HR Management & Compliance

Implicit Bias Can Take Toll on Performance Review Process

More and more employers are exploring unconscious bias and what they can do to manage the damage caused by biases people may not even realize they harbor. Most of the attention has focused on unconscious bias’s effect on hiring and how it causes uncomfortable interactions between coworkers and the public. But biased attitudes also can creep into the performance review process, creating an environment that can keep deserving people from advancing in their careers.

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Recent research delving into the words used in performance evaluations shows how both positive and negative characteristics documented in performance reviews can differ between men and women.

A May 25 Harvard Business Review article explains research that analyzed a large set of military evaluations and how the language used in the subjective portion of performance evaluations differed between men and women.

The researchers wrote that the large military dataset (over 4,000 participants and 81,000 evaluations) was “an interesting and significant setting to evaluate gender bias” because even though the military is a traditionally male profession, it has worked for decades to eliminate gender segregation and discrimination.

“For performance evaluations specifically, the military has long been predicated on meritocratic ideals of fairness and justice providing equal opportunity regardless of demographics,” the researchers wrote. Because of the military’s emphasis on equal opportunity and its focus on merit, it presents a setting “where we might expect less gender bias in performance evaluations.”

The researchers—David G. Smith, a professor of sociology at the United States Naval War College; Judith E. Rosenstein, a professor of sociology at the United States Naval Academy; and Margaret C. Nikolov, an independent statistical consultant who previously taught at the United States Naval Academy—found the most commonly used positive term used to describe men was “analytical” while the most commonly used positive term for women was “compassionate.” The most commonly used negative term for men was “arrogant” while the most common negative term for women was “inept.”

The researchers noted that while analytical and compassionate are both positive descriptions, analytical may be seen as a more valuable trait. Also, while arrogant and inept are both negative, an employee seen as arrogant may be more tolerable than an inept one.

“These are not just words—they can have real-life implications for employees and organizations,” the researchers’ article states. “Language in performance evaluations can tell us what is valued and what is not in an organization. Employees also know what is valued and make choices and decisions about how well they fit in an organization and their potential to advance.”

Risks to Employers

Jessica L. Meller, an attorney with Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says implicit bias affecting word choice “absolutely happens in performance evaluations.” The legal risks posed by such bias may not be as important as the damage it can do to an organization’s culture, she says, but bias does present a risk of discrimination claims, including disparate impact claims.

Meller explains that disparate impact stems from an employer’s seemingly neutral practice that results in a statistically significant adverse impact on women or some other group. “The legal risk is relatively small,” she says, because such claims are difficult to prove. But those claims can be damaging, nonetheless. Good employers strive to attract and retain talent, and good people don’t want to work in an environment where such biases exist. Instead, people want to be where they’re appreciated based on their skills and merit.

What to Do

To prevent unconscious bias from damaging a performance review system, Meller has some suggestions:

  • Training reviewers to be aware of the danger of implicit bias can help. Just putting the issue “on their radar” can not only lessen the chance of bias creeping into the process but also can promote a healthy culture overall, Meller says.
  • Some employers use a set list of questions based on “behavioral interviewing” techniques to guide reviews. The questions should be open-ended, and encourage employees to discuss how they have handled workplace issues and responsibilities during the review period. Reviewers “can still diverge and let the conversation flow naturally,” she says, but the structure can prevent people from evaluating based on gender, race, or other characteristics.
  • Sound handbooks are helpful. Employers that don’t have a system in place such as a handbook to make sure policies are standardized and applied evenly are at greatest risk of legal trouble stemming from implicit bias, she says. Another problem she sees is that often employers have good policies in place, but people aren’t familiar enough to implement them properly, or simply do not know about them.
  • Meller says the most important tip she has for employers is to give careful attention to employee complaints of unfair evaluations. Sometimes employers tend to brush off those complaints thinking they will go away, but then the employee makes a discrimination claim. There needs to be a record of the complaint and what was done to address it. An employer will face more of a legal risk if that wasn’t done.

Careful treatment of complaints is necessary not just in performance reviews but also in any kind of workplace allegation of discrimination and harassment, Meller says. The #MeToo movement is showing the importance of an employer’s response to complaints. Employers that don’t take complaints seriously, she says, are “feeling the pain now.”

Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications.