In theory, performance reviews present a great opportunity to provide employees with meaningful feedback, which can improve engagement and results.  

In practice, however, this approach can often have the opposite effect. 

One of the biggest reasons for this is that two-thirds of employees think their performance reviews are inaccurate or unfair. And they could be right.  

It’s common for unconscious bias to sneak into performance reviews. That’s why there’s a growing trend for performance calibration reviews. 

This approach aims to put uniform standards in place across all performance reviews, rather than basing ratings solely on an individual managers’ assessments.  

“What we’re trying to accomplish with calibrations is fairness,” says Marco Mingolla, who leads Korn Ferry’s EMEA Practice for People and Talent Strategies. “We’re keen to ensure that the ones who are objectively performing best get the highest rating.” 

Calibration reviews should even out the playing field by making sure every employee is ranked on the same scale. That’s in theory. But in practice, there are pros and cons to this popular HR tool. 

“Calibration reviews should even out the playing field by making sure every employee is ranked on the same scale.”


What Is a Performance Calibration Review? 

The idea behind calibrations is to standardize employee assessments across departments and organizations.  

Calibration meetings happen towards the end of the performance management process. After evaluating their employees, managers will meet to discuss their ratings and the reasons behind them, with everyone using the same criteria to assess their team members. The meeting allows managers to seek additional perspectives about the employee, reducing the weight of any individual opinion (and potential biases). 

If the calibration process includes distribution requirements, such as a bell curve system, then managers will also have to place employees in relative rankings, regardless of whether they all performed equally well or not. For example, 20% of employees might be ranked as top performers, 70% as average, and 10% as low performers, even if the difference between them was minute, or if, for example, 50% actually excelled. 

Pros and Cons of Calibration Reviews 

How well does performance calibration achieve the goal of making performance reviews a more fair and objective process?  

Mingolla says the biggest value in calibration is simply that it’s an opportunity to have a robust, detailed conversation about team members.  

“You get to really take the time to talk about how a person is actually performing and what you’re observing from different angles,” he says. “As a manager, I see my employees only in one context, but if we have calibration, I’ll get the perspective on how other people are experiencing that person.” This helps provide a far more nuanced view, he says. 

But the process is imperfect. For example, while the intention is to reduce some biases, calibrations might worsen others.  

Performance calibration reviews been shown to exacerbate centrality bias, for example, which is the tendency to rate most things in the middle of a rating scale, as well as worsen “tightrope bias,” which refers to a narrower range of acceptable workplace behaviors for women, BIPOC, and other marginalized groups.  

Mingolla also thinks the forced rankings that can be part of calibration are problematic, as is linking calibration to compensation. “It can become about who yells the loudest or who is better at arguing for their people,” he says.  

Best Practices for Fair Performance Calibration 

Keep these tips in mind for an effective performance calibration review process. 

Define Evaluation Criteria Up Front 

Standardizing assessment criteria at the outset can improve the quality of initial manager assessments and reduce biases in calibration conversations.  

“You need to have a common definition of what good looks like,” says Mingolla. This includes determining what measurements and performance data managers should use to inform initial ratings. 

Block Off Sufficient Time 

Standardizing reviews should also include standardizing the discussions themselves, including how much time is allotted to assessments. In one study, a company dedicated just two days to calibration of more than 100 employees. Employees who were reviewed early on received longer, more detailed discussions and nuanced ratings versus those who were evaluated when managers were running out of time.  

Consider Removing Pay From the Discussion 

The difference in pay increases between high and average performers is often minimal, typically just one or two percent. This suggests to Mingolla that calibration would be better used as a talent development process that has nothing to do with compensation.   

“When we have calibration discussions, it’s often to identify superheroes,” he says. “That’s a missed opportunity. What we should really be doing is creating super teams. That means having conversations about how teams are doing and replacing backwards-looking approaches with forward-looking actions, such as whose development do we want to invest in.”

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Unlocking Performance with Better Assessments 

One of the most critical aspects of talent management is learning how to identify what high potential and high performance really look like—so you can implement strategies to enable people’s best work.  

Korn Ferry Assess can help you understand what good looks like for any given role, which is the essential first step to creating a blueprint for unleashing optimal performance. Learn more about Korn Ferry Assess.