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Combatting Anchor Bias in Performance Reviews

March 17, 2021
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Biases emerge naturally over time as a method for people to sort, process, and interpret information. On one hand, this cognitive tool serves as a mental shortcut for handling overwhelming amounts of data. On the other hand, it also creates room for false assumptions and prejudices. 

Still, bias is a part of being human that extends back for centuries. So how does it show up in the workplace, and what can we do to de-code our biased behaviors?

Bias at Work

No company can foster inclusion and innovation without addressing bias, which is why it’s essential to understand how bias appears and affects your people.

Anchor bias is the tendency to use a first impression as a reference point (or “anchor”) for future decision-making.


Unchallenged biases in the workplace make it easy for prejudice to take root in company processes and values. Even if they’re subconscious, unfair practices erode trust and psychological safety within teams. This is especially evident when it comes to performance reviews.

Review cycles can be a powerful tool for addressing inequalities within your organization. But if it evaluations are biased, they won’t be effective at helping you make decisions. Biases are often arbitrary and can prevent people from being receptive to nuanced situations. To be successful, performance reviews need to be conducted fairly with common sense and clear judgment. 

What Is Anchor Bias?

Anchor bias is the tendency to use a first impression as a reference point (or “anchor”) for future decision-making. An example of this is when movie viewers decide to watch or avoid certain films based on critics’ opinions. If a movie gets bad publicity, viewers will likely skip or receive it negatively based on the information they read beforehand.

In the context of performance reviews, anchor bias can occur when managers use employees’ self-reviews as a basis for evaluating their work. Allowing self-assessments to influence judgment has major implications for equity in review cycles because not everyone has the same comfort level when it comes to highlighting their own achievements.  

In a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, women on average rated their own performance 25% lower than men did, even when told they performed equally well. This data reveals what is known as a “self-promotion gap.” If a female employee is too confident, she risks being seen as unlikeable, which can have a damaging impact on her career prospects. Negative gender stereotypes and the fear of a potential professional backlash are all reasons why women may not feel comfortable promoting themselves in the workplace.

Employees of color are also more prone to under-valuing their performance. Studies show that candidates who mask their race on job applications get more interviews, sending a message to applicants that the professional world values exclusivity and conformity over diversity. As a result, people of color experience imposter syndrome disproportionately in the workplace and may not feel confident reviewing themselves favorably. It’s also important to note that humility is a central value in many cultures and that self-promotion may not feel comfortable for employees of all backgrounds.

Giving employees ownership over their performance is important –– but another critical aspect of good management is discretion. Most employees put thought into their self-evaluations because they trust and expect managers to do the same with their performance reviews. When a manager reads an employee’s self-evaluation before writing a performance review, the feedback they provide will likely be influenced (whether consciously or subconsciously) by the employee’s reflections.

How to Address Anchor Bias

Anchor bias in performance reviews is difficult to overcome unless employees at all levels are aware of it. Educating teams on anchor bias won’t make your company more equitable overnight, but taking steps to address anchor bias in review cycles is important for building an inclusive and respectful company culture. 

Here are a few ways to combat anchor bias in performance reviews:

1. Interrupt bias at the source.

When researching methods for correcting workplace bias, you may come across the term “bias interrupter.” Bias interruption is a widely used strategy for modifying business practices that propagate discrimination. 

In the context of performance reviews, interrupting bias is about building equitable processes. The simplest solution is to restrict manager access to employee self-evaluations during the review process. Self-evaluations aren’t meant to be used as a basis for managers’ assessments of employee work, so it makes sense that they’re only made available after managers complete their portion of the performance review.

Keeping different review types separate is generally a good practice for interrupting bias. If a manager relies on peer reviews for inspiration, they’re likely to be swayed by team opinions or personal relationships. This might not be fair, since not all types of employees are reviewed equally. A manager that has consistent check-ins with their employees will have the insight they need to effectively review performance without relying on other sources.

2. Provide guidance on self-evaluations.

There’s no denying that self-reviews are one of the most effective ways to help employees reflect on their work and communicate growth goals. But given the inequities that come into play for different groups of employees, consider leveling the “self-promotion gap” in your company by sharing resources on how to write self-reviews

You can provide self-evaluation templates or encourage employees to structure their self-review around a few key questions, such as:

  • What are you most proud of?
  • Where do you see the most room for improvement?
  • What are specific actions you can take to improve in each area?
  • What are some areas you would like to gain more experience in?

3. Build checks and balances.

Lastly, implement checks and balances into your performance review process that counteract bias and set a standard for fairness. Requiring all reviews to be based on skill rather than style is a great start to making sure all employees are judged equally. 

Train managers to re-examine their assessments after writing them. Are they using reactive words that reflect personal opinions rather than objective truths? Are they making assumptions based on gender or language? Women, for example, are commonly expected to exhibit friendly and outgoing behavior that is typically perceived as feminine. If a manager’s feedback points out that a female employee is “reserved,” it’s fair to question whether the same feedback would be applied to a male counterpart.

Biases play a role in most of the decisions we make, but when left unchecked they introduce opportunities for discrimination, intolerance, and favoritism. Performance reviews are no exception to this. Recognizing and addressing issues like anchor bias in your company’s review process is a powerful way to support employees and foster inclusiveness across your organization.

You can learn more about combatting performance management bias in our eBook, HR's Guide to Making Performance Management More Equitable.