A Complete Guide to Performance Review Calibrations

By 
Tanya Dutta
Published on 
May 10, 2023
Combining her psychology education with her research experience, Tanya has the powers to derive deep insights from data.

Why run performance calibration meetings?

As a manager, you know that performance reviews are critical to managing your team. They provide an opportunity to evaluate your employees' performance, give feedback, and identify areas for improvement. However, if your performance reviews aren't fair, accurate, and consistent, they may not be effective.

This is where calibration comes in. Performance calibration is the process by which performance ratings across different individuals, teams, and managers in the organization are standardized to ensure the consistent application of a yardstick and eliminate biases or discrepancies in ratings.

Calibrations are often associated with the drudgery of collating large sets of data from scattered Excel sheets and HRMS platforms and aligning calendars to block time for an exhaustive meeting (which often ends up feeling like a waste of time). Despite how we feel about them, performance calibrations go hand in hand with performance reviews—the best we can do is optimize the process to yield the best outcomes.

A number of things can cause calibrations to go south— attendees can come unprepared, make decisions based on anecdotal information, or let the loudest people in the room dominate the conversation. There might be deeper problems at play that leak into calibrations, such as performance conversations not happening as frequently as they should. If that sounds familiar, learn more about real-time performance management or the forward-looking nature of performance management.

We collated the pain points most of us experience before, during, and after the performance calibration process, and the best practices you can adopt to ensure a fair and consistent process:

Pitfalls BEFORE the performance calibration meeting

  • No clear definition of what ‘good’ performance’ and ‘high-potential’ look like
  • People managers rate employee performance based on different yardsticks
  • Time burden on people managers to collate relevant anecdotes and stories
  • Lack of training on unconscious biases

Best practices to counter them

  1. Determine and socialize a consistent yardstick of performance – Defining what good performance looks like (e.g., goal progression, % of target achieved, etc.) and having behavioral competencies in place will ensure that each employee is assessed on the same job-relevant criteria. Ideally, all participants should submit 2-3 pieces of evidence prior to the calibration meeting to back up their evaluations of whether good performance has been achieved or a particular competency has been demonstrated.
  2. Create and explain rating scales - If you have previously determined a set of rating standards, distribute these to support managers with their scoring. If not, decide on a rating scale that works for your organization. Consider using an imbalanced scale to provide more accurate responses (e.g., did not meet all goals, met all goals, exceeded some goals, exceeded most goals, far exceeded goals). Provide clear rating descriptions in line with your company’s values, performance philosophy, and expectations from individuals (e.g., ace player, reliable team player, etc.)
  3. Consume data beforehand –  ask all supervisors and managers to complete performance reviews based on employee goals, accomplishments, and feedback. Complete this step before the meeting—the calibration session is a chance to tweak performance appraisal scores rather than be inspired to review employees from scratch. We also recommend going through our bias buster cheatsheet and distributing it to the members of the meeting to foster objectivity and fairness.
  4. Decide on a meeting structure – This decision will vary depending on your company size. In small organizations, holding 1:1 meetings with each manager is most optimal. Larger companies may benefit from creating calibration teams instead, consisting of relevant stakeholders who review and compare performance ratings. For companies with a headcount beyond 200, setting up dedicated calibration committees with active HR involvement is recommended. 

Who should be involved in a performance review calibration?

By involving various relevant stakeholders, organizations can ensure that the process is equitable and that all partieshave a voice in the process. The calibration process should generally include diverse roles like:

  1. People Managers: Managers are responsible for rating their team members, collating data from different sources, and conducting the review process. They can help identify and address any discrepancies or biases.
  2. HR: HR representatives, typically responsible for overseeing performance management, usually steward the calibration meeting, provide support to managers, and help to identify and address any issues that arise.
  3. Leaders: Leaders can play a valuable role in the calibration process by guiding and supporting the managers involved. They also help ensure that the process is aligned with the organization's overall goals and objectives.
  4. Employees: Employees are being evaluated and should be able to provide feedback on the calibration process. By involving employees in the process, managers can help ensure that their concerns are addressed and that they feel valued and heard.
Real Talk
Real-world insights from experts on the other side of the Ken

How do I select a calibration model that works for me, and how do I convince my organization for the change?

I don't have a strong opinion about what organizations should or shouldn't do around forced distributions. I strongly believe that you need to be really clear on what you're doing going into the calibration, and the worst calibration experiences I've had are the ones where, in the leader's mind, they're forcing a distribution. They aren't explicitly saying it to the team, but they're pushing. So if you walk into a meeting and say, our goal today is to hit this distribution, I may or may not agree with it, but it’s a different outcome because your goal is to actually move people until you get where you want to go

If you're coming in with a vague distribution in mind, like “we should have about this percent of the organization here”, the goal is around alignment - it’s about how you are assessing your talent and by having 50% of the population in the “exceeds expectations” bucket, the conversation then is not about who do we move, but more about what bar are we holding? Are we holding a high enough bar for our expectations if everyone is able to exceed it?

Rachel Kleban
VP People, OpenPhone Mesh

Pitfalls DURING the calibration meeting

  • Inconsistent application of performance standards
  • In the absence of quality data about performance throughout the year, biases & favoritism creep in
  • The process is repeated at multiple levels, resulting in dozens of additional reviews

Best practices to counter them 

  1. Use data: To make calibrations more objective, rely on data rather than narratives and anecdotes to review performance. Ideally, this includes any data that can be pulled from the review process. In addition to this, ensuring that all managers use the same performance standards to evaluate employees is crucial. If different managers use different standards, it leads to inconsistent ratings and reduced effectiveness of the calibration meeting.
  2. Flag cases worth discussing, surface conflict, and expose blindspots: For the purpose of the calibration meeting, it is recommended to focus on the employees for whom further discussion is required. Performance calibration meetings yield the best outcomes when people use them to surface conflict. It is more logical to spend more time discussing whether A is truly exceeding expectations when they are constantly getting low peer ratings from their team members than to spend time agreeing on how well B achieved their goals. It is also recommended to focus on cases where major discrepancies exist (i.e., big gaps in manager ratings and self-ratings, noticeable dips in performance from one cycle to the next, etc.) to highlight any potential biases and potential blind spots.
  3. Work on addressing bias in judgments: Biases can undermine the accuracy and fairness of performance evaluations. Managers should work on becoming aware of their own biases and working to eliminate them. Calibration meetings can help to reduce bias by providing a forum for discussion and feedback on employee performance. People are likely to understand and recognize racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes but may not be as familiar with biases like recency or leniency biases. It is recommended that organizations hold training sessions to recognize and address these biases before taking part in the calibration process.

Pitfalls AFTER the performance calibration meeting

  • No time spent on career growth & development discussions
  • Lack of transparency on calibration outcomes
  • Inadequate documentation

Best practices to counter them

  1. Communicate review outcomes transparently: Invite all your team members for a one-on-one meeting and share the performance appraisals with them. Provide details about the performance standards and explain where they fall short or exceed expectations. Motivate employees if you see fit and let them know how they can improve their ratings in the future.
  2. Provide feedback: Provide the managers and employees feedback on the calibration process and any adjustments made. This involves communicating the calibration process results and explaining why adjustments were made. Providing feedback to ensure everyone understands the process and feels heard is essential.
  3. Listen with intent: Encourage employees to ask questions and provide feedback on the performance review process. Be open to feedback and respond to any concerns or questions promptly and constructively.
  4. Set goals: Work with employees to set specific, measurable goals for improvement and provide guidance on how to achieve them. This helps to create a sense of purpose and direction for employees and shows that you are invested in their professional development.

Summing things up

As a manager, you play a critical role in helping your employees grow and succeed. One of the essential tools at your disposal is the performance review process. However, to ensure that your performance evaluations are accurate, fair, and consistent, it is essential to conduct regular calibrations.

By involving HR representatives, senior managers, and other managers in the calibration process, you can ensure that your evaluations are free from bias and that your employees are evaluated fairly. This can help to improve employee engagement and retention and ultimately drive better business outcomes.

However, it is crucial to be aware of common pitfalls, such as using inconsistent performance standards or relying too heavily on subjective opinions. By adopting the practices outlined in this guide, you can conduct effective performance review calibrations that help you to identify and address these issues.

In essence, performance review calibration is critical to effective performance management. By investing the time and resources needed to conduct regular calibrations, you can help your employees reach their full potential and achieve their career goals while driving improved business outcomes for your organization.

Frequently Asked Questions
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About the Author
Tanya Dutta
People Science Associate
With a BA and MA in psychology - she is an organizational behavior nerd through and through. She previously worked in consumer insights, where she refined the ability to derive insights from data. Combining her passion for psychology and data, she found a sweet intersection in the People Science team at Mesh, helping organizations optimize their talent strategies while keeping people at heart. Outside work, she enjoys ticking off items from her IMDB and Yelp wishlist.
About the Author
Tanya Dutta
People Science Associate
With a BA and MA in psychology - she is an organizational behavior nerd through and through. She previously worked in consumer insights, where she refined the ability to derive insights from data. Combining her passion for psychology and data, she found a sweet intersection in the People Science team at Mesh, helping organizations optimize their talent strategies while keeping people at heart. Outside work, she enjoys ticking off items from her IMDB and Yelp wishlist.
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