Even if they try to be objective, managers can't help but discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, and other illegal considerations. Isn't performance appraisal actually a very biased process?

No. While many people believe that managers discriminate, either deliberately or unconsciously, in their appraisal ratings, research on performance appraisal indicates that performance ratings are remarkably bias-free.

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In a major research project published in Psychological Bulletin, Frank Landy and James Farr reviewed all of the research that had been conducted over a thirty-year period on performance ratings. They studied every aspect of performance ratings: the effect of different rating formats and the influence of varying rater and rate characteristics.

What part did age and sex and race and education play? Here's what they found:

Sex. "In the majority of studies, there has been no consistent effect of rater sex on ratings obtained in various contexts." In other words, men are neither tougher nor more lenient than women. Nor do men rate women more gently or strictly than they do other men, or vice versa. Sex appears to be irrelevant.

Race. They were able to find one study in which supervisory raters gave higher ratings to subordinates of their own race than to subordinates of a different race. But that study also indicated that the difference in ratings was only on the order of 2 percentmore important to the statistician or academician than to the line manager or human resources professional. As far as peer ratings, the research shows that race has no effect.

Age. Two different studies explored whether age made any difference. One study found that younger supervisors were less lenient than older ones; the other found no difference at all.

Education. Only one study indicated that the supervisor's education level has any effect on how supervisors rated subordinates. The raters concluded that rater education was of no practical importance.

The Landy and Farr report did repudiate one universally accepted piece of folk wisdomthat peers are tougher on each other than bosses are. Peers are not tougher than bosses, they discovered. Three different studies reported that supervisors were less lenient in their ratings than were the peers of the ratee. Two other studies also found that supervisors were more consistent in their ratings than were peers.

Performance appraisal is not inherently discriminatory. There are several reasons for inaccurate accusations of discrimination. First, consider an organization whose managers have not done a very good job of telling people the truth about their performance over the years. A new manager with tougher standards and a greater willingness to tell people about their shortcomings takes over the work group. Now people who for years have been rated as fully acceptable will be evaluated as unacceptable. Unwilling to accept this new and more realistic evaluation of their contributions, the poor performers will raise the discrimination flag.

Second, people in general have higher opinions of their performance than is warranted. The person who receives a "marginal" rating may interpret a poor review as a function of the appraiser's bias rather than her own poor performance.

Third, some people who are protected by reason of race, sex, or national origin will use that as a shield to avoid working hard and producing results. They figure that they can scare weak managers into giving them an inflated review by threatening legal action if the boss tells the truth about them. Too often, unfortunately, they're correct.

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