Rating Scales: Playing Piano with a Sledgehammer…

Sean Conrad Don't Feed the Vendors, Leadership, Performance, Sean Conrad

The death knell has sounded for the performance review in media reports and books more times than your HR memory can recall I’m sure. But chances are high that you’re still working in an organization that conducts them in some way, shape or form.

So I ask you:

What are you doing in HR to make sure that your managers are succeeding at making performance reviews more meaningful?

Ideally you want your managers to be like a maestro conducting an orchestra – so to speak. You want to help them consistently identify areas for development, and to provide ongoing feedback and coaching to their teams. You want to give them the skills, practice and tools to ensure they are leading their ensembles in perfect harmony, right?
Which brings me to my next point. You’re likely using some kind of rating scale in the process to assess and rate competencies in the review process. Short rating scales like the basic “meets” or “exceeds” are appropriate for responding to some very straightforward information.

However, if you believe that your company’s core competencies are a real competitive differentiator, but then give your managers and employees nothing but a 1 to 5 to assess those competencies, then you’re doing them a disservice. Non-descript, short rating scales for appraising your company’s or a position’s most critical competencies mean your managers are using a completely inappropriate tool to guide the appraisal process. Short rating scales provide no detail, dimension, context or comparative capability. In essence, you are asking managers to play a concerto using a sledgehammer.

Short scales in this context hobble your managers. With such limited descriptions of performance and a bunch of simple check boxes, there’s no way to get to the heart of an employee’s performance, let alone capture any valuable feedback. Without a scale that provides enough of a spread to ensure individual employee performance is accurately measured, you can quickly end up with uninspired, vanilla reviews that read the same for the majority of employees.

While the intent of the short rating scale might be to simplify the process, if used inappropriately it can actually make things a lot more complicated. For example, when it comes time to manage associated tasks like pay for performance, it becomes very difficult to accurately identify who should be receiving what. With your vanilla reviews, when everyone receives a simple 3/5, it’s going to be very difficult to justify whose performance is noteworthy when you don’t have the data to back up that decision.

Speaking of accuracy, short rating scales can also bring with them another major issue – grade creep. Cathy Martin over at Intellectual Capital Consulting does a great job discussing this tendency for managers to rate employees the same or too high, and has some other great ideas for removing subjectivity from the process. Check out her posts – Cathy’s posts are well worth the read.

With such limited options in a short scale scenario, managers are going to have a difficult time providing accurate feedback, and are likely to select “exceeds” expectations when they have no context for what “meets” and “exceeds” mean exactly.

This “grade creep” when multiplied across managers and your entire organization can become a major issue. Using the pay for performance context again, suddenly you have 25 employees who aren’t actually exceeding expectations, but need to be compensated as such, which means the allocated merit pay budget is going to take a hit.

Competency-specific, longer, detailed rating scales provide managers with an effective tool to measure and accurately capture each employee’s performance. This approach helps HR to put performance front and centre in the appraisal process, and is an important way to help managers give feedback that’s correct and complete. When everyone understands the meaning behind the rating, they can focus on how their accomplishments work towards a higher rating, or how they’re going to need development to close a gap in a certain area. With this kind of focus, communicating expectations and inspiring good conversations around performance is music to everyone’s ears.

Editor’s NoteDon’t Feed the Vendors is a special series at FOT.  The goal of DFTV?  We get hammered by third parties who want to write at FOT, so we give them a challenge.  Write something cool and significant we can learn from/talk about in the FOT style, and you can roll with the FOT crew. Try to sell our readership your product and/or provide a whitepaper, and we’ll openly mock your company in public for not understanding the DNA of our readership.  Many inquire, few follow through once they learn they can’t post a workup of their latest “research”.  For those who make the cut, we’ll offer up associate FOT membership as part of the Don’t Feed the Vendors stable.

Sean Conrad of Halogen Software is one of the vendors who makes the cut.  Show him some love in the comments for being up to the challenge and not writing something that should be read on PBS.