How to Reduce Bias in Performance Management

Marta Kaufmann, best known as a creator of the iconic ‘Friends’ TV series, has recently announced that only now is she beginning to understand the level of systemic racial bias that she and her colleagues operated in – resulting in ten series of a show that purported to be set in one of the most racially diverse areas of the USA yet lacked racial diversity on screen.

A wealth of research exists to show that significant bias is present in the feedback, guidance and (where applicable) ratings that people are given.  Much of this bias may well be unconscious, nevertheless it is not helpful to the individual and taken as a whole, prevents an organisation from maximising the talent of its workforce.

We are all biased – imagining we can eliminate bias in our behaviour and that of our colleagues is not the best starting place.  Better to begin with encouraging colleagues to explore what bias means, what it looks like in the workplace, and what actions can be taken to mitigate or minimise the bias that exists.

Helping your colleagues think about bias from multiple perspectives, allowing them to acknowledge that they may find it a challenge to work with people who seem very different from them, is a good start. There are many different dimensions to how we each may experience bias.  These include gender, age, the colour of our skin, our mental health, some medical conditions, pregnancy and other factors.  It’s easy to see even from this sample list, that many of us may both experience bias and be biased ourselves.  Only once we recognise such complexity in ourselves can we start to redress the balance.

From a performance perspective, bias often arises from managers losing sight of actual performance and behaviour and instead thinking more about the person,  i.e.  ‘this person could not cope with that opportunity’, or ‘this person doesn’t fit in our culture’, or ‘this person doesn’t speak the way I do’.   Even where the group maybe outwardly homogeneous, managers may still have ‘favourites’, who receive better feedback, guidance and opportunity relative to their performance than those who are not favoured.  In theory, rational objective setting and assessment is intended to prevent such problems, but we all know that this mechanism is imperfect to say the least.

Start by being very clear about what good performance looks like, and make sure that everyone is clear what ‘good’ looks like for their role.  Ask questions about those deemed as excellent.

If you work for a large organisation that collects data about feedback, guidance and ratings you will be able to look for bias through data analysis.  For organisations without access to good data, just looking around may indicate where to start a conversation about bias.   Are those deemed ‘top performers’ a very homogeneous group?  Do those who get promoted reflect the diversity of the workforce, or are they a drawn from a very narrow pool of colleagues?  Begin with some simple evidence, share it widely, and encourage conversations.