Does it make any difference whether we use words or numbers?
No matter how many positions there may be on the rating scale, the positions have to be labeled. There are four alternatives: behavioral frequency, verbal descriptors, comparison-to-standard, and numerical.
Figure provides examples of all four alternatives including the various choices available for a five-level rating scheme. The figure also suggests the best way to use each alternative in a performance appraisal form.
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As Figure indicates, the best choice for assessing an individual’s performance against the competencies expected of people in the organization is a behavioral frequency scale (e.g., regularly/often/sometimes/occasionally). To assess each competency, the most effective technique is to provide a narrative description of master-level performance and then evaluate how often the individual performed as a master.
When the organization is assessing the individual’s performance against her key job responsibilities, verbal descriptors are the best choice. For example, in meeting her responsibility of managing the mail, was the secretary’s performance marginal, fair, competent, superior, or distinguished?
In the part of the appraisal that focuses on goals, use comparison-to-standard descriptors. At the beginning of the appraisal period during the planning meeting, the individual and the supervisor probably talked about their goals for and expectations of the results that would be achieved. Now it’s time for assessment. Did the individual far exceed expectations, fully meet expectations, or fail to meet expectations?
The only one of the four alternatives to actively avoid on the appraisal form is a numerical scale. Even though it’s common for an appraisal form to use numbers, it’s a mistake. The obvious reason for avoiding numbers is that people resent being classified in those terms. More important, the use of numbers provides an illusion of precision that does not actually exist.
Ineffectual managers like being able to use numbers because it allows them to avoid making hard judgments and instead lets them treat performance appraisal like the solving of an arithmetic problem. If there are ratings for various sections within the form and then one final rating, weak appraisers will want to quantify everything and then come up with an arithmetic average for the final rating.
That’s a mistake. Not every part of the form is equally important, and a rating of superior on one aspect of job performance may not be as significant to the organization’s success as a superior rating in a more critical area. Simply assigning a number removes the requirement that managers apply critical, tough-minded judgment to the performance of the members of their team.
The best approach is to use different rating descriptors in different parts of the form and not use numbers anywhere, with the conscious awareness that this will make it more difficult for weak appraisers to average things out in coming up with a final rating.