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Talent Development Leader

The Problem With Performance Management

Monday, November 13, 2023

Bias in the process stunts employees’ career progression.

Bias is present in every aspect of today’s work environment, and is no more damaging than within the confines of your organization’s performance management process. The root causes, manifestations, and affects of bias within the performance management process—particularly for individuals who have historically faced discrimination in the workplace—are as unique as the person.


That being said, HR and talent development professionals have far more data available today to not only identify bias, but also measure the impact and take steps to address it.

While many HR professionals focus on the more immediately measurable, near-term consequences of such bias (such as lower performance-based increases in compensation, unfavorable project assignments, or delayed scheduled promotions), the long-term impact on an employee’s career through curtailed development opportunities is far more detrimental.

When bias exists, employers overlook talented and qualified individuals during focused succession planning processes and fail to provide the requisite development opportunities.

TD leaders can fill the gap in career opportunities by making their organization’s performance management process less biased and more effective while simultaneously feeding necessary data into the development function to deliver and best serve the company’s current and future needs.

What is performance management, really?

At its core, performance management is a process for managing performance. Sounds obvious, right?

But many managers struggle because the performance management process becomes a means to an end, whereby they focus solely on the measurement component and spend little if any time on the management component. Managers view the process as simply a box to check, a chance to air grievances, or a task to complete as quickly as possible so everyone can move on with the “real” work.

It’s a shame because, when completed thoughtfully, performance management is an unbiased, forward-looking, developmental process in which the manager and employee have robust communication regarding what is and is not working; what to start, stop, or keep doing; and ultimately, what the employee needs in terms of support, direction, and TD resources to become a more valuable member of the team.

More data equals more opportunity

Unlike in years past, TD leaders have an enormous amount of data at their fingertips. The field of data analytics and management has grown considerably and is becoming an ever-increasing need (rather than a nice-to-have) within the TD function.

Within your HR information system (HRIS) is a treasure trove of data. A robust system contains all employees’ identifiable information, work history, changes in compensation, education, tenure, career aspirations, 360-degree and other assessment results, and—of course—the results and contents of their performance reviews.

With that level of data, your team can go to work measuring and identifying variances in ratings and the type and quality of qualitative comments across a variety of identifiers (such as race, gender identity, and age) as well as by those completing the reviews (for example, does Manager A give higher ratings, better feedback, and more favorable opportunities to a certain group over another within their team?).

All data is not equal, but more data provides more perspective; more perspective gives you more opportunity to identify valid versus invalid, or biased, feedback.

Imagine that, as employees go through their performance review processes, the HRIS automatically communicates with the organization’s learning management system to recommend coursework, depending on an individual’s scores. Better yet, imagine leveraging keyword recognition within the qualitative write-in comments.

In my experience, such a fully integrated system does not exist, which means the TD function must compensate and ensure the process is seamless for employees and managers alike. Only in implementing the proper strategy and by leveraging the best data can TD staff make fantasy a reality.

Given the role performance management plays in determining who receives development resources, TD professionals have a vested interest and responsibility to ensure the process is designed to limit bias and that the organization’s performance management and learning management systems are communicating.

A step-by-step solution

In an ideal world, TD and HR professionals would work side by side, leveraging performance management data to understand the bias present. Use these practical steps to combat bias in your organization.

Set a vision. What is the ideal state of how performance management and TD work together at your company? How closely connected should performance management and learning solutions be?

What is currently working? What do you know and not know? Without looking at any data, what are your current assumptions about bias and its impact on development?

Gather the right people. Depending on the size of your organization and the sophistication of your platforms, you may assemble just one or two individuals or you may need to involve a larger group comprised of roles such as HRIS and data analysts; TD and diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners; IT staff; compensation analysts; or even legal counsel.

Assemble data. Engaging the HR group, go into data collection mode. This isn’t the time to analyze the data or to determine whether it is pertinent; rather, simply gather as much as you possibly can. You may even choose to run internal surveys of employees and their experiences.

Analyze data. Using data from the compensation, performance management, and learning management platforms, review differences across race, gender identity, national origin, ethnicity, age, and disability. Likewise, explore variances within different departments, functions, and supervisors.

Bias can take broad forms (such as based on someone’s race, ethnicity, or gender). It may also appear in narrow, individualized forms. The three most common forms of individualized bias within a performance management context are recency, primacy and similarity bias.

Recency bias occurs when managers place more importance on recent performance. For example, an employee performs above expectation for the past 11 months, but has a few rough patches in the weeks leading up to their performance review. Within the performance review, the manager focuses on the last several weeks, discounting the above-expectation performance.

Primacy bias occurs when a manager assesses the employee’s performance based on an early interaction or results. For instance, an employee joins a team and knocks their first project out of the park. Unfortunately, after that first home run, the employee has been a below-average performer. During the review process, the manager bases the assessment on the first, positive experience cemented within their memory.


Similarity bias—sometimes referred to as affinity bias—is the most common form of bias. It occurs when a manager shows preference to those who are most similar to them. The similarities may include race, gender, or ethnicity, but may also be more acute such as similarity in communication styles or even colleges attended.

Regardless of the type of bias, it is critical to recognize what patterns emerge and consider how those manifest in a less-than-ideal learning experience.

Explore gaps. Assess gaps between the current and ideal state. Confirm with your group whether earlier hypotheses or intuitions surrounding bias exist. Determine and prioritize which gaps are necessary to close first.

Begin with the start (performance) and conclude with the end (development). While you may wish to focus on the development side of the continuum, without a well-designed performance management process that limits bias, any connection with your learning systems will miss the mark. Your team will have the L&D tools in the toolbox to fix the issue, but the team won’t fully understand the performance issues and outcomes it seeks to improve upon.

Set a path. Depending on where you are in the performance management cycle as well as whether your organization sets learning curriculum in a more formalized, committee-approved fashion, remember that you have time. Take it.

Getting the work done right is more important than getting it done quickly. That is tough to keep in mind if you are aware of bias and know the company may need to get through another performance review season without any changes.

Without the necessary changes, staff may receive incorrect and unfair reviews and feedback as well as, by extension, less access to developmental resources. Nevertheless, it is critical that all steps forward are intentional—made with appropriate data, discussion, and consideration for both intended and unintended consequences.

During this step in the process, set timelines, consider additional parties to engage in the process (such as external vendors, programmers, or consultants), engage your organization’s project management resources, determine the frequency measurement and venues for reporting, and gain executive support.

Execute, measure, and report. As you navigate through the steps, encourage the team to examine how the process has changed previous assumptions or whether you need to adjust the ideal state. Be comfortable welcoming changes in the process and confront necessary conversations with a people-centered focus.

TD professionals play a critical role in ensuring their organizations’ performance management processes limit bias, provide robust feedback, and drive L&D activities. To let performance data exist in a silo, away from the eyes and ears of your team, is a wasted opportunity.

In addition, you could be enabling the negative consequences of bias. Technology provides the connection between performance and development data, providing an incredible opportunity for TD professionals to scale individualized learning and serve everyone within their organization.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Paul Georgoff is a former chief human resources officer as well as founder and chief leadership officer at He is an executive coach, trusted advisor, and leadership consultant.

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