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Employees Taking Advantage of The Recency Effect

Employees can be quite cunning when it comes to performance reviews. We’ve all seen the employee who slacks off during much of the year and then some weeks prior to their review being done, they really pick things up and work harder or become more effective.

Recent activity bias (often called recency effect) is more common during performance reviews than we might imagine. Managers see the improved work effort and/or quality and when it comes time to do the review, it tends to stand out in their mind more than the less than acceptable work done during the earlier part of the review period. This can result in higher ratings and more positive comments than the employee actually earned.

Have you ever had an employee who didn’t perform all that well during much of a review period, turned it on at some point later during that period of time and then, once the review was completed, crept back into old habits? It’s likely we’ve all observed this type of behavior.

As a manager responsible for reviewing employees, it’s important to remember that the performance review covers the entire review period. Astute managers can usually discern between improved performance based on coaching, training, or a legitimate desire to get better versus a late run to enhance performance ratings and comments.

Ask yourself if the employee showed gradual improvement over the course of the review period as coaching and training took place or if there was a sudden sharp spike later in the review period. What type of improvement took place? Did the employee focus on the one key area he/she knew had been an issue and tweak behavior accordingly? Or was there improvement on a broader basis?

If you believe the employee truly had made a conscious and legitimate effort to improve performance over a period of time, particularly after being coached and/or undergoing additional training, they ratings should reflect those legitimate efforts. If, however, you believe that the improvement was too little, too late, avoid letting the recent behavior influence your ratings and comments too much.

For any employee showing improvement, that change in work behavior should be recognized. But be very careful to rate the employee on the entire “body of work”, so to speak. Let them know that there has been noticeable improvement, but send the very clear message that it is important to sustain the improvement and continue to focus on improving.

If you rate an employee too high based on very recent efforts and ignore the inadequate work efforts prior to the recent behavior, the employee will feel they can get into a pattern of slacking early in the review period and then working harder later on. As you prepare a review, think about the entire review period and take the employee’s efforts and results into account for the complete period. This will help avoid recent activity bias and provide a much better feedback mechanism for the employee.