How to conduct performance review calibrations

TL;DR: Conducting a performance review calibration is critical to a great organizational feedback culture. The performance calibration process ensures management evaluates each employee fairly and accurately, leading to higher employee engagement and satisfaction. You can run a calibration review at your company alongside your regular review sessions in six steps.

Performance reviews are essential tools for giving feedback and encouraging continuous improvement,
but many organizations still have room to grow in this regard. According to our research, only one-third of global employees are satisfied with their company’s performance review process, adding that they’re not helpful for development and occur too infrequently.  Moreover, we found that most UK, French, and German professionals have received hurtful rather than constructive feedback in their current roles.*

So, what’s the key to making reviews work?

One crucial element is fairness. Unconscious bias from managers can undermine performance reviews, leading high-potential employees to receive lower scores based on unfair and arbitrary metrics. Eventually, team members on the receiving end of discriminatory processes may disengage rather than stay connected as active participants.

Many companies implement a performance calibration to ensure their employee evaluations are objective and consistent. While it may take time and effort to coordinate, the performance calibration process is vital to eliminating bias in the review process.

In this playbook, we discuss:

  • What performance calibrations are
  • Why they’re necessary for employee-centric organizations
  • Our step-by-step approach to implementing a calibration review within your company
💭 Reduce unconscious bias and conduct fair, consistent reviews

Leapsome’s AI-powered Reviews module allows team leads to turn performance data into constructive, actionable feedback for better employee development.

👉 Learn more

What is a performance calibration?

A performance review calibration is a process that standardizes how managers evaluate their reports. It aims to ensure that management conducts performance appraisals fairly by:

  • Making the assessment process as consistent as possible
  • Agreeing on the metrics managers should use to measure performance
  • Reducing subjectivity
  • Eliminating unconscious bias
  • Supporting managers who may be new to their roles or need leadership development

In other words, an effective performance management calibration would mean that if a group of team leads evaluated a single employee, there wouldn’t be any meaningful differences between their assessments, with the only potential variations arising from diverse projects the team members collaborated on with each manager.

Performance calibration is necessary because no matter how data-driven your evaluation process may be, reviewers are human and prone to subjectivity.

For example, some team leads might grade more leniently than others. One manager may think employees deserve a 5/5 (“excellent”) unless they have a specific problem with their performance. But another may think staff members deserve a 3/5 or “meets expectations” unless their performance is truly exceptional. 

During calibration sessions, managers can compare their assessments, find inconsistencies, and agree on what guidelines everyone should use for their evaluations.

The importance of a performance calibration

Performance calibrations are essential to the success of your review cycle. Employee-centric organizations that take time to calibrate employee reviews for fairness experience cumulative benefits such as:

  • Improved accuracy. An HR calibration can make your reviews more objective and, therefore, more accurate. Additionally, when reports get honest, specific feedback about their performance, they can clearly identify areas for improvement and take action more effectively.
  • A better idea of your organization’s performance. Variations make it more difficult to develop a clear “big picture” of performance across your organization. You might feel uncertain whether departments perform well due to excellent results or lenient assessments. Team calibrations ensure you know exactly how all your company’s departments are doing and how their performance fits into your organization’s overall progress.

  • Increased team member confidence in the performance review process. Employees who feel their evaluations are fair and consistent will become more invested in them. This improved trust also increases team members’ likelihood of feeling motivated to act on their manager’s feedback.
  • Acknowledgment and recognition for high performance. Lenient managers can deter top performers by praising their colleagues for a standard performance. Likewise, failing to acknowledge an employee’s best work can cause resentment among direct reports. Calibration meetings can help HR teams uncover which managers need guidance and ensure they always give credit where it’s due.
A photo of management and HR holding a calibration session in a well-lit office with soft furniture.

Calibration sessions provide value-driven organizations with an excellent touchpoint for ensuring performance reviews still reflect their principles

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Wann Sie dieses Playbook verwenden sollten

When to use
this playbook

You can use this playbook to make progress toward your diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) goals by preventing unconscious bias from taking the lead in employee evaluations. You can also use it while designing or revamping your performance review process — why not integrate a performance review calibration into your system from the start?

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Was Sie für dieses Playbook benötigen

What you’ll need for
this playbook

The right analytics tools

To calibrate performance reviews, you’ll need an easy way to compare reviews across different managers and teams. People enablement platforms like Leapsome make this undertaking a lot easier.

For example, the Leapsome Reviews module allows you to see the big picture with visualizations like the heatmap and 9-box. You can also use it to easily calibrate performance review scores, keep track of who calibrated which score, and ensure employees only see the final scores.

Hinweise & Tipps
  • Calibrating performance reviews can be time-consuming. You may need to hold multiple calibration meetings with managers, HR staff, and/or external partners. Since performance review calibration is crucial for review accuracy, set aside enough time for meaningful discussions. 
  • A performance review calibration can help build trust among employees. Be sure to communicate to employees the steps you’re taking to ensure the review process is fair.
  • It may be frustrating for a manager to have their rating challenged. During the calibration sessions, HR’s job is to serve as moderator and ensure everyone feels their opinion is heard.
  • Don’t worry if you see a lot of variation in ratings the first time you run the calibration process — this should improve over time. The calibration process will help develop shared expectations across each department.
  • During the calibration meeting, watch for outliers in the data. These may be an indicator of manager bias.

How to run this People Ops Playbook:

Wie Sie dieses People Ops Playbook durchführen:

1. Decide on your approach to performance review calibration

When you begin designing your performance review calibration process, you’ll need to consider what you’re aiming to achieve and the best strategy to get there.

Does performance review calibration make you think of rating employees on a bell curve? Some companies choose to use this approach, also known as “forced ranking.” But forced ranking is controversial, and you’ll want to think carefully about whether it’s right for your organization.

Advocates of the bell curve claim it incentivizes employee performance and disincentivizes “too soft” grading by managers. This method forces managers to consider how employees stack up against one another, rather than succumbing to the temptation to rate everyone highly and avoid conflict.

But rating on a bell curve can create a culture of cut-throat competition. You risk frustrating employees, discouraging teamwork, and invoking accusations of unfairness — the exact thing you’re trying to avoid.

For some teams, performance may not accurately fit the bell curve model. Perhaps all employees truly are five-star or one-star performers, and forced ranking would misrepresent their competencies.

Besides deciding whether or not to use forced ranking, you’ll need to consider if your current performance appraisal form is effective. Ask yourself:

  • What does each number on the ranking mean?
    Is the phrasing we’re using to describe each number accurate (e.g., 1 = “needs improvement”)?
  • How will this data hold up during the performance review calibration process?

After sitting with these questions, set up a calibration meeting with relevant stakeholders and outline the goals you’d like to achieve with your performance review calibration process. Then, use these goals to create a set of standards you expect all managers to meet with their grading.

2. Plan out how your calibration sessions are going to work

After deciding on your preferred approach to performance review calibration, you’ll need to plan how your sessions will work from a practical standpoint.

Depending on the size and structure of your organization, this process may involve HR staff, external partners, senior executives, mid-level managers, or a combination of these. All parties will need to meet as a group to calibrate employee scores.

There are a few different ways to run performance review calibration meetings. You could schedule individual 1:1 meetings between HR staff and managers. You could also create a calibration committee made up of multiple managers in a single business unit and led by an HR staff member.

Whatever you choose, it should be based on a realistic assessment of your timeline and resources. Once you’ve determined what works best for your company, put this plan into writing.

“We do calibration via live discussion and minimize an asynchronous process. That, for us, is more beneficial, but it means there is a high degree of coordination (scheduling), and discussions can run long if not well-facilitated and focused.

We could discuss everyone at length (and we love to say lots of positive things about people), but we also have to be efficient. So, over time, we’ve learned to focus more on individuals where there has been a change from the last cycle.”

— Krystall Fierens-Lee, Chief People Officer at parcelLab

3. Have managers run performance reviews

Do you already have a pool of performance reviews ready to calibrate? If not, now is the time to check our playbook on running performance reviews and kick off review cycles. Ensure managers know what’s expected of them when evaluating and scoring, particularly if you plan to use a forced ranking system.

If you’ve already run a performance review cycle, or if employees at your company are reviewed asynchronously, you can skip this step and go straight to the next.

🤩 Build a reliable feedback process

Leapsome’s calibration tools let you pinpoint and fix outlying scores in your performance reviews.

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4. Hold your calibration meeting

Schedule your calibration sessions with all relevant stakeholders, and be sure to prepare your agenda beforehand to keep the meeting constructive and focused.

How to run calibration sessions: An example agenda

  • Review performance criteria — Ensure all attendants understand the expectations and standards for each review criterion.  
  • Give an overview of the performance calibration process Emphasize the importance of consistency and fairness, giving examples when necessary.
  • Review employee performance scores and feedback — Managers present performance input for each team member they review during the meeting.
  • Comparative analysis — Identify any discrepancies or outliers and aim to reach a consensus based on the evidence presented.
  • Action planning Assign responsibilities and deadlines for any changes that need implementing.

“Essentially, I will sit with each functional management team to hear their first- or second-level calibration. Then I roll up all those discussions and share a summary with our executive team, including the CEO. And we discuss where there might be surprises, and we challenge the results that we have questions or doubts about.

My role is coordination, consistency, and of course, to participate in that calibration toward fairness and meritocracy.”

— Krystall Fierens-Lee

5. Adjust performance ratings

After holding your performance review calibration meetings, you can also use your people enablement software to get a big-picture overview of how managers are rating their employees.

Work together with managers across your organization to reach a consensus on how employees should be rated, tweaking your ratings to ensure all team members are being held to the same standards.

A screenshot of Leapsome's heatmap feature within the Reviews module.
Leapsome’s Reviews module allows HR teams and managers to view company-wide performance data with heatmaps

6. Communicate and share feedback with employees

Share the final, calibrated scores with employees, communicating clearly about the process you followed to achieve your results. To avoid confusion, don’t share scores until the performance calibration is entirely finished.

Managers should be prepared to explain their ratings and comments, and offer action items and next steps for each employee. At the end of the process, employees should clearly understand why they have received their ratings, what they are doing well, and how to improve.

A photo of two professionals engaged in a performance review meeting.

Performance calibrations help team managers explain scores to their reports

Follow-up best practices for performance review calibrations

Continue to track employee performance over time

To ensure reviews remain fair and unbiased, continue to conduct performance review calibration meetings after each review cycle. This process should become easier over time, as managers become more familiar with review standards.

Calibrated performance review scores should give a good indicator of an employee’s progress at your company. Review scores can be used to make future decisions on compensation and promotion.

However, you should separate compensation discussions from performance review talks so that employees can focus fully on their professional development during the review process.

Keep managers up to speed on expectations

Remember those performance review guidelines you developed in step one? You may have already shared those with your managers; if not, be sure to do so now.

Managers should be able to easily access and refer to these guidelines. Your managers may also benefit from continuous learning and DEI training to fight unconscious bias.

🚀 Performance reviews are crucial for employee success!

Check out our playbooks on how to write a performance review and how to run a leadership performance review to learn how you can make your performance review process more constructive and development-oriented for everyone at your company.

Make your reviews fair, accurate & consistent with Leapsome

A screenshot of AI-powered feedback within Leapsome's Reviews module.
Implementing Leapsome’s Reviews module to conduct evaluations means you can leverage the power of AI to make feedback more constructive and actionable

You can’t completely prevent unconscious bias from seeping into performance reviews, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the process as fair as possible. That’s the philosophy behind the performance calibration, which can help managers see where they need to grow as leaders while preventing employees from receiving unwarranted scores and unhelpful feedback.

Thankfully, there are people enablement platforms like Leapsome that set you up with the right data and workflows to make performance reviews more consistent. Our Reviews module provides customizable templates and automations to streamline evaluations. Moreover,  analytics and visualizations allow you to see score distribution by managers, teams, and cycles to identify outliers and spot trends over time easily. If you find inconsistencies and need to adjust employee scores with your current cycle, you can do it with the click of a button — just select those you want to fix.

Making Leapsome part of your performance calibration toolkit allows you to create a feedback and employee development system that builds trust with team members and empowers them to do their best work.

🥇 Put your people first with constructive, fair performance reviews

Aggregate key performance review data and monitor trends over time with Leapsome’s AI-supported Reviews module.

Book a demo‍

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are performance calibration sessions?

Performance calibration sessions are meetings where managers and HR personnel discuss how to score their teams. Their aim is to find a fair and consistent way to evaluate all employees that reduces subjectivity. These sessions can also help organizations spot managers who score their reports too harshly or too leniently. That can also inform who might need training to reduce their unconscious bias.

How do you facilitate performance calibration?

You can facilitate performance calibration by taking these steps:

  1. Define your aims and the best strategy to achieve them. For example, do you want a scoring system that rates employees against each other and encourages healthy competition? 
  2. Decide which managers and HR personnel will attend your performance calibration sessions.
  3. Have managers and team leads run performance reviews.
  4. Once the reviews are complete, meet for your calibration session and adjust scores or your evaluation system as necessary.
  5. Share the outcomes with your team.

How often should I calibrate performance reviews?

We recommend you hold performance review calibration meetings after every review cycle. Depending on how your business is structured, these review cycles may be annual, biannual, or more frequent. Employees may be reviewed all at once or at different times. The most important thing is to keep your performance review calibration process consistent.

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