Unfortunately there’s no magic bullet that helps managers distinguish between performance rating scores during the annual performance review process. While most companies use something similar to a 5-point rating scale where 5 is the highest score (“stellar / exemplary”), 3 is in the middle (“meets expectations”), and 1 is at the bottom (“fails to meet expectations”), the categories themselves are so subjective and open to interpretation that departments and divisions often end up scoring their employees significantly differently based on particular assumptions.
What’s important, therefore, is that leaders within and across divisions and/or departments discuss what those scores might look like this year in a sort of performance “calibration” meeting. That’s where they can discuss how specific employees should fall on the performance-rating spectrum. To do so, however, they’ll need a tool to help them talk through these very subjective types of considerations.
Rater Definition Consistency Tool
The following rater definition consistency tool can be used as a point of reference for your management team. The purpose of the tool is to help open the lines of communication and get all leaders “speaking the same language” about what success looks like relative to individual contributions and performance levels over the past year. The tool itself can be broken down as follows:
Role model status. Potential successor to immediate supervisor/highly promotable now. Performed above and beyond under exceptional circumstances during the review period. Generally recognized #1 (Top 5%) ranking among peer group.
Overall excellent performer and easy to work with – smart, dedicated, ambitious, and cooperative, but may not yet be ready to promote because there’s still a lot to learn in the current role. May not have been exposed to exceptional circumstances or opportunities that would warrant a higher designation. However, definitely an exceptional contributor who exceeds people’s expectations in many ways and is a long-term “keeper”—just needs more time in current role to grow and develop and gain additional exposure.
3—Fully Successful Performance
(3a) Consistently performs well and is reliable, courteous, and dedicated. Always tries hard and looks for ways of acquiring new skills but doesn’t necessarily perform with distinction. May not stand out as a rarity among peers but consistently contributes to the department’s efforts and is a valuable member of the team.
(3b) Meets expectations overall but may be challenged in particular performance areas. May perform well because of tenure in role and familiarity with workload but does not appear ambitious about learning new things or expanding beyond his comfort zone. While performance may be acceptable, conduct may at times be problematic.
2—Partially Successful Performance
Fails to meet minimum performance or conduct expectations in specific areas of responsibility. Is not able to demonstrate consistent improvement. May appear to be burned out or lack motivation, and fails to go the extra mile for others. Lacks requisite technical skills or knowledge relating to particular aspects of role. May perform well but conduct is so problematic that the entire year’s performance review score may be invalidated. A partial merit increase or bonus may be awarded.
Fails to meet minimum performance or conduct expectations for the role in general. The individual’s position is in immediate jeopardy of being lost. The performance review may be accompanied by corrective action documentation stating that failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement will result in dismissal. No merit increase or bonus should be awarded.
How these general parameters fit your organization and what they might look like at any given time should indeed differ from year to year. What makes most sense is to blow these descriptors up in a PowerPoint presentation or draft them on butcher-block paper and openly discuss as a management team which employees clearly fall in certain categories. The key is to get the conversation going. From senior leaders to front line supervisors, conversations like these need to happen to raise awareness of your organizational expectations and to provide leaders with benchmarks and guideposts to align their assessments.
While there aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers, of course, interpreting performance scores typically results in healthy and much-needed debate before pen gets put to paper and reviews are drafted. So go ahead: Kick off a conversation that’s long overdue, and remember that total agreement isn’t necessary. Discussing performance interpretations openly, however, is. And that’s how successful organizational calibration sessions fine-tune performance over time in a performance-driven company.
Paul Falcone is a human resources executive in Los Angeles and has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner. He is the author of 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.