Play the Rating Game



When you rate employee performance, does it feel like you’re playing a game?  

The mere idea of rating performance causes many managers to shiver. In fact, some organizations have suggested doing away with ratings. I wrote about this approach in an E-Tip last year.  Still, most organizations are rating employees on a numeric scale at evaluation time. So let’s figure out how to make the most of it.

Your organization’s performance rating scale may be numeric (one to five) or a range of verbal descriptors (Exceptional to Unacceptable). Regardless, there are five rules to follow to avoid playing the rating game.

All levels of the scale should be used. When you tell employees that they have to “walk on water” to get the highest rating on the scale, you are really just avoiding your responsibility for clearly defining performance expectations. If your scale has five levels, it’s important to define what behavior it takes to earn each of the rating levels. Likewise, if an employee’s performance is not satisfactory, you are doing them a disservice by rating the performance acceptable. Call it like it is.

You are responsible for defining the rating scale. Your Human Resources Department might offer you generic definitions for each level of the rating scale. However, only you can translate the generic definition into something that is meaningful for your employees. For example, commendable performance for a Firefighter will be defined differently than commendable performance for a Customer Service Representative. Because the jobs are so different, the ratings must be applied differently. That’s why only you, the manager, can define the scale specifically. The more descriptive your expectations for the job, the clearer your expectations will be for the employee.

Specific examples should be provided to support each rating. Rating performance without explaining why the rating was assigned turns the performance evaluation into a popularity contest. While there will always be a level of subjectivity when rating performance, you can make it more objective by providing examples of performance that justify the assigned rating. For example, if the employee is below standard, specific examples of what the employee did that was not up to your expectations will validate the rating. Likewise, when performance is rated as exceptional, you can reinforce it and encourage the same level of performance when you clearly describe what the employee did to earn the high praise. It’s reinforcement, plain and simple.

Ratings should be discussed between managers and supervisors prior to the discussion with the employee. When you present your evaluation, ratings and all, to the employee without getting your boss’s buy-in, you are setting yourself and the employee up for a potential bombshell. Your boss is a key player in the management of your direct reports. Without their support and input, you are a lone paddler in the middle of a big ocean. Before you “finalize” an evaluation for an employee, make sure you have the backing of your manager. If anything goes awry with the evaluation, you will need your manager’s support.

There is no correlation between last year’s and this year’s ratings. Rate this year’s performance only. Performance evaluations should be a summary of the previous year’s performance. It is not a reflection of the employee’s entire career. When you reach for the previous year’s performance evaluation and use it as a basis for the current year’s evaluation, you are considering performance that is outside the scope of the current evaluation. Focus on this year only.

Rating employees doesn’t have to be a hazy, nebulous proposition. It certainly shouldn’t be a game. A little structure and some clear expectations can help you turn a painful exercise into one that is painless.


Even if your performance evaluation form does not require you to rate employees using a scale, it likely requires you to make judgments about the employee’s performance. You will make these assessments more objectively and more confidently by using the principles in our new Painless Performance Evaluations recorded webinar series.

See a demo video of the Painless Performance Evaluations webinar series and download an overview of the webinar series and sample from the discussion guides!

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