Performance Reviews

How to Combat Bias With Calibrated Performance Review Questions

March 9, 2022
March 21, 2024
Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

Our minds are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us, but unfortunately, they tend to cut corners. Instead of taking in and processing new information all the time, our brains try to save time by pulling from our past experiences and subconscious learnings to quickly evaluate a situation or person. As harmless as this might seem, this neurological process can cause us to pass snap judgments on others based on demographic information, like their age, gender, race, or ethnicity.

Have you ever harbored an innate dislike for someone who’s rooting for your favorite sports team’s rival? That’s unconscious bias, or implicit bias, in action. This small, harmless piece of information makes you look at this person differently — even if they’re a perfectly fine human being. 

Implicit bias is when we unconsciously adopt attitudes and beliefs toward people based on stereotypes. And it can impact our day-to-day actions and decision-making both personally and professionally. These biases can creep in when we’re interviewing a job candidate, selecting team members to assign to a new project, and reviewing the performance of our direct reports and colleagues. 

Implicit bias is particularly harmful during performance reviews because it can result in subjective ratings and hurt an individual’s career development and opportunities for advancement. These biases can lead us to favor certain individuals over others and affect how we give out raises, promotions, bonuses, project assignments, and more. What’s worse is that we likely won’t even notice it’s happening.

But the good news is that there’s a way to combat implicit bias in the performance management process: performance calibration. Performance review calibration ensures that every manager takes a more standardized approach to employee performance evaluations, and it can be a crucial step in building more equitable and objective reviews — and a more equitable and inclusive organization. Below, we’ll take a closer look at performance calibration, why it matters, and how it can help your business prevent bias in employee reviews. 

Rater Bias in Performance Reviews

When it’s left to each individual manager to interpret an employee’s performance, inconsistent ratings and subjectivity flourish. For example, say a manager has two employees on their team: one who works in the office five days a week and happens to have graduated from the same university as they did, and one who is fully remote with a different alma mater. The manager has naturally developed a closer relationship with their in-office direct report due to proximity and the fact that they both went to the same college. While the remote employee submits quality work and meets deadlines, the manager has a feeling that they’re taking advantage of their work-from-home situation and logging off throughout the day. 

Come performance review time, this manager ranks their favored in-office employee a ‘5 out of 5’ for exceptional performance, but only gives their remote employee a ‘3 out of 5,’ even though they accomplished just as much. 

In this instance, the manager exhibited a few examples of common workplace biases: 

  1. Proximity Bias: The manager has developed a bias that makes them perceive in-office employees as better and harder workers than their remote counterparts.
  2. Similar-to-Me Bias: Since this manager went to the same college as their in-office direct report, they might be more likely to give that employee a higher performance rating because they have a heightened perception of graduates from that school.

Unquestioned, these rankings could positively impact the in-office employee’s ability to secure a raise or promotion before the end of the year, while negatively affecting the remote employee’s eligibility for the same accolades and advancement. Not to mention that over time, inaccurate or biased ratings could have devastating effects on employee engagement, employee development, and ultimately, retention; if an employee perceives the ratings they receive as unfair, they might lose motivation, become less productive, and be more likely to search for a job at another company where their contributions will be recognized and rewarded.

These are just two examples of how implicit bias can impact judgment and hurt your company’s attempts to create a fair and equitable workplace. In reality, there are many different types of unconscious bias, like gender bias and recency bias, and countless ways they appear in the performance review process. This makes training your employees to manage their own biases and change their behavior crucial for building more equitable performance appraisals.  

How Performance Review Calibration Fights Bias

While it can help, training your employees to be aware of their unconscious biases won’t magically make your performance reviews perfectly objective and fair. But to get one step closer to this goal, your business can implement performance review calibration. Calibration meetings, which are typically made up of an HR professional and senior or mid-level managers or a mix of both, allow your organization to take a more intentional approach to performance rating and can also help: 

Inevitably, individuals within your organization will all approach performance evaluations differently, but these varying measurement perceptions aren’t inherently bad — they just need to be anticipated and addressed using calibration. 

To revisit the earlier example, if the manager who rated their two employees a ‘5’ and a ‘3’ is asked to explain the reasoning behind these scores in a calibration committee conversation, they might realize that both employees are deserving of a ‘3’ rating based on how other People leaders on the team evaluated their performance. While both employees met the expectations of their roles, neither went above and beyond their job descriptions. Having spoken to other managers in the department, this manager now has more context against which to compare their direct reports’ ratings and can see where their own judgment may have been clouded. After the calibration meeting, the manager then updates their initial ratings to be ‘3’s for both employees.

“Every business should use performance review calibration to make employee performance evaluations equal and fair,” said Maciej Kubiak, Head of People at PhotoAiD, an online passport and visa photo company. “Using imprecise terms and scales leads managers to use their subjective judgments, creating an imbalance between performance evaluations. With calibration, [companies] ensure all performance terms and criteria are clearly explained so everyone uses the same method of judgment to determine employee ratings.” 

By getting all your managers on the same page with a performance review rating scale, your company will be one step closer to using more standardized review criteria for employees across all levels. Not only will this contribute to more objective ratings, but it will also help your top employees get the recognition and rewards they deserve — and will no longer penalize workers who were previously negatively impacted by unconscious bias in reviews. 

Using Rating Questions — and a Clearly Defined Rating Scale  

The way that some organizations have designed reviews is flawed: Many performance review processes ask managers questions like, “How would you rate this employee’s overall performance?“ These types of questions are deliberately open-ended to promote discussion during performance conversations. Unfortunately, this openness can backfire, as each individual who reads the questions might interpret them differently. For example, what one manager would rate a ‘3’ might be another manager’s ‘5’ — an inconsistency that will quickly create problems and inequity across an organization.

To give managers more guidance and help standardize review scores, your business should use rating questions. Rating questions have employees assign a clear, numerical value to their response. These types of questions give managers the flexibility to weigh in on an employee’s performance, while giving respondents a clearer and simpler understanding of what their choice means. 

At Lattice, the majority of our customers use a five-point rating scale, as we’ve found this provides the right amount of nuance and granularity. Here’s an example of what a five-point scale might look like on a performance review:

  • 1 - Unsatisfactory
  • 2 - Needs improvement
  • 3 - Meets expectations
  • 4 - Exceeds expectations
  • 5 - Truly outstanding

Even simply using a scale like this can help give managers added context when evaluating employee performance. Instead of interpreting what a ‘3’ or a ‘5’ means, managers have a clear and specific understanding of what each value represents. This can lead to more accurate and fair ratings right from the beginning of your employee appraisal process — even before you hold calibration meetings and adjust ratings. 

Calibration Meetings and Who Should Participate

Just who should participate in calibration conversations varies by company, but this process is typically owned and managed by the Human Resources department and carried out in partnership with senior executives and managers. The way you approach calibrations will depend on your company size, HR team size, number of managers, available resources, and timeline. 

For smaller companies with only a handful of People leaders, it might be practical for a member of your Human Resources team to meet with each manager individually, discuss their rating criteria, and manually update employee ratings based on these conversations. But for larger companies, that approach will be too effort-intensive and time-consuming. Instead, many larger organizations use calibration committees, made up of an HR team member and a group of senior and/or mid-level managers, to discuss and set performance standards and update employee ratings to incorporate these new rating guidelines and better reflect actual employee performance.

The downside is that planning and holding calibration meetings and comparing and adjusting ratings can be a tedious and time-consuming manual process for your HR team without the right software. But there’s an alternative: Trade in endless spreadsheets and copying-and-pasting for Lattice’s People Success platform. Lattice Calibration allows you to easily create calibration meeting groups, update employee ratings in real time, and compare rating data before and after adjustments to get a better understanding of employee performance at your company. 

Speak with a member of our team today to learn more about how Lattice can simplify your calibration efforts and help you create a more objective and fair performance evaluation process at your organization.