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Rating Employees: Which Scale Delivers the Best Results?

Rating employees in regular performance reviews is more than a tick-box exercise. By keeping a close eye on employee performance, you demonstrate your commitment to your workforce. When your team knows they’re being watched closely, they’re more engaged and perform better. What’s more, you’ll be able to earmark outstanding employees and catch issues before they become problems.


Choosing an employee performance rating scale that suits the needs of your business is crucial. In this article, you’ll discover why performance rating is so important and learn about the benefits of using each type of scale.

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The importance of rating employees

Rating employee performance allows managers to inform team members of how well they’re performing and areas they can improve on. Supervision shows that you’re serious about performance and leaves less margin for slacking or coasting. It also provides the opportunity to praise team members who are going over and above, which encourages them to continue in the same vein and stick with your company.


The process for rating employees can vary, depending on the type of employee you’re evaluating. Some managers rate employees on their overall performance using a rating scale of 1-5, while others use the Likert scale or create custom scales.


Using a performance rating scale can streamline the review process. It does this by allowing more time for face-to-face discussion and giving managers fewer steps in the appraisal process.  


Why are employee performance rating scales useful?

Conducting performance reviews is a cornerstone for employee engagement. When employees take part in regular conversations with managers about their performance, they become more invested in their job, and they start to see it as an opportunity for personal development. Helping workers see that getting better at their job is a way of improving on a personal level is one of the best ways to get the most out of them.


Furthermore, managers are often super busy, and performance reviews are one of the key tasks that can fall by the wayside. Using a performance rating scale can take time and effort out of the performance rating process. Making appraisals as simple and minimal as possible helps to ensure they get done at least every quarter.


How to choose an employee rating scale

Social scientists have developed rating scales over many years of conducting research and collecting scientific data via questionnaires. Before deciding which employee rating scale you plan on using, consider implementing different scales for different roles. 


Simple numerical scales are often the most effective for people in high-turnover roles. With managers, it’s better to create a custom scale that offers a deeper insight into the individual you’re evaluating. For smaller companies and startups, custom scales might be better for everyone. Just as in larger companies, rating employees using numerical scales might be more appropriate.  


Descriptive vs. numerical performance rating scales

Data from performance rating scales are usually gathered in two ways: numerical and descriptive. A numerical rating scale from 1-5 is the most commonly used, but 1-7 and 1-10 are also seen frequently. Descriptive performance rating scales use words to describe each step, such as from strongly agree to strongly disagree or from needs improvement to exceeds expectations. 


Top three performance rating scales

In the world of HR and management, there are tons of different performance rating scales. The one that works best for you will be dependent on the size, scope and demands of your organization. 


Below is a description of the three most popular performance review scales for rating employees.  


Numerical rating scale (1-5)

The rating scale from 1-5 is the most popular and efficient way of conducting performance reviews. With this method, you assign definitions to the five points on the scale and rate each employee out of five. You then devise a set of behavioral questions to assess criteria, such as timeliness, teamwork abilities and anything else important to the role. 


You can compare the results of team members within the same roles and departments for a deeper insight into who’s performing well and who isn’t.


Let’s take a look at some example questions:


  • How strong is the employee’s work ethic?
  • Does the employee demonstrate a good attitude?
  • How effective is the employee at coaching new team members?
  • Is the employee focused on solutions rather than problems?
  • Does the employee meet expectations in their role?
  • Is the employee an effective team worker?
  • Does the employee meet their deadlines? 

Likert scale

The Likert scale also usually has five options, and they’re written on the performance review document. It’s important that Likert scales demonstrate symmetry, with an equal number of negative and positive options.


The number of options you choose has a major impact on the outcomes because an odd number allows for a neutral response. Some experts argue that a neutral answer leaves too much room for sitting on the fence.


Custom scale

Some managers and HR departments create their own scale to hunker down on specifics related to the individual company. Workplaces, such as Google, Harvard and Huntingdon Ingalls, use rating systems they’ve designed that are tailored to their needs. 


Creating a custom scale for rating employees could involve a number of things. You might decide to use a 10-point rating scale to allow more room for nuance or use descriptive scales that are unique to your business.


The best custom scales are well-thought-out and can remove the neutral option from traditional rating scales that rate from 1-5. 


Here are some examples of custom performance rating scales:


  • Unsatisfactory – Needs Improvement – Meets Expectations – Exceeds Expectations – Outstanding
  • Unacceptable – Requires Development – Satisfactory – Good – Excellent
  • Rarely Meets Standards – Inconsistently Meets Standards – Meets Standards – Meets High Standards – Exceeds High Standards Regularly
  • Low Performance – Developing Skills – Highly Valued Performance – Top Performance
  • Poor – Below Average – Good – Very Good 

Tips for rating employee performance

Rating employees should encourage them to perform better for the next review and motivate them to meet their career goals.


The following tips can help you provide an employee performance rating that motivates and inspires employees to do their best:


Ask them to rate themselves 

One of the most effective ways to approach rating employees is by taking an interactive approach. The idea of meeting with an authority figure who’s judging you based on performance is extremely daunting. Asking employees to fill out the same answers to questions using the same scale is empowering for employees. 


In fact, asking employees to rate themselves gives you a deeper insight into the performance review. If you think an employee needs work in one area but they think they’re exceeding expectations, there’s a problem. In some cases, they might not be getting enough feedback from their managers over the weeks and months, and they might be unaware that they need to improve.


This could be a signal that managers should be more hands-on and communicate what needs to be done more clearly. Likewise, someone might think they’re doing an acceptable job, but you think their work is outstanding. In this case, consider ways to praise and reward good work throughout the workweek.  


Keep it positive 

When rating employees, ensure you’re setting a positive tone throughout the review. Refrain from providing negative feedback, and explain what improvements they can make. That doesn’t mean washing over problems or pretending everything’s perfect when it isn’t. It means approaching the situation from a constructive standpoint, where following the advice you give has desirable outcomes for everyone.  


Praise them on positive ratings, and encourage them to provide even better results at the next evaluation. Staying positive helps motivate them to provide valuable work and feel less concerned about low performance. 


Ask them to review your performance

To keep employees engaged and help you improve, request a rating of your own performance from the employee. This helps you learn how to effectively lead your team and allows you to understand what resources or support your employees may need to accomplish their goals. 


FAQs about rating employees

If you want to learn more about performance rating scales, the following frequently asked questions can provide you with more information about rating employees.


Are there downsides to the numerical rating scale (1-5)?

There are some disadvantages to the five-point employee performance rating scale. For starters, everyone has a slightly different understanding of the definition of a word. What’s satisfactory to one person might be below average to someone else, so it’s crucial that scales are clearly defined. Another issue is leniency bias, whereby managers are aware employees’ ratings reflect on their performance. This could lead to scores that are skewed toward the positive.   


Which rating scale is best?

The best rating scale for your organization is the one that delivers enough accuracy without overloading the managers who are conducting the appraisals. For example, when it comes to contact center agents, spending time and resources creating a custom rating scale might be counterproductive in such a high turnover role. An efficient, numerical system can usually offer enough value to you and the employee, helping them improve and giving you a benchmark for where they’re at. On the other side of the coin, if you’ve invested a lot in hiring and retaining an executive, a custom rating scale would be more detailed and useful. 


How do you stay positive when giving a low employee rating? 

Keep the language you use positive throughout the performance rating session. Here’s an example of offering positive feedback when a low rating is given:


“You received a two out of five for writing skills because though I’m impressed with how well you meet quotas, your work often has grammatical or spelling errors. We can work together to improve this performance by rereading your writing before submitting and installing grammar checker software. This will make your content more valuable and can help strengthen your writing skills.”


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