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 with relationship-building in mind, and provide a forum for sharing and receiving feedback. Taken as a whole, performance evaluations can also provide valuable insight into how well their team and culture is meeting their organization’s mission, values, and goals. Yet, 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 areas to reflect the expectations that make up your rubric: 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. 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, get input from other people about the staff person’s work (more on that here) to balance your own perspective and gather concrete information (such as work products, interactions you’ve had or observed, and outcomes met) throughout the year, especially when there is a pattern of performance issues. 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, use data, and 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. Several people attributed this to your consistent attention to detail and clear, proactive communication.”
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 and there are no disparities in who receives this kind of feedback!)
Tip: If you manage more than one person, look at your check-ins throughout the year—were you consistently available and equitable in your feedback and coaching? Now, 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—this is recency bias. It’s normal to be strongly influenced by recent events, but make sure to look at the entire evaluation period. We recommend using your check-in document to look back on the feedback you’ve shared throughout the year (and if you’re not already doing it, start taking notes!) and gathering examples that illustrate areas of strength or improvement. Of course, it’s reasonable to point out recent patterns in some cases, too. 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.
Ready to dive in? Check out our eight-step guide to performance evaluations!