Performance Appraisal
Bias Effects

Gabris & Mitchell have reported a disruptive bias in performance appraisal known as the Matthew Effect.

It is named after the Matthew of biblical fame who wrote, "To him who has shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him who does not have, even that which he has shall be taken away."

In performance appraisal the Matthew Effect is said to occur where employees tend to keep receiving the same appraisal results, year in and year out. That is, their appraisal results tend to become self-fulfilling: if they have done well, they will continue to do well; if they have done poorly, they will continue to do poorly.

The Matthew Effect suggests that no matter how hard an employee strives, their past appraisal records will prejudice their future attempts to improve.

There is other research to support the theory that poor performers might not be given a fair chance to improve. A study of supervisors in nearly 40 different organizations found that subordinates tend to be divided into two groups: in-groupers and out-groupers.

This study, by Heneman, Greenberger & Anonyou (1989) reported that ingroupers are subordinates who seem to be favored by their supervisors. In their relationship with the boss, they enjoy "a high degree of trust, interaction, support and rewards."

On the other hand, outgroupers don't do as well. They appear to be permanently out of favor and are likely to bear the brunt of supervisory distrust and criticism. The effect is therefore similar to the horns and halo effect; supervisors tend to judge employees as either good or bad, and then seek evidence that supports that opinion.

It was found that when an ingrouper did poorly on a task, supervisors tended to overlook the failure or attribute to causes such as bad luck or bad timing; when they did well, their success was attributed to effort and ability.

But when a outgrouper performed well, it was rarely attributed to their effort or ability. And when an outgrouper performed poorly, there was little hesitation it citing the cause as laziness or incompetence.

It is not clear how supervisors make the distinction between ingroupers and outgroupers. Whatever the criteria, it is clearly not objective, equitable or reliable.

This bias must inevitably lead to a distortion of the appraisal process. It must also be a source of frustration for those employees who are discriminated against.

The extent of this frustration was explored by Gabris & Mitchell. They studied an organization with a quarterly performance appraisal system. The workforce was divided into two groups: those who had been given high appraisal results consistently, and those who had low results consistently.

When the groups were asked if the appraisal system was fair and equitable, 63 per cent of the high performers agreed, compared to only 5 per cent of the lower performers.

The groups were asked if their supervisors listened to them. Of the high performers, 69 per cent said yes, while among the low performers, 95 per cent said no.

Finally, when asked if their supervisors were supportive, nearly half of the high performers agreed that they were, while none (nil, zilch, zero!) of the low performers agreed.

Of course, not everyone who gets a poor appraisal result is a victim of supervisory bias. Nor are all supervisors prone to making the same degree of ingroup and outgroup distinction. The effects discussed here are tendencies, not immutable effects.

But to some extent, it appears that certain employees may be unfairly advantaged, while others are disadvantaged, by bias effects in the judgements of supervisors.

It is a cardinal principle of performance appraisal that employees should have the chance to improve their appraisal results - especially if their past results have not been so good. It is a very serious flaw in the process of appraisal if this principle is denied in practice.

There are reasonable steps which can be taken to limit the effects of supervisory bias.

 Awareness Training
The first line of defence lies in raising awareness of the problem. Supervisors need to be informed of the types of subtle bias that can interfere with their performance as appraisers. They need to understand that the ingroup/outgroup bias, for instance, reduces the morale and motivation of their subordinates.

 Developing Poor Performers
Incentives, financial or non-financial, may offered to encourage supervisors to make special efforts to help poor performers improve. Supervisory appraisals, for example, might stress the importance of working with poor performers to upgrade their performance. The possibilities are extensive.

 Counselling, Transfer, Termination
There is always the possibility that an employee who receives poor appraisal results is in fact a chronic poor performer.
No employer is obliged to tolerate poor performance forever. Consistently poor appraisal results will indicate a need for counselling, transfer or termination. The exact remedy will depend on the circumstances.


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