[Rating Errors] Beware of the Recency Bias

Preamble: This is a first of a series of articles on common mistakes in judgment. Even if the focus of these articles is on performance assessment of employees, the discussions hold in all forms of social judgment.

Common mistakes in social judgment

Recency Bias in Performance Assessment

Suppose that you have executed a project effectively and exceeded all expectations during the first ten months of a year. If your manager has overlooked all these achievements and rated you poorly based on a major roadblock your project encountered in November, then you are subject to a Recency Bias. Your manager is in effect evaluating excessively positively or negative, depending on what is most recent.

Many managers tend to rate an employee’s job performance based on a “what has he done lately” mindset. They do not weigh the employee’s performance from earlier in the year (or quarter, if their organizations use a quarterly review system) and tend to rely more on the employee’s performance in the period immediately preceding the performance evaluation deadline. Consequently, achievements and events that happened lately tend to bear more influence on the employee’s performance rating than achievements and events from earlier in the evaluation period.

The cognitive bias (positive or negative) where judgment is founded only on readily recallable recent experiences is termed the ‘Recency Bias’ or ‘Recency Effect.’ This is analogous to people tending to recall items that are at the end of a list rather than items that are in the start of the list. (See Wikipedia’s entry on serial position effect.)

Some employees may exploit the recency bias by being more resourceful and trying to stay in the boss’s good graces in the period leading to performance reviews. I know of a manager who every year organizes community service events at his boss’s favorite non-profit during November and stay in the boss’s good graces ahead of his annual performance review in December. I have also identified wily employees who underperform earlier in a year and shape-up in the months before a performance evaluation is due.

To Avoid Recency Bias, Maintain a Performance Log

If you are a manager, maintain an informal log or diary where you can record each employee’s accomplishments, contributions, praises, and comments from peers and management. When a performance evaluation is due, review all the significant and relevant examples of employee performance you have recorded and write an objective performance summary report. This ensures that you keep yourself informed of your employee’s work and demonstrates that you care about his/her current work and achievements.

As an employee, you can maintain your own log or diary of your achievements. Review this information with your employee once every week. Whether your organization requires a self-assessment or not, refer to this log at the end of the evaluation period, summarize your achievements and submit a concise report to your manager.

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