Unconscious Bias Impacting Performance Evaluation

unconscious factors

All organizations pursue service excellence, high customer satisfaction and best talent retention as strategic goals. It then becomes imperative that there exists a constructive work environment for high performance, nurturing philosophy and a balanced approach to performance evaluation. But do such ideal conditions exist in our corporate world?  Unfortunately the reality does not always match up to this ideal. Often the vision and mission statements remain just as they are – mere statements. Often the ground level reality is that a large section of employees are disappointed, disgruntled and demotivated by the faulty and typical corporate system of work supervision and evaluation. The employees are left feeling that the Manager or supervisor did not do a good job of performance evaluation. But the problem lies in both systemic faults, business drivers and some unconscious factors which influence the decisions. Let us explore the unconscious factors.

Absence of timely and real data on performance – For a long time, appraisal cycles were being typically scheduled annually and were characterized by allocation of ratings on performance. The inherent flaw in this system is that the feedback is done formally once a year and not given to the employees in real time. The focus was more on weeding out the bottom performers rather than nurturing talent, helping team members to overcome limitations and build better performers and stronger team. Real data from many surveys have proved that managers are forced to choose weak performers or non-performers. Managers cannot be expected to do an entire year’s evaluation at one go. This becomes even more problematic in organizations where employees move from project to project and manager changes happen but feedback are captured from past managers only at the annual appraisal cycle. Without real time data and with the guidelines shared by HR on the permissible distribution of ratings, managers often take a decision based on perception or other less acceptable factors which damages the motivation of the employee or causes stagnation, attrition or even termination. Fairness and objectivity which ideally should be the hallmark of evaluation becomes overrun by a lot of other factors. The tendency of force-fitting and ranking people into the bottom slot is not necessarily based on holistic view of the candidate’s total performance or potential or aptitude. Often they are driven by inability of the organization to recognize and compensate the employees accurately. Such practices leads to loss of good talent, distrust of managers, deterioration of employee and manager relation as well as loss of an organization’s reputation.

Forming opinion too quickly – Firstly the natural human tendency of quickly forming an opinion or being judgmental or deriving perception based on feedback from others is evident in workplaces. Bias due to some recent or past incident – A manager often forms opinion based on stray recent or past incident without considering the entire situation or the long term performance or behavior of the employee. Managers sometimes also rate performance an employee based on previous ratings although the employee may have performed better than before. Needless to say this leads to demotivation of the employee.

Social and Cultural bias  – Essentially, we all harbor some bias be it those that stem from race, gender, education or cultural factors. The common tendency to judge others, develop opinion without knowing or assessing the person raises its head. A common example is in case of IT companies where employees may be highly skilled technically but not as fluent in English since the early education may have been from vernacular schools, often gets denied of top rating even though the role he plays may not be client facing.

Perceived Sense of affinity – The pre-conceived notion about an employee can also arise due to a sense of affinity. People gravitate towards those who they feel are like themselves. Managers are no exception. It is said that emulation is the best form of flattery. Some employees overtly emulate managers. Managers often develop a favorable impression of people who tend to emulate them. The impact of this effect is that it can lead to higher ratings for an employee with whom the Managers find an affinity and failure to recommend areas of improvement to them.

Safe playing with Leniency – In many organizations where managers are burdened with a large workforce reporting to them and much of HR activities is handled through People Management chain, the manager may give a satisfactory rating to most of the employees as they are under pressure to review a number of employees within a limited time. They unconsciously err on the side of generosity or leniency. Even in a 360 degree reporting structure where Managers are aware of the relevance of employee feedback on their own performance evaluation, managers may subconsciously lean towards leniency unless the strong checkpoints are in place. This kind of leniency bias towards leniency results in both dissatisfaction, injustice, detrimental long term impact on an employee’s professional development. 

Excessive Strictness Bias – At times Managers especially in case of new managers may give poor ratings to the men tee owing to a sense of need to be critically strict. This may be due to a lack of confidence, a lack of balance, a generic tendency to be harsh and treat errors as inexcusable. Remembering only the errors the employee makes, not providing timely coaching points, not considering the broad view of the employee’s situation or experience may be a trait of some managers.

Unfair comparison Bias – This may happen when an experienced role holder moves up or out of the role and a replacement candidate steps in who may or may not be of similar experience or job grade/ level. The manager may compare and contrast the candidate’s performance without considering the new candidate’s experience level or the learning curve that each new role may required to ensure same efficiency level. The manager may solely go by the perception of by efficiency earlier candidate versus the new candidate.

False attribution Bias – An employee when performing a role encounters a number of unexpected challenges some of which are external and outside his circle of influence. The business environmental factors, the organizational changes of the client organization and many other causes may throw up challenges which the employee cannot control. However when evaluating performance, the manager may not consider these external factors and assume that the employee is fully responsible for the success or failure.

In conclusion I would say that a few years back a number of large reputed organizations started the conversation on the need to review, rethink and revise the way performance evaluations and appraisal process was conducted and then they brought in some changes. How far effective that has been is the topic of discussion in a separate article.

 

About the author:

Sonali Sengupta is a regular contributor on SOAIS blogs and brings to the table 25 years of HR domain & technology experience. She has led several large HR transformation programs and has seen HR evolve from a back-office, operations function to a strategic enabler of customer businesses. Sonali can be contacted at sonali.sengupta2001@gmail.com

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