How to Handle Performance Review Bias

Hybrid offices have their upsides, but they can also foster unfair preferences. To address that, leaders and managers must think about teams as well as people.

Making a decision about how to run your office these days is fraught enough. In person? Fully remote? Hybrid? Every choice has an impact on productivity, recruitment, retention, and other metrics related to staffing. Those choices also reveal how leaders think about how work ought to get done—which means performance reviews can be more complicated now, and more at risk for bias.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, organizational behavior expert Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio points out three ways these biases emerge, often to the detriment of female employees. Two of them relate to issues directly related to the hybrid workforce. For instance, leaders can be prone to proximity bias, or favoring employees who are more visible to managers doing the assessment; there’s a “tendency to think that people who are in your physical orbit do the most important work,” Cecchi-Dimeglio wrote. 

Similarly, organizations may also fall victim to in-group/out-group bias, “giving preferential treatment to people you feel belong to a group you identify with.” Leaders, who are more often in the office and are more often male, can often relegate women to the out-group, she writes.

The third bias is a little subtler, and points to a way leaders might rethink how they handle performance reviews, and management in general. Cecchi-Dimeglio calls this case “experience bias,” meaning “overvaluing tasks that are easy to define.” Leaders will praise workers who deliver work products on time, for instance, or speak in public about the organization’s work—and rightly so. But she notes that some accomplishments—such as creating more cohesive teams or addressing more long-term systemic challenges—can be harder to quantify. And as such, they’re harder to call out for praise and promotion.

Leaders, who are more often in the office and are more often male, can often relegate women to the out-group.

Addressing this particular bias can be tricky. Cecchi-Dimeglio discusses a few ideas she’s road-tested. Workers can be encouraged to be more precise about the work they’re doing and its difficulty, and state it on a whiteboard; in that way, workers more subject to bias “could record important work even if it wasn’t easily described in terms of traditional goals and metrics.”

But though she doesn’t state it explicitly, there’s another benefit to this idea, which is that it makes the work being done public, and emphasizes just how much it’s rooted in teamwork. Indeed, leaders who want to avoid some of the biases the HBR article mentions might consider having a more holistic, team-based assessment approach.

That’s something three leaders at the Center for Effective Philanthropy discuss in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article. CEP has stepped away from individualized compensation incentives, recognizing the biases that can come along with them. Instead, pay raises are “entirely dependent on overall organizational performance.” And they report that there’s been “no drop-off in performance or motivation” among staff since implementing that policy. 

Every organization will need to decide for itself how much to balance team and individual performance when conducting performance reviews. Many, I’m sure, already do. But it’s worth remembering that the past few years have radically changed what teamwork looks like, and what some workers’ individual accomplishments are as well. In the interest of fairness, it’s worth assessing employees on how they handle both.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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