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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Robinson Bruner

Addressing Implicit Bias in the Performance Review Process


Over the next few months, many workplaces will be conducting annual performance reviews. How do you prepare for these reviews? How do you ensure they are fair and equitable? How do you handle promotions and pay raises? We often assume the performance review and promotions process is a fair and objective mechanism for recognizing and rewarding talent. However, any time a human being is involved in the decision-making process, there is the risk of implicit bias impacting the outcome.

Implicit bias refers to the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that can influence decision-making, subtly shaping our perceptions and actions. In this blog, we will delve into the nuanced world of implicit bias, exploring its impact on performance reviews and promotions, and discussing strategies to foster a more equitable workplace.

The Unseen Hand: Implicit Bias in Performance Reviews

Performance reviews, which are designed to assess an employee's contributions and growth, are not immune to the influence of implicit bias. Managers in charge of these review can possess unconscious biases based on gender, race, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, and more. In a Harvard Business Review article, Joan C. Williams and co-authors present four basic patterns of racial and gender bias, based on their past research:

  • Prove it again: Underrepresented groups must often prove themselves multiple times in order to be viewed as competent.

  • The tightrope: Women and people of color are often expected to conform to a narrow range of behavior in the workplace (for example, women should be assertive, but not too assertive).

  • Maternal wall: Primary caregivers, especially women, are viewed as less committed and capable in their roles.

  • Racial stereotypes: People of color may be evaluated based on common stereotypes held about their race, even if they are inapplicable to the individual.

The Ripple Effect on Promotions & Pay Raises

Performance reviews serve as the foundation for promotions and pay raises. Therefore, implicit biases can carry over into this critical decision-making process. Employees who are victims of bias in their reviews may find themselves unjustly held back when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder. As outlined above, many employees who are victims of bias belong to underrepresented groups in the workplace, such as women and people of color.

In their 2023 Women in the Workplace study, McKinsey & Company found that “the ‘broken rung’ [rather than the ‘glass ceiling’] is the greatest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership.”

This perpetuates a cycle of inequality, hindering diversity and limiting the organization's ability to tap into a broader range of talents and perspectives.

Breaking the Cycle: Strategies for Mitigating Implicit Bias

Organizations can start to remove bias from the performance review process by following the tips below.

  1. Awareness and Training: Cultivating awareness is the first step in combating implicit bias. Organizations can implement training programs that sensitize employees to the existence and impact of implicit biases. This not only helps individuals recognize their own biases but also fosters a culture where open conversations about bias become the norm.

  2. Standardized Evaluation Criteria: In their Harvard Business Review article, Lori Nishiura Mackenzie and her co-authors explain that typical evaluation forms use broad questions and “open box” responses, and they discuss why that’s an issue: "The trouble is, when the context and criteria for making evaluations are ambiguous, bias is more prevalent. As many studies have shown, without structure, people are more likely to rely on gender, race, and other stereotypes when making decisions – instead of thoughtfully constructing assessments using agreed-upon processes and criteria that are consistently applied across all employees." To resolve this issue, they recommend organizations create an evaluation rubric based on defined criteria, use more specific prompts on the form, and check for consistency between employees’ evaluations. Establishing clear, standardized criteria for performance evaluations ensures that all employees are judged on the same parameters, reducing the likelihood of biases impacting the process.

  3. Diverse Evaluation Panels: Building diverse evaluation panels can bring a range of perspectives to the decision-making table. Having individuals from different backgrounds and experiences helps counteract the impact of singular biases, promoting a more inclusive and equitable assessment.

  4. Regular Audits and Checks: Organizations should regularly audit their performance review and promotions processes to identify and rectify any patterns of bias. As Williams outlines in her article, “solving DEI challenges will be a multi-year process that will require changing long-standing performance management practices.” Change will not happen overnight, and managers may sometimes revert to old habits. A proactive approach demonstrates a commitment to fairness and allows for continuous improvement.

Implicit bias may lurk in the shadows, but organizations have the power to bring it into the light. By acknowledging the existence of implicit bias in performance reviews, implementing thoughtful strategies, and performing regular progress audits, organizations can take significant strides toward creating a workplace that is not only diverse but truly equitable. By dismantling the barriers of bias, we pave the way for a future where talent is recognized and rewarded based on merit, unencumbered by the invisible chains of unconscious prejudice.

If you want to address implicit bias in your organization before you start the performance review process, we can help you get started. Reach out to us at info@gladedsolutions.com or click here to schedule one of our DEI Organizational Training sessions.

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