They might not be popular, but performance reviews are undoubtedly an important corporate tool. They serve a wide variety of purposes, such as helping companies to assess employees’ contributions, identify their abilities, guide future development plans, and drive engagement.  

Unfortunately, their effectiveness can sometimes be hindered by subconscious biases that undermine the whole process. 

It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since an oft-cited study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that 62% of variance in employee reviews is due to managers’ personal biases and perceptions.  

But for all the leaps companies have made toward addressing workplace bias since then, performance reviews remain a sticking point. Just one-third of employees feel their organization’s performance management systems provide a fair assessment of their work, according to recent data cited by the Society for Human Resource Management

Addressing the problem of bias in performance reviews requires understanding what these biases look like and rethinking performance management to make reviews fairer and more objective. 

Performance Review Bias: It Might Not Look Like You Think It Does 

“When we think about biases, we’re often thinking about things like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical ability,” says Tiffany Williams, Director of DE&I, RPO at Korn Ferry. And while many of us have become more attuned to explicit biases in the workplace, subconscious influences tend to be pervasive—and often more difficult to recognize.  

“It’s not always about denying opportunities or discriminating in an explicit sense,” says Williams. “When we’re making decisions at a rapid pace, our brains use different shortcuts to make it easier.” This is bias—a natural, hardwired part of human cognition. Williams says these biases typically show up around things like soft skills and cultural attributes. 

They also have very real consequences for those affected. For example, research by Korn Ferry found that cultural biases are the top reason for the dearth of female CEOs.  

Types of Performance Review Bias 

Numerous studies have identified common subconscious perceptions that influence performance reviews. Not all biases are rooted in discrimination.  

Some common types of biases include:  

Recency Bias 

Most people know all too well the effects of recency bias: the further out something happened, the harder it is to remember.  

In a performance review, recency bias refers to the tendency to assign greater weight to events that are fresh in a manager’s memory and to discount things that happened previously.  

For example, poor results in the last quarter might overshadow an employee’s hard work and strong results the rest of the year, or vice versa. 

Proximity Bias 

A 2022 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 67% of managers felt their remote employees were more easily replaceable than those who work on-site.  

But rather than a reflection of employee performance or value, this is likely an example of proximity bias—or the tendency to assess people with whom we have frequent in-person contact more favorably.  

With the continued popularity of remote and hybrid work, this bias can particularly affect those who work from home, regardless of their actual performance or engagement. 

Primacy Bias 

As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  

Primacy bias refers to the tendency to let those early impressions color future interactions and assessments of an individual’s personality, skills, and other qualities, while ignoring relevant information learned later.  

Primacy bias works two ways. When an individual makes a great first impression, others may overlook or ignore other less positive actions and behaviors that come later. Conversely, a bad initial impression may cause others to take a more critical view of future actions and to interpret behaviors less generously. 

Halo and Horns Effect 

Similar to primacy bias, the halo and horns effect is the tendency to let one thing—in this case, a strength or weakness—shadow an entire assessment of an individual.  

In the case of the halo effect, that means allowing a strong positive to outweigh any negatives—for example, overlooking poor collaboration and teamwork in an employee who can nail a sales presentation. Conversely, the horns effect is the tendency to rate an employee poorly overall when their performance was only weak in one area.  

Similar-to-Me Bias 

Humans have a strong tendency to feel affinity for those they see as similar to themselves. In a performance review context, this presents as the “similar-to-me bias,” which is a subconscious tendency to prefer—and rate more highly—individuals in whom managers can see themselves.  

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Unleash the power of all

How to Mitigate Bias in the Performance Review Process 

So how can managers and companies root out these unconscious biases and make performance reviews fairer? Consider these three strategies. 

1 Replace Vague or Subjective Criteria with Objective Measures 

Communication, time management, teamwork, leadership—while performance reviews are full of assessment criteria, many organizations admit that their ratings are not tied to clear and specific measures.  

For example, an evaluation may ask, “Is the employee a good communicator?” but fail to provide practical benchmarks upon which managers can base their ratings.  

Such open-ended questions often lead to bias because, rather than leveraging a set of concrete measures, managers use their own variable ideas to determine the benchmark. 

“Without clear measures, we tend to decide what success looks like based on our own limited thinking,” Williams says. 

“Without clear measures, we tend to decide what success looks like based on our own limited thinking.”

To overcome this, she says, “At the start of the review process, define what the indicators or demonstrable behaviors are for the skills being assessed. Then that needs to be standardized on scorecards, evaluation forms, or some other method.” 

In the case of communication, this might mean rating employees on a list of skills and actions, such as: “Can articulate complicated concepts in plain language” or “Follows up meetings with a clear summary of action items and next steps.” 

2 Make Performance an Ongoing Dialogue 

Building in a process for ongoing dialogue can combat managers’ unconscious biases by providing a more informed view of employees’ performances over the year, including both accomplishments and challenges.  

Asking meaningful questions and providing opportunities for employee input year-round can help to overcome recency, proximity, and other types of biases. It also gives managers a wider array of information, helping them conduct a fairer annual review. 

3 Invest in Unconscious Bias Training 

A big reason performance review bias is so pervasive is that people aren’t aware of their subconscious perceptions.  

Understanding why our brains work the way they do and how biases tend to present is an important first step in creating meaningful change. Unconscious bias training and behavioral inclusion are scientific approaches that teach participants to identify and address their blind spots.    

Of course, reducing unconscious bias can’t be accomplished in a single “check-the-box" training session. It’s a process that requires longer-term organizational commitment. 

A New Blueprint for Performance Management 

More and more organizations are prioritizing the building of equitable workforces that promote opportunities for all. This should include rewriting the rules of performance management.  

Find out how star performers across industries are weeding out bias and cultivating high-performance cultures by rethinking feedback and reviews.  

Or check out our on-demand webinar with expert strategies for eliminating unconscious bias from talent systems.