Are Your Performance Appraisals Free of Bias

August 23, 1999
Editor's Note: On a whim, Workforce Department Editor Scott Hays signed up for a class titled "Human Resources Management," as part of the HR/Management Certificate Program at the University of California, Irvine. Each week, he'll visit one nugget of knowledge from the course, helping you move slowly in the direction of becoming a more strategic partner.

The purpose of appraisals is to ensure that employees receive a fair and honest assessment of their performance over the past year, and to develop a plan to improve their effectiveness in the future. But in a report by the Institute of Manpower and the Equal Opportunities Commission, appraisals were found to be riddled with personal bias. For example, assertiveness was valued more in men than in women.

Since the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, courts have found that the inadequacies of an employer’s appraisal system could lay at the root of an illegal discriminatory action.

Gary Dessler in his book, "Human Resource Management" (Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997), points to a case where the court ruled in favor of Hispanic employees who claimed they were laid off as a result of performance appraisals that were discriminatory. The court concluded the practice was illegal because the appraisals were based on subjective supervisory observations, the appraisals were not administered and scored in a standardized fashion, and two of the three supervisory evaluators did not have daily contact with the employees being sued.

"While the appraisals were based on ‘best judgments and opinion’ of the appraisers, they were not based on any objective criteria that were supported by any record of validity," writes Dessler.

Above all else, appraisals should not be about subjective viewpoints. Appraisers need to be well aware of their own prejudices—equating long hours with commitment, for example, or letting judgements about performance in one area color all the others.

So what can you do to guarantee that your company’s appraisal system is not only legally defensible, but ethical? For openers, you can start by choosing the right appraisal tool and train supervisors to eliminate rating errors.

Here are several more suggestions from Dessler:

  • Make sure the performance standards are provided to all managers and employees.
  • Employ subjective supervisory ratings as only one component of the overall appraisal process.
  • Train supervisors to use the rating instrument properly.
  • Allow appraisers substantial daily contact with the employee being evaluated.
  • Whenever possible, have more than one appraiser conduct the appraisal and conduct all such appraisals independently.
  • Use formal appeal mechanisms.
  • Document evaluations and reasons for any termination decisions.

SOURCE: "Human Resource Management" (Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997) by Gary Dessler.