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Myths of the Rating Scale

This article provides ways to prevent common employee evaluation myths from creating a barrier to meaningful and useful discussions with employees about their performance.

Author: Marnie Green
Date: Jun 1, 2011 - 6:55:03 PM

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There are some wacky ideas out there when it comes to rating employee performance.  If your organization's performance evaluation system uses a rating scale, you have inevitably heard some crazy ideas about performance evaluations. The following "myths" prevent us from using the performance evaluation ratings to improve employee performance. Instead, they detract from focusing on tools and conversations for improving performance.  Have you heard any of these?

  You have to "walk on water" to get the highest rating. This is a common catchphrase that's used in organizations when expectations have not been clearly defined. If a rating appears on the performance evaluation form, it must be possible to achieve. For example, if you use a five-level rating scale with "5" as the highest rating, it's the manager's responsibility to describe what five-level performance looks like. Using crutches like, "you have to walk on water to get a five" is a poor excuse for not being clear about what good performance looks like.

Performance evaluation ratings are an arbitrary judgment. It's true that the final determination about performance ratings is a judgment that is reserved for the supervisor. However, the best supervisors have clearly defined what performance looks like at various levels, and they use those expectations to help employees understand what it means to be successful. Evaluation ratings are arbitrary when leaders don't take the time to define expectations. Only leaders can determine what exceptional performance is at your organization .

Performance ratings allow management to quantify performance. Just because there is a numeric rating scale doesn't mean you've quantified performance. By rating employees and adding up the numbers to determine an overall rating, you will get a score. That score, however, isn't necessarily a valid measure of the performance.

Think of it this way. You calculate a rating for two employees, Joachim and Sherry, based on a 100-point scale. Joachim earns a score of 85.6 and Sherry earns a score of 86.5. Is Sherry really a worse performer than Joachim? Probably not. Unless you have a very automated and measured work environment and you don't consider hard to measure factors like interpersonal relationships, customer service, and problem solving ability, a 0.09 point difference in an overall rating is probably meaningless.

Last year's performance ratings correlate to this year's performance ratings. When you sit down to complete a performance evaluation for an employee, you may be tempted to pull out last year's evaluation and use it to inform this year's evaluation. Don't do it! Performance evaluations are a summary of the work an employee has done during a defined period of time. The ratings should reflect the performance for just that time period. Considering how you rated the employee in the past year only leads you to consider factors that are irrelevant to preparing a summary for the current year.

The Human Resources Department is responsible for defining the rating scale. Your Human Resources Department may administer the performance evaluation process. They may even be the drivers behind your forms, workflows, and rating scale. However, they are not in a position to define how the scale is applied to individual employee performance (unless the individual employee works for HR). Only you, the manager, can decide what performance looks like at various levels on the scale. It's your job to be able to answer the question, "What does it take to earn a '5' on my performance evaluation?"

There should be an equal number of high ratings and low ratings across the organization. Forced distribution of performance ratings creates negative consequences for any organizational culture. When your organization requires that a certain number of employees should get lower ratings or that only a certain number are eligible to receive the highest ratings, performance evaluations become a game. Because so much is often riding on the final "grade," employees become highly competitive and individually focused, losing sight of the customer and the importance of teamwork. Forced distribution also assumes that there are groups of employees who are not achieving. It does not consider that few employees should be in the lower part of the scale if the organization's selection processes are strong or if managers are coaching employees to improve performance. Forced distribution is an aggressive approach, widely used in competitive work environments, but not without costs.

Rating employee performance is a part of the role you assume when you supervise. They should be based on an application of specific examples of performance to a scale that has been defined and applied to the job. The myths defined here only create a barrier to meaningful and useful discussions with employees about variations in their performance.

Marnie E. Green is Principal Consultant of the Management Education Group, Inc. and is a leading expert in the management of public sector employees.  Contact Green at phone: 480-705-9394 email:

View all articles by Marnie Green

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