Four Ways to Mitigate Bias in Performance Evaluations

When done well, performance evaluations serve several valuable functions. For staff, they provide a clear pathway for development and advancement. For managers, they help build alignment with their staff and provide a forum for sharing and receiving feedback. For leaders, performance evaluations, taken as a whole, can provide valuable insight into how well their team and culture is serving to meet their organization’s mission and goals. If used without rigor and care, performance evaluations can create confusion, lead to inequitable outcomes, and lower staff morale.

Here are four tips for mitigating bias in performance evaluations:

1. Use a rubric.

Rubrics lay out the criteria that you’re evaluating so you and your staff can stay focused and aligned on what really matters. Our performance evaluation form template includes three: one for tracking goals and results achieved, one for core values, and one for core competencies. Using a rubric helps managers and staff separate preferences and traditions from the requirements, which can guard against “like me” and “I like you” bias. If you’re creating a rubric or doing performance evaluations for the first time, use the staff person’s job description or role expectations as a starting point.

2. Collect evidence and input to inform your assessment (not the other way around!).

It can be easy to draw a conclusion about your staff member’s performance and then (unintentionally) look for evidence to support it—that’s confirmation bias. Or, you might form an impression (positive or negative) about someone because of one thing they did and apply that impression to the rest of their work—that’s the halo/horn effect. To avoid these biases, gather information (such as work products, interactions you’ve had or observed, and outcomes met) throughout the year and seek out other perspectives, especially if your assessment raises performance issues. Get input from other people about the staff person’s work (more on that here) to balance your own perspective. You can also discuss your evaluation with your manager or a peer to test whether you’ve made a fair assessment based on the data collected.

Be specific and use the data to share examples of the staff member’s strengths or areas of improvement. For example: “One of your strengths is your attention to detail. A lot of people I’ve talked to commented on how seamless the logistics were at our last all-staff retreat.”

3. Share specific feedback that will help improve results.

Identity-based stereotypes affect our expectations. For example, research shows that men tend to receive more detailed, insightful feedback related to technical skills, while women receive less specific feedback that’s focused on how they relate to others (such as communication styles and teamwork). The result? Men get a better idea of how to improve their outcomes (as opposed to their likeability), resulting in higher chances for advancement. When our expectations for the “how” shift based on someone’s identities (e.g., gender, race, etc.), that’s bias creeping in. Make sure your feedback helps the staff member improve their results. (Note: This isn’t to say that feedback about communication skills isn’t helpful or necessary—just make sure that it’s tied to outcomes!)

Tip: If you manage more than one person, look at their evaluations side-by-side—how does the length, specificity, and quality of feedback compare?

4. Look at the full picture.

Performance evaluations aren’t like competitive baking shows—don’t assess your staff based solely on their last three concoctions. It’s normal to be strongly influenced by recent events (that’s called recency bias), but make sure to look at the entire evaluation period. Of course, it’s reasonable to note and point out patterns, trends, or outliers. For example, if you had a staff member who struggled most of the year but recently made significant improvements, that’d be important to share. One practice that can help you look at the full picture is to use your check-in document to look back on the feedback you’ve shared throughout the evaluation period (and if you’re not already doing it, start taking notes on your check-in agenda!).

Ready to dive in? Check out our eight-step guide to performance evaluations!