Beware the Bias! – Canadian Government Executive

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October 8, 2014

Beware the Bias!

Measuring employee performance is hard. It’s one of the most difficult managerial tasks, and few managers have training in the art and science of objectively evaluating others. If you are fortunate enough to have experience in this area, most of that experience probably came from the School of Hard Knocks. That fine institution, despite its high enrollment, is a particularly onerous place of learning not just for you, but also for your employees.

So, between inexperience and the new performance management system in the Government of Canada, we have before us some territory that’s unfamiliar to managers and employees alike. Mid-year performance conversations are as good a time as any to start charting this unfamiliar territory.

Treasury Board Secretariat and the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer have published a number of guides to help managers and employees navigate the process. A few I’ve found useful include:

As an aside, that last tipsheet on measuring competencies has a number of great questions you can ask yourself about each of your team members. It’s useful if you’re evaluating competencies and don’t know where to start!

There’s an unseen challenge that every manager has to face when evaluating staff – his or her own biases. Subjectivity is poison to effective management – it breeds distrust of the process and accusations of favouritism. Remaining truly objective seems to be an impossible goal. As humans, we all have some prejudices, including those that we aren’t aware of.

Some biases that interfere with objectively measuring employee performance are the halo effect, the availability heuristic, and the just-like-me effect. While it’s difficult to eliminate these biases, simply knowing that they exist will help you to counteract them.

Halo Effect

The halo effect is simply the tendency for your overall opinion of an employee to influence your assessment of that employee’s performance. If your overall impression is positive, you’re more likely to assign that person higher ratings in all areas – whether or not they’re truly deserved. The opposite is also true, and is sometimes called the horns effect. If your impression is negative, your ratings of performance or competencies will subconsciously distort downward.

Availability Heuristic

It’s challenging to recall every interaction we’ve had with an employee over an entire year. We rely on examples that are front-of-mind: ones that occurred in the recent past, those charged with emotion, or those that were highly visible. The availability heuristic is a form of mental short-cut to make it easier to reach conclusions: we give more weight to the observations that are easiest to remember. The danger in using this shortcut is that it excludes relevant information that isn’t as easily recalled.

Just-Like-Me Effect

Research on the hiring process has shown that managers tend to hire people who are just like them. While the government hiring process helps shield managers and candidates from this bias, the same bias can influence performance appraisals.

We all have a tendency to react more favourably to people who are similar to us in age, gender, cultural background, level of training, profession, or religion. These commonalities have nothing to do with work performance, but they can colour our observations without us even noticing.

How to Fight Back

How can you counter these biases? The first step is to admit that they exist and to carefully guard against them. While the new departmental review panels will help to address biased appraisals after-the-fact, the best way to counter biases when completing performance assessments is to draw from multiple sources of data right from the beginning.

Aside from your own (biased) memory, you could gather observations and information from the following sources:

  • Saved emails
  • Time-tracking software
  • Automated logging tools (common in call centers)
  • Comments from peers
  • Complaints or commendations from clients
  • Observations by fellow managers
  • Past performance appraisals
  • The employee’s own self-assessment

You can also refer to your own notebook for data about key behaviours that demonstrate key competencies. Even though you’re the source of the information, observations over a large span of time help to counter the availability heuristic.

If you draw from many sources of data, biases will tend to cancel each other out, resulting in an objective and fair evaluation. Your employees will more readily accept feedback in an appraisal if input beyond your own gut instinct is used when writing it. You’ll protect yourself from accusations of favouritism and create appraisals that are worthwhile both to your team members and the organization.

Management is as much art as it is science, and subjectivity will always play some part in evaluating the effectiveness of your employees. If we take active steps to recognize and counter our biases, we become more effective managers and leaders.

Some questions you can ask yourself when preparing for mid-year performance conversations or end-of-year appraisals include:

  • Have I used as many sources of information/observation about this employee as possible?
  • Does this employee remind me of myself, or of someone else? Is this similarity to self or others colouring my judgment?
  • Are there differences in style or approach between me and the person I’m evaluating? If so, are they simply different or are they ineffective?
  • What reasons might cause me to be more or less favourable in my assessment of this employee?
  • Do I have information from throughout the evaluation period, or only the recent past?

Good luck with your mid-year performance conversations!


George Wenzel George Wenzel was a journeyman public servant and is now working at a not-for-profit – pursuing his passions in what will be his fifth career. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel, http://www.govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

About this author

George Wenzel

George Wenzel is a journeyman public servant. He has worked delivering programs and in internal services, most recently in Human Resources. His mission has been to improve service to Canadians by improving frontline management. You can find him online at about.me/georgewenzel, govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

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