and an employee's perception that the process is biased against him or her:

  • Give employees copies of the evaluation one to two days before the discussion takes place so they are better prepared and have an opportunity to discuss the results with people they trust.
  • Ask managers to sit next to, not across from, employees when performing evaluations to help reduce employees' discomfort with the process.
  • Ask managers to read an article or engage in a bias-reduction exercise immediately before sharing the evaluation with the employee in person. "Doing this primes the cognitive system to be alert for bias," he says.

To Test or Not to Test

Can managers conducting evaluations recognize and address their own potential biases? Formal evaluation forms and informal exercises can help them understand what biases they may bring to a review.

Thiederman maintains that there is no reliable way to test for hidden biases. Instead, she points to "techniques that enable us to spot clues to possible biases. Once we suspect there is a bias, we can be alert to any possible influence it might have on our decision-making process."

In their book, Gardenswartz and Rowe recommend that managers performthe following exercise:

"Imagine the ideal employee in your department. Picture the individual at work in your organization’s setting. Notice everything about the way this person goes about working and interacting with others. Now, answer some questions about this ideal worker. Was the person male or female? What racial, ethnic or cultural group did the person belong to? Did the individual have any physical limitations? How old was the employee? How close are you to this ideal image?"

In most cases, the ideal image will bear a strong resemblance to the manager conducting the exercise. Gardenswartz and Rowe assert that this "illustrates how difficult it is to have a culture-free performance evaluation."

More-formal evaluations are also available, although bias-reduction experts and HR professionals tend to stress that these assessments are more suggestive than definitive. The experts also emphasize that the results of these exercises must be kept strictly confidential. "Requiring managers to share the results would be a bad idea," Rowe notes. "This would create a climate of fear and would work against the trust building and openness needed."

Thiederman recommends a free, confidential, online program: Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test.

Dixon recommends the Discovering Diversity Profile, which he says is "good at helping people see their biases." The tool is a confidential, self-scored profile developed by Inscape Publishing and distributed by Corexcel, a provider of educational and training materials.

Bridging the Gap

Acker remains unsure of the value of bias testing but says, "Basic diversity training improves awareness of biases and encourages you to work toward improving interpersonal relationships by knowing your co-workers better, appreciating what they bring to the table and understanding how they can be encouraged to make the greatest impact." The potentially nuanced nature of bias does not always manifest itself in overt discrimination or harassment, he adds.

"Some of the most influential biases are more interpersonal," Acker explains. "We tend to find a comfort zone and respond more positively to others with similar interests, experiences and backgrounds. However, this sort of bias [against those who we view as dissimilar] may be the result of not taking the time to get to know someone well enough to gain an awareness of the similarities we do share. Bridging the gap is the tough part."

In a similar vein, Thiederman suggests managers begin evaluations by asking employees questions about hobbies or other interests that have nothing to do with the job. Managers can also touch on interests and values the manager and employee have in common. "Include additional questions that will force you to see the team member as an individual, not just as a member of a group," Thiederman adds. "This strategy of focusing on the individual is a powerful tool for reducing the impact of bias."

It is also an important tool. Bias, as well as the perception of bias, in performance evaluations can degrade the effectiveness of a crucial business process—one directly related to employee engagement and productivity, compensation, talent management, and leadership development. Complaints related to performance review bias must be taken seriously and scrutinized by an independent third party.

Additionally, by recognizing and reducing bias, managers can deepen their understanding of their employees—and those employees’ potential. Acker recalls attending a diversity training session where he and his classmates performed three-minute "crash introduction" conversations. Then, participants individually answered an instructor’s questions related to what they learned about their classmates.

"I learned a lot about each person in a very short time," he recalls. "However, I could not recall what people wore, what color their eyes were, their ages and most of their other physical characteristics."

The author is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource, finance and social marketing issues.

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