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Rater Bias: How to Lose an Employee in 10 Days

At a previous job, I had a manager who was relaxed, to say the least. Part of his management philosophy was simply not to manage his team at all. The only times he would “become” a manager was when he was directed by upper management or if he was stressed out. I would often become a support role to him personally, and it quickly became a frustration for me.

But the frustration I felt in those moments paled in comparison to the frustration I felt during performance review season. Most managers don’t look forward to performance reviews for many valid reasons: performance reviews can be time-consuming, tedious, confusing, etc. So, if my team was getting rated on a list of competencies with a 5-point rating scale, he would give everyone 5 out of 5 on everything, just to get it done quicker.

On one hand, this meant I would get a raise, but on the other hand, this meant I had no idea how he perceived my performance or where I could be growing and improving. This is very frustrating for someone who is hungry for professional and personal growth, and one reason why rater bias is so poisonous.

Rater bias can show itself in other ways, as well. A manager might think their team is incredible, be a huge champion for them, and feel proud of their work, causing them to give very high scores. On the other hand, a manager might be very strict and demanding, not letting any mistake go unnoticed, and therefore consistently give their team low scores. In either case, these biases can be damaging.

We find that rater bias is one of the biggest roadblocks to successful performance reviews. If we want to empower employees to take ownership of their performance by engaging with their manager, team, and feedback more frequently, we also need to empower managers to understand what proper ratings should look like, and to be able to weed out any bias from raters, including themselves.

People don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. If we want to build a healthy, empowering culture, if we want to build a place that people don’t want to leave, we need to empower our managers to be honest leaders and coaches. Being a good manager takes more than circling a “1” or a “5” on a rating scale.