Make Sure You Eliminate Bias With Judging Awards

Most organizations have a formal awards program that is their “best-of-the-best” academy awards event. These formal award programs are truly the best performance ranking, or earned award, such as the top salesperson, or they are nomination based and selected by a judging committee.

Often the selected jurors are previous award recipients because they know the standard required to become an award winner.

But does using previous award winners as jurors who are peers of potential award candidates lead to bias in selecting winners? 

Social Proximity As A Source of Bias

Simone Ferriani of the University of Bologna and City University, London, Erik Aadland of BI Norwegian Business School, and Gino Cattani of New York University explored how social relationships affect who wins awards in peer-based evaluative settings, such as film festivals and industry competitions, in their article Friends, Gifts, and Cliques: Social Proximity and Recognition Peer-Based Tournament Rituals.

The authors examined the Norwegian advertising industry’s Silver Tag awards and the data from eight years’ of statistics. They accompanied this with personal interviews with nominees and award winners.

They conduct the Silver Tag advertising industry award on a monthly basis. Researchers found that all jury members shared one important characteristic. Each jury member was a high status professional who had won the Silver Tag award in previous competitions. For example, during the observation period of this study, jury members on average won 10 times as many awards as non-jury members.

For the Norwegian Silver Tag award in advertising, they honor excellence through participation in award contests. Here competing producers are evaluated by juries composed of advertising peers who specialize in the same advertising categories as the contestants.

Since this is an ongoing and repeated process, they can appoint active advertising professionals to become jurors and evaluate projects of professional peers who previously served as jurors.

The researchers zeroed in on three specific relationship dynamics as they analyzed the jurors’ award decisions between 2003 and 2010. These relationship aspects comprised:

Prior direct ties: When the award candidate had a previous working relationship with a judge, how much are jurors influenced in favoring the candidate?

Reciprocity: If the candidate personally helped a juror in the past or favored them in a previous award scenario did this impact the award decision?

Cliquishness: When a juror is in the same social network as the candidate how much does this influence the juror in favoring the awards candidate?

Outcome of the Research On Peer-Based Tournament Rituals

How do social relationships affect award allocation choices in peer-based evaluation settings?

What the researchers found was while all three social mechanisms, prior direct ties, reciprocity, and cliquishness, predict an award candidate moving from (1) no recognition to attaining an honorable mention, it was only (2) reciprocity that helped a candidate move from the level of honorable mention to winning an award.

Those candidates with direct ties or in the same clique or network as the judges appeared to deflect the opportunity of winning the award.

Social relationships matter but are not decisive in award selection. Both self-serving relational interests and a desire to show moral integrity drive evaluators in extending prestigious awards.

But jurors can create interesting social dynamics that lead to antagonism and call into question the standards of evaluation when selecting award winners. It is up to us as recognition managers and owners of formal award programs to do all we can to remove the very appearance of bias. 

Implications for Your Organizational Awards

In most cases, organizations do not use a peer-based evaluation process. At best you should only have one previous peer on a judging committee.

A judge or evaluator should best review a set of evaluation criteria before adjudicating a potential award candidate or nomination to ensure there is no conflict of interest for them. If there is a conflict of interest, then that juror should recuse themselves from evaluating that individual or nomination.

Establish a solid scoring rubric that provides as much objectivity in scoring a nomination or candidate on various established evaluation criteria, and against other candidates. There should also be the inclusion of subjective commentary to explain what the juror admired and why they scored them as they did, and where they felt the individual could improve.

Perhaps this research at least raises awareness of how we need to examine the effect of social dynamic variables and how they might influence jurors’ selection of potential winning award candidates. 

Recognition Reflection: How do you select jurors for adjudicating your formal award nominations so you prevent bias?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

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