Performance reviews influence decisions about compensation, promotions, and even future employment. In other words, they’re too important to be skewed by an employees’ most recent work.
“Recency bias” refers to our tendency to rely on recent, not historical observations when drawing conclusions. During performance reviews, this tendency skews the way employees evaluate themselves, peers, and direct reports. Though not discussed as often as gender or similarity bias, recency bias is one of the toughest unconscious biases for managers to shake.
Here are some ways to ensure your reviews reflect the bigger picture.
Goal-setting motivates employees and helps them understand how they contribute to the business. But the value of having goals and OKRs extends past their completion date. When your company uses a people management platform to set and track goals, it creates a historical record that employees can cite during the review process.
“Managers who refer to goals before assessing performance get more insight into their employees' work. It doesn’t matter if the goals are sales-based, project-based, or efficiency-based,” said Vinay Amin, CEO at Eu Natural. As managers write reviews, People teams can make it easier for them to reference past goals using HR software or low-tech alternatives, like printed handouts of the review period’s OKRs.
“The point is to have something tangible to work with. This not only helps track employee progress but also reduces recency bias as goals are spread out over an entire assessment period,” Amin said. He added that including job competencies, which are unchanging, helps give managers additional guardrails for evaluating performance over the long term.
Recency bias isn’t just an obstacle for managers reviewing their reports. Your own accomplishments might be hard to recollect when it’s time to write a self-assessment.
“As a direct report, I’m asked to write a self-review twice a year — and trying to remember the impact I’ve had and what I’ve learned can be difficult,” said Steph McDonald, Technical Recruiter at Zapier, an automation software provider. Rather than spend hours digging through six months of emails and Slack messages, McDonald uses her company’s software to set aside positive feedback for safekeeping.
“Working for a technology company, much of the positive feedback I've gotten has been via Slack. I use automation technology to move strong feedback into a Trello board — but you could use a Google Doc — so I have the exact messages that I need for my performance review,” McDonald said.
In addition to creative solutions like the above, others recommended using tools like Lattice to track feedback. Whether you’re handling this automatically or manually, err on the side of logging more, not less.
“Honestly, write down as much as possible — both positive and negative things. I emphasize that because employees tend to write the negative stuff only, but they need to also note their major accomplishments,” said Jenna Saponaro, Chief of Staff at Postali. “This can help make a case for why you deserve a raise, promotion, or more support.”
Mitigating recency bias isn’t just about more diligent recordkeeping. For Jon Hill, CEO of The Energists, it’s a matter of stepping back and rethinking your approach to reviews. No matter the precautions, asking employees and managers to convene once a year and try to recollect the last twelve months is inviting trouble.
“I don’t think once a year is often enough, to be honest,” Hill said. “You need to be having performance reviews more frequently. The more time has passed since the last review, the more likely things are to be forgotten or overshadowed.”
Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report and customer data show that companies are moving past one-and-done annual reviews. Among our client companies that run reviews, only a third opt to run them once a year. Opting for semi-annual or quarterly reviews makes it easier to reflect on accomplishments and provide actionable, timely advice.
Even if your leadership team insists on running one primary review to coincide with raises and promotions, filling the gaps with less formal performance conversations throughout the year will give managers and their reports more to work with. “You can at the least schedule conversations with employees between the formal reviews, so you can make sure nothing is getting missed,” Hill said.
Come review season, managers — especially those leading larger teams — could use a little help. By incorporating peer feedback into your reviews, you can paint a more comprehensive picture of employee performance. For example, a direct report could have done an excellent job leading a project earlier in the year that the manager wasn’t involved in. Further, a colleague may have seen them go above and beyond to help a client on a support call.
While it’s impractical to expect managers to see or recall all of these instances, peer feedback can fill in the gaps. “To get a full picture of the employee's performance, consider peer evaluations and how others see them,” said Sonya Schwartz, founder at Her Norm. “Even a client’s feedback is helpful. This can give a unique insight into their work and fresh perspective.”
There are other benefits to leveraging cross-team feedback: Harvard Business Review notes that it can foster one-on-one connections and even improve engagement scores. When you’re genuinely interested in helping your peers through feedback, whether during the review cycle or day-to-day, it improves everyone’s experience at work.
Performance reviews can drive business growth, give employees a chance to share and receive valuable feedback, and improve overall job satisfaction. But without the right checks in place, reviews can be skewed by recent performance and unconscious bias.
Looking to revisit your review process? Read HR’s Complete Guide to Performance Reviews to get more out of the most critical employee-manager touchpoint of the year.