Tips for Reducing Bias in Performance Evaluation

Educate yourself and others about unconscious biases.

Raising awareness about the types and prevalence of unconscious bias is an important first step. Use the Performance Evaluation and Promotion Fact Sheet to help raise this awareness. Regular and ongoing learning conversations about bias are an improvement over one-off trainings, as the impact of any one training can wear off over time. Education equips employees with a framework for recognizing bias and a language for discussing it.

Use an “evidence-based” approach to evaluations and promotion.

Bias is more prevalent when performance criteria are ambiguous and when evaluations are based on general impressions. Establish clear performance criteria, refer to these criteria when writing evaluations, and use concrete, specific evidence to back your judgments and evaluations. Use formal practices to reduce ambiguity, check for consistency, and take pressure off individual decision makers. Examples include manager-peer review of name-redacted evaluations and the Structured Free Recall Intervention (page 11).

Evaluate performance review instruments for bias.

Bias is often written into formal criteria and procedures. When this happens, biased outcomes are bolstered by a pretense of objectivity. Interrogate “common sense” assumptions about work and merit expectations. Ask yourself who has defined the expectations, who do the expectations benefit, and whether there is another way to conceptualize or evaluate performance. For example, are employees who consistently work late in the office rewarded more than employees who work different hours, but are still highly productive? Also, examine whether definitions of success are broad enough to allow for a diverse range of effective styles.

When writing evaluations:

  • Focus on comparing the employee’s performance with the requirements of the job.
  • Avoid overuse of gendered adjectives or descriptions. When describing things that women are “stereotypically” supposed to do well, ask yourself whether these characteristics are relevant to the job.
  • Avoid grindstone adjectives (e.g., "hardworking") and/or make sure these are balanced with adjectives that reflect an employee’s ability or talent.
  • Be consistent in your use of last names and titles (e.g., "Dr.") for both men and women. Avoid using first names inconsistently (more or less often) for one gender.
  • While it is usually important to talk about the interpersonal skills of the employee, avoid unnecessary emphasis on personality and needless repetition regarding these attributes.
  • Avoid “risk management” bias. Sometimes, concern about protected groups prevents accurate or helpful reviews that further marginalizes these employees. When women and other members of underrepresented groups receive blasé́ performance reviews with no instructive comments, they face difficulty advancing and may not see the same gains as employees who receive constructive feedback and the opportunity to improve their performance. Most employees want clear and specific feedback supported by evidence. This type of feedback is far less likely to be perceived as biased or unfair, as is vague feedback based on overall impressions.
  • Be open to adjustments and seek input from others. If an employee presents significant new information, consider adjusting your rating. Perhaps you overlooked an accomplishment that merits evaluation. Gather information from other team members (e.g., 360 evaluations), and consider having employees complete self-evaluations, if your company does not already do so. Compare and contrast this information to your own evaluation of the employee.

Examine completed evaluations for the above biases.

Also, compare your evaluations of different candidates to check for other instances of unintentional bias, such as length or evidence of hasty writing.

Remember that equity in performance review goes beyond the formal performance evaluation.

Even when bias at the performance review stage is reduced, employees with similar performance reviews receive dissimilar promotions and/or compensation. To avoid this, examine all stages of the talent management system for bias. For more on this, see Supervising-in-a-Box Series: Performance Review/Talent Management.