Both appraisers and employees are confused about what the different rating labels actually mean. How do we solve this communication problem?
Companies often think that just by providing a brief definition of each of the levels on their rating scale, people will thereby understand exactly what is meant by the term. That is not true. A great deal of confusion will result because people will apply different labels to indicate the same quality of performance.
The most effective way to communicate the exact meaning of each of the rating levels on a performance appraisal form is not to offer a definition. Instead, provide a narrative description about the message that each rating label is intended to communicate about the quality of the individual’s performance.
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In Performance Assessment, I provided an example of the messages sent by different performance appraisal ratings using a five-level comparison-to-standard scale. Here is an example of the message that is intended to be sent by each of the various rating labels that might be used in a five-level, behavioral-frequency rating scale:
Always/Invariably. The individual habitually acts as described in every area. Behaving in the manner described is ingrained in the individual’s personal style and it would be almost impossible for him or her not to perform every one of the actions exactly as described. People would notice and remark if the individual ever acted in any way other than the way described.
Regularly/Consistently. This is the individual’s normal and preferred method of operation, although at unusual times, variations may occur. Acting as a master performer as described in the narrative is a recurrent and normal pattern in the individual’s choice of behavior.
Often/Usually. The individual mostly acts in the way of a master performer in the area, but variations arise in times of stress or pressure. While many—or most—of the descriptions of mastery performance are common in the individual’s performance, there are some areas where the person acts in ways that need development.
Occasionally/Sometimes. From time to time the individual acts as a master would in this area, but a common pattern has not been established. It is difficult to predict in any given situation whether the person will act as described in the narrative. The behaviors described in the narrative are a now-and-then, once-in-a-while, periodic pattern.
Rarely/Never. Master-level performance in this area is occasionally seen, but it is seldom and not habitual. The individual may from time to time act as a master performer, but it is not the individual’s usual style and would be seen by others as the exception rather than the rule. While the person may have the capability to perform at a master-level with regard to many of the indicators, actually doing so is an occasional and infrequent occurrence.
Publishing these descriptions of the message that is inherent in each of the performance ratings is also a very effective way to let people know that the middle rating is not average or mediocre and that the higher ratings genuinely involve remarkable levels of performance.