A performance rating scale may sound very simple, but there’s actually a lot to consider. They’re a central element of any employee evaluation, strongly influencing the accuracy of results. Selecting a clear, well-defined performance rating scale will give you the best possible data.

Let’s examine what performance rating scales are and why they’re important. Then, we’ll look at specific types of rating scales and their pros and cons.

Table of Contents

1. What Is A Performance Rating Scale

2. Why Is Choosing the Right Performance Rating Scale Important

3. Which Performance Rating Scale Is Best

4. Creating A Rubric for Your Scale

5. How to Choose the Best Performance Rating Scale for Your Company

What Is A Performance Rating Scale

A performance rating scale allows reviewers to evaluate an employee’s abilities in critical areas. It follows each question in the evaluation, presenting a list of options to choose from. Each option corresponds to a specific level of skill.

Are performance rating scales essential to use? Absolutely. They play a crucial role in any evaluation or review. Having a solid performance rating scale allows a company to easily and accurately analyze results. 

Where should you use performance rating scales? 

  • Performance evaluations
  • 360 feedback reviews
  • Self-assessments

In all of these contexts, performance rating scales are invaluable. The tips we’ll share on choosing a rating scale apply to them all.

Why Is Choosing the Right Performance Rating Scale Important

A poorly designed performance rating scale can skew evaluation results. It may not explain what each option actually means. Or, it may place too much weight on “negative” or “positive” options. A good scale strikes a balance between the two.

This means it promotes accurate results that allow employees to receive the right support and guidance. Based on the results, they more fully understand how to improve.

Importantly, evaluations can also include essay-style questions. Relying too heavily on them creates challenges, however. For one, some managers may write much more than others, as the University of Minnesota points out.

And results can’t be easily synthesized. But using a handful of essay questions acts as a valuable complement to ratings.

Which Performance Rating Scale Is Best

Close up of diverse hands touching performance rating scale charts and tablet on desk
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Let’s unpack the different types of performance rating scales. We’ll discuss potential benefits and drawbacks of each one.

We’ll begin with the 3-point, 5-point, and 6-point scales. For each of these, you could include numbers or descriptive words that correspond to each point on the scale. For example, options could include “Exceptional,” “Very Strong,” “Good,” “Needs Improvement,” and “Very Poor.”

Many scales include both numbers and descriptive words or phrases.

Descriptive scales are often referred to as “Likert” scales. Their descriptive options can clarify the meaning of each rating choice. Whereas numbers can be open to interpretation, descriptive words are clearer.

The 3-Point Rating Scale

On the surface, a 3-point rating scale is a simple performance rating scale. Options can include “1,” “2,” and “3,” or they can be phrased in this way:

  • Not Meeting Expectations
  • Meeting Expectations
  • Exceeding Expectations

But assigning ratings can pose challenges on a 3-point scale. Reviewers may feel hesitant to assign a low rating when there are only three options. Choosing the lowest option may feel overly harsh. They may therefore be more prone to selecting “Meeting Expectations” when the reviewee is not fully meeting them.

More options can allow for more nuance and encourage more honesty from raters.

The 5-Point Performance Rating Scale

The 5-point scale is a great option for the typical evaluation, we find. It provides a fairly high level of nuance without overwhelming reviewers. This scale more commonly appears on performance reviews than 3-point, 6-point, and other numeric scales.

Consider what the middle option on your 5-point scale represents. You may believe “Average” means “Competent,” but reviewees might not perceive it that way. They may view “Average” as representing just “Okay.” So, they may feel less inclined to select “Average” than “Good” or “Above Average.” 

As Zenger/Folkman says, this can create “false positives.” Even though the reviewee is just “okay” at a particular skill, the results then make them appear above average.

Replacing “Average” with “Good” or “Competent” can make ratings more accurate. So, it avoids these false positives. Raters who tend to be too “nice” will then select that third option when appropriate. 

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The 6-Point Ranking Scale

Why are 6-point scales useful? They reduce the tendency to label employees as “average” to avoid making the tough calls. Raters often tend to “drift upward” or mainly assign average ratings, says SHRM. The 6-point scale helps them steer clear of this tendency.

With an even number of options, no choice is neutral. All options fall either on the positive or negative side of the spectrum. This can prompt reviewers to be more decisive in their ratings. 

Binary Ratings

Binary ratings involve “yes or no” questions. There may be a “not applicable” or “unknown” option as well. 

For example:

“Is this employee ready to lead a major project?”

  • Yes
  • No
  • I’m not sure

 “Does the employee have strong relationships with clients?”

  • Yes
  • No
  • I’m not sure

The binary scale obviously lacks nuance, which can pose a problem. Not every question has an easy “yes” or “no” answer. And responses can be very subjective as well.

The BARS Rating Scale

A BARS performance rating scale provides highly descriptive multiple-choice options. Each rating option states a specific type of behaviour, boosting accuracy. This helps eliminate any confusion about what each ranking actually means.

With a BARS scale, the rubric is essentially built into the responses and tailored to each question. For example, a BARS performance rating scale might look as follows:

How effectively does the employee collaborate with others?

  • Rarely collaborates, working independently even when situations call for collective work.
  • Attempts to collaborate at times but doesn’t usually achieve notable results.
  • Makes a reasonable effort to collaborate when prompted, with fairly good results.
  • Displays strong collaborative skills and high-quality results.
  • Collaborates regularly and with exceptional results.

Since they’re so specific, BARS scales must be designed for particular roles and levels. Developing a BARS scale for each role takes time. Nonetheless, they can be a worthwhile investment because they can deliver accurate results. When reviewing the results, employees can easily understand how they need to grow.

Each of the above scales can be useful. The 5-point scale is very popular for its versatility. And you can absolutely use all the scales discussed above with a management by objectives (MBO) approach. Just make sure the matrix or BARS questions centre on goal achievement. 

Creating A Rubric for Your Scale

Unless you’re using a BARS scale, adopt a rubric that explains what each option on your scale represents.

“Raters should be provided with examples of behaviours, skills, measurements, and other data that will assist them in deciding the performance level,” says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “This level of detail is particularly important in numerical scales, where one person’s ‘5’ is another person’s ‘4’.”

This can take the form of a simple rubric at the top or bottom of the survey. For example:

1 = Not at all. Employee rarely or never displays this behaviour.

2 = Needs improvement. Employee may at times try to engage in this behaviour but has not learned to do so successfully.

3 = Competent. Employee effectively engages in the behaviour but has substantial room to improve. 

4 = Strong. Employee has begun to demonstrate prowess in this behaviour.

5 = Exceptional. Employee sets a high bar for others by exemplifying how to engage in this behaviour.

UC Davis uses a detailed matrix for employee reviews. This matrix follows a 5-point scale from “Exceptional” to “Expectations Not Met.” For each point, the matrix details how to evaluate goal achievement, skills and knowledge, and behaviours. Emory University also shares a detailed 5-point scale rubric.

How to Choose the Best Performance Rating Scale for Your Company

Three diverse colleagues looking at performance rating scale on laptop
Credit: Jopwell/Pexels

When choosing or creating your performance rating scale, consider these points.

  • Do reviewers tend to be too “nice” or rate everyone as average? If so, a 4- or 6-point scale may help. 
  • How much capacity to design a scale do you have? How many different roles are you evaluating? Designing a BARS scale may be tough if you have limited HR staff or time.
  • Does the scale include enough nuance to detect performance differences? 
  • Does it have a clear rubric? This will promote accuracy and help avoid bias. And if an employee ever contests a decision made based on a performance review, you can clearly demonstrate the rationale.
  • Do reviewees understand the rubric? Do a pilot test to make sure, asking several managers to try it out.

Software can facilitate the creation of various performance rating scales. For example, Primalogik’s tools let users customize 3-point, 5-point, and 6-point scales. 

Thoughtfully choosing a performance rating scale will give you more objective results from evaluations. In turn, this will benefit individual growth and organizational planning. You’ll more clearly identify the best candidate for a promotion. And you’ll enhance employees’ development in critical areas.

Use your chosen scale consistently through different review cycles to track results over time.

Want to see for yourself how Primalogik’s software can produce quality performance rating scales? Demo our product to find out!