Rating Scales for Employee Performance Reviews

Updated:

May 18, 2021

Rating scales are everywhere: After you visit the doctor, watch a show on Netflix, or order food on DoorDash.

They’re also a useful tool for performance reviews. Rating scales help to quantitatively measure employee performance and speed up the appraisal process, allowing organizations to solicit feedback from more people in one review cycle.

In this article, we’re providing examples and ideas to help you create rating scales for your performance management process.

Choosing the Right Rating Scales

There is literally a science to rating scales.

Social scientists have been using questionnaires to collect real scientific data for many decades, so we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We should learn from our scientific colleagues.

Want to visualize your employee ratings with reports? PerformYard makes it easy. Learn More.

Nominal vs. Binary vs. Ordinal Data

Before diving deeper into rating scales, we're going to quickly review the three types of data that are most often collected on employee appraisal forms: nominal, binary, and ordinal.

Nominal = Categories

Nominal Data

When the answer options have no relationship to each other (aren’t ordered or don't have any numeric relationship), you are asking a question that will generate nominal data.

These are not technically rating scale questions, but are commonly found on review forms.

Binary = Yes or No (either or)

Binary Data

Binary data is always an either or answer, with the most common example being yes or no.

Other examples include:

  • Exists or doesn’t exist
  • Is or is not
  • Complete or incomplete

Deloitte collects binary data in 2 of the 4 questions on their review form. Google collects binary data on their upward reviews of managers.

Want to visualize your employee ratings with reports? PerformYard makes it easy. Learn More.

Ordinal = Ordered List

ordinal data

Ordinal data is collected when we ask rating scale questions. The answers to a question will be a list of possibilities that have a clear order or ranking.

As you move up the scale, options should clearly be better/more and as you move down the scale, the options should be worse/less.

Numeric vs. Descriptive Answers

There are two common ways to present rating scale answers: numeric and descriptive.

Numeric: Just Numbers

Example: “Score the employee’s leadership ability between 1 and 5.” 

Numeric scales only include numbers and rightfully get a lot of pushback.

It can be really hard for managers to understand what constitutes a 4 vs. a 5 when it comes to subjective competencies like “assertiveness.” 

Descriptive: Ordered Descriptions

Example: Everything from Agree to Disagree, all the way to Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales.

Descriptive rating scales include descriptions of what each step up on the scale looks like.

This could be as simple as different levels of agreement or complex as a set of specific actions an employee should have taken to achieve each level.

Most Common Rating Scales: Likert vs. Semantic vs. Custom

Likert Scales

Likert Scale

Likert scales measure our response to a statement, with the most common example being: Strongly Disagree - Disagree - Neither Agree nor Disagree - Agree - Strongly Agree.

Well designed likert scales will be symmetrical, with an equal number of positive and negative responses. They will also be balanced with what feels like the same distance between each choice. 

Five choices is the most common number on a likert scale, but any number can be used.

One of the most important decisions to make is whether to give an odd or even number.

An odd number of choices will mean the central option is neutral, neither positive or negative.

An even number of options is sometimes called a “forced choice” and does not give a neutral option, so the respondent has to pick a side.

Semantic Scales

semantic scale

Semantic scales are similar to likert scales but present two extremes with unnamed options in between.

For example, you might ask an employee to rate a recent project between success and failure with 7 options in between.

Custom Scales

Custom scales are common because they allow HR teams to create their own scales to fit their needs.

A risk of custom scales is that they can lead to unexpected distortions in data. Below are several real-life examples of custom rating scales to help you see how they can be used effectively.

No matter which rating scale you choose, PerformYard makes it easy to automate and track objectives, goals, and employee progress. Learn More.

Examples of Rating Scales in Action

UC Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley Human Resources Department currently conducts performance appraisals with a 5-level rating scale, ranging from Exceptional to Unsatisfactory.

Supervisors that assign a Level 2 (Improvement Needed) or Level 1 (Unsatisfactory) rating to an employee must complete a performance improvement plan for that employee.

This plan is developed to improve or correct poor performance, containing timelines that are outlined and monitored to measure the employee’s progress.

A Level 5 (Exceptional) rating is said to be achievable, but given fairly infrequently. High-performing employees often receive a Level 4 (Exceeds Expectations) or Level 3 (Meets Expectations) rating.

Huntington Ingalls

This company uses a rating system that is both numerical and alphabetical, focused on whether or not employees meet company goals.

Their 5-point scale assigns abbreviations that coincide with each numerical ranking:

  • 5 = FE (Far Exceeds)
  • 4 = EX (Exceeds Expectations)
  • 3 = ME (Meets Expectations)
  • 2 = DR (Development Required)
  • 1 = IR (Improvement Required)

Harvard

Harvard makes use of multiple rating scales within their organization, including overall performance ratings of employees, goals, competencies, and direct report ratings.

Overall performance ratings are given on a 5-point scale, observing employees with performances that are:

  • 5 = Leading
  • 4 = Strong
  • 3 = Solid
  • 2 = Building
  • 1 = Not Meeting Expectations

Goals are also tracked using a 3-point rating scale that measures whether a goal or project was on time, on budget, and accomplished.

  • 3 = Goal Was Met
  • 2 = Goal Was Partially Met
  • 1 = Goal Was Unfinished (Most or All Dimensions Were Not Achieved)

Competencies ratings are given to employees who demonstrate thorough to lacking knowledge of the organization’s core competencies. This 4-point scale includes the following:

  • 4 = Advanced
  • 3 = Proficient
  • 2 = Developing
  • 1 = Does Not Demonstrate

Direct report ratings are reserved for managers only and determine whether the ratee’s capabilities are:

  • 3 = Highly Effective
  • 2 = Effective
  • 1 = Needs Improvement

Emory University

Emory University’s HR team operates an in-depth rating system that is similar to BARS.

Each employee is rated against a long list of unique core competencies that the organization abides by:

  • Building Trust
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Delivering Results
  • Problem Solving
  • Taking Initiative
  • Functional Knowledge and Skills
  • Service to Others/Customer Focus

Each of these categories deals with how well an employee displays honesty, respect, listening and sharing, productivity, decision making, and reasoning.

The competencies are rated with a 3-point system:

  • 3 = Exceeds Expectations
  • 2 = Meets Expectations
  • 1 = Unacceptable

All ratings apply to supervisors and managers, as well as non-managers.

More Examples

Binary Rating Scale Examples

  • Needs Improvement | Meets Expectations
  • Needs Attention | Satisfactory

1-3 Rating Scale Examples

  • Does Not Meet | Meets | Exceeds
  • Below Level | At Level | Above Level
  • Not Often Enough | From Time to Time | Most of the Time
  • Minor Contribution | Important Contribution | Critical Contribution

1-4 Rating Scale Examples

  • Never | Sometimes | Often | Always
  • Low Performer | Developing Performer | Highly Valued Performer | Top Performer

1-5 Rating Scale Examples

  • Unsatisfactory | Needs Improvement | Meets Expectations | Exceeds Expectations | Distinguished
  • Unacceptable | Needs Improvement | Acceptable | Good | Excellent
  • Did not meet expectations | Met some but not all expectations | Fully met expectations | Exceeded expectations | Significantly exceeded expectations
  • Area of Deficiency | Inconsistently Meets Standards | Meets Standards | Meets High Standards | Regularly Exceeds High Standards
  • Needs Improvement | Consistently Meets Expectations | Exceeds Expectations | Strongly Exceeds Expectations | Superb
  • Unsatisfactory | Meets Most | Fully Meets and Sometimes Exceeds | Consistently Exceeds | Far Exceeds
  • Unacceptable Performance | Partially Successful | Fully Successful | Superior | Distinguished Performance
  • Poor | Below Average | Good | Very Good | Outstanding

What to do next.

Here are three ways you can continue your journey to a more modern and effective performance management strategy:

  1. See PerformYard In Action. Find time with one of our product experts to get a live look at what it's like to use modern performance management software. Every call starts with a 5 minute discussion of your approach and then immediately dives into a live product demonstration that's based on your organization's process. Or start by watching a 2-minute video overview.
  2. Learn more about modern performance management. Start with our Guide to Building a Modern Performance Management System, or visit our blog to see the latest ideas from our team.
  3. If you know other HR Pros who would appreciate this article, share it with them through email, LinkedIn or Twitter.