Rating scales are one of the more commonly used tools in performance management. A rating scale provides a quantitative measure for an objective assessment, which helps organizations differentiate between employees.
They’re also easy to administer and can speed up performance appraisals for managers.
Rating scales can come in all shapes and sizes--from alphabetic (a, b, c), to numeric (level 1 - level 5), and with a variety of different descriptions ascribed to the levels. If you are trying to decide what kind of rating scale to use for your performance appraisal questions, it may be helpful to understand the origins of the system.
The Likert scale
A Likert scale, named after psychologist and inventor Rensis Likert, is a scale that employs questionnaires for research and survey purposes. The scale measures the attitudes of survey participants by observing their responses in a linear format--i.e., fixed choice responses on a continuum from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
Likert’s assumption was that the strength and intensity of experience or attitudes can be measured in a linear format. In today’s performance management sphere, Likert scales are widely used to measure opinions and attitudes about employees. They are always closed-ended, presenting participants with pre-populated responses in order to gather reliable data of an employee’s opinions, perceptions, and behaviors.
In its final form, a Likert scale most often contains from five to seven points that range from one extreme attitude to another, usually containing a moderate or neutral point in the middle.
However, rating scales have taken many forms in performance management, and most companies have taken to creating a customized version that works best with their performance appraisal process.
We’ll give some examples in a minute -- but first, here are the two most commonly used rating scales in performance appraisals.
Types of rating scales
Two common rating scales used in performance appraisal systems are Graphic Rating Scales and Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales (BARS).
The graphic rating scale form utilizes a performance appraisal checklist, in which a manager will rate an employee’s performance against a set of traits that are required for effective performance. An example of these behaviors or traits might include: quality of work, teamwork, responsibility, ethics, etc. Managers will then rate employees on a continuum such as excellent, good, average, fair, and poor, using either a numerically or alphabetically assigned rating.
Graphic rating scales can vary from 3 points to 8 points. In numerical rating scales, usually a 1 rating is assigned to the lowest performance level while a 5 (on a 5-point rating scale) is assigned to the highest performance level. Other rating scales can include a 3-point system where an employee either exceeds, meets, or does not meet expectations or job requirements.
A behaviorally anchored rating scale (BARS) is similar to the graphic rating scale in that it rates employees according to their performance and specific behavioral patterns--however, a BARS form is customized to every different type of job, trait, or competency. It uses a similar continuum as a graphic rating scale, but provides a description of each employee assessment along the continuum.
By providing a detailed description of the appraisal at each rating, many believe that the use of BARS helps to avoid the problem of subjectivity in performance appraisals. Rather than using one simple word to describe performance--such as good, acceptable, excellent, or poor--BARS forms provide a more objective and accurate assessment. However, the development of different BARS can take up a lot of an organization’s time, money, and effort. And depending on the role it might not even be possible to create accurate BARS definitions.
If you feel overwhelmed by the number of possibilities when it comes to creating a customized rating scale form for your performance appraisals, never fear -- we’ve taken the time to list out several rating scale systems that are already in place and are working effectively for other HR professionals.
Examples of custom rating scales
The University of California, Berkeley human resources department currently conducts performance appraisals with a 5-level rating scale, ranging from Exceptional to Unsatisfactory. Supervisors that assign a Level 2 (Improvement Needed) or Level 1 (Unsatisfactory) rating to an employee must complete a Performance Improvement Plan for said employee. This plan is developed to improve or correct poor performance, containing timelines that are outlined and monitored to measure the employee’s progress. A Level 5 (Exceptional) rating is said to be achievable, but given fairly infrequently. High-performing employees often receive a Level 4 (Exceeds Expectations) or Level 3 (Meets Expectations) rating.
This company uses a rating system that is both numerical and alphabetical, focused on whether or not employees meet company goals. Their 5-point scale assigns abbreviations that coincide with each numerical ranking: 5 = FE (Far Exceeds), 4 = EX (Exceeds Expectations), 3 = ME (Meets Expectations), 2 = DR (Development Required), and 1 = IR (Improvement Required).
Harvard makes use of multiple rating scales within their organization, including overall performance ratings of employees, goals, competencies, and direct report ratings. Overall performance ratings are given on a 5-point scale, observing employees with performances that are leading (5), strong (4), solid (3), building (2), and not meeting expectations (1).
Goals are also tracked using a 3-point rating scale that measures whether a goal or project was on time, on budget, and accomplished. A 3 ranking implies that a goal was met, a 2 ranking is given to partially met goals, and a 1 ranking is assigned to an unfinished goal where most or all dimensions were not achieved.
Competencies ratings are given to employees who demonstrate thorough to lacking knowledge of the organization’s core competencies. This 4-point scale ranges from Advanced, to Proficient, to Developing, and lastly, Does Not Demonstrate.
Direct report ratings are reserved for managers only, and determine whether the ratee’s capabilities are Highly Effective (3), Effective (2), or Needs Improvement (1).
Emory University’s HR team operates an in-depth rating system that is similar to BARS. Each employee is rated against a long list of unique core competencies that the organization abides by. This checklist includes building trust, collaboration, communication, delivering results, problem solving, taking initiative, functional knowledge and skills, and service to others/customer focus.
Each of these categories deals with how well an employee displays honesty, respect, listening and sharing, productivity, decision making, and reasoning. The competencies are rated with a 3-point system ranging from Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, and Unacceptable. All ratings apply to supervisors and managers, as well as non-managers.