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‘Rater bias’ in performance reviews: How to counter it?

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in Your Office Coach

Q: “I’m in the process of preparing performance reviews for my staff, but I’m already anticipating a disagreement with my boss. Our review form includes five ratings, with the middle one being ‘meets expectations.’ My boss will never approve a higher rating than that for anyone, because he says he expects people to always do their best.

"Some of my employees worked very hard this year and accomplished great things for the company. They deserve a better rating than ‘meets expectations.’ How can I make my manager understand that lower ratings are extremely discouraging to our best employees?” Mad Manager

A: Your clueless boss provides a perfect example of “rater bias,” a common phenomenon which contributes to unfairness in performance reviews. Research has shown that many managers have preconceived ideas about how rating scales should be used. “High raters” freely distribute top scores, while “low raters” refuse to use them at all, even for exceptional employees.

While high-rating bosses need to become more discerning, low raters need to recognize that this tightfisted attitude automatically de-motivates their most valuable employees. People who do truly outstanding work ought to be recognized with an outstanding rating.

Unfortunately, these entrenched beliefs are often quite resistant to change. However, you may find an ally in your human resources manager, because HR is typically responsible for reviewing ratings and encouraging managers to apply them consistently.

Another option is to ask your boss for guidelines that define when each rating level should be used. You might point out that the existence of an “outstanding” rating automatically implies the existence of someone who deserves it.

Performance review conversations can be tricky. If you're a manager, here are six pitfalls to avoid: Six Ways to Screw Up a Performance Review Discussion.

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Anne July 7, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Tell your boss that he may expect everyone to do their best, but some people’s “best” is better than other people’s “best.”

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