What are Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales (BARS)?

October 15, 2019

Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales, also known as BARS, are a type of performance management scale that use behavior “statements” as a reference point instead of generic descriptors commonly found on traditional rating scales. Designed to add the benefits of both qualitative and quantitative information to the appraisal process, BARS measures an employee’s performance against specific examples of behavior that are given a number rating for the purpose of collecting data.

Establishing specific behaviors for grading, are meant to give the rating a higher degree of accuracy relative to performance. This is because you’re relying on unique, individual behaviors required for each individual position within an organization, instead of behaviors that can be evaluated in any position across the board. It is presumed that using a rating scale with specific behaviors for selected jobs, minimizes the subjectivity in using basic ratings scales. We’ll take a closer look at this later to see if it’s true.

For now, let us consider some examples of what BARS might look like.

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The job being appraised belongs to a customer service representative:

  • A level four rating might assume the rep “answers the phone after 1 to 2 rings with a friendly greeting.”
  • A level six rating might assume the rep “answers phone after 1 ring with the correct company greeting.”

A traditional rating scale would ask if the employee “answers phone promptly/courteously” and list the number ratings as “1-never, 2-not often, 3-sometimes, 4-usually, 5-always”. It is clear to see there will be a difference in the outcome of the appraisal with the more definitive BARS method.

The job being appraised belongs to a nurse:

  • A level four rating might assume the nurse “shows sympathy to patients.”
  • A level six rating might assume the nurse “shows higher levels of empathy in all dealings with the patient and their family.''

The job being appraised belongs to a waiter.

  • A level 2 rating might assume the waiter “talks on phone while taking orders.”
  • A level 4 rating might assume the waiter “makes eye contact with customers during every transaction.”
  • A level 6 rating might assume the waiter “greets customers cheerfully and makes suggestions from the menu based on their preferences.”

What are the Pros and Cons?

While these examples are great at offering an insight to the effectiveness of the BARS method, not everything about Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales is perfect. There are several benefits to making the switch but also some downsides one should examine first.

The benefits of using the BARS approach include:

  1. It is easy to use. The standards upon which the employee is being appraised are significantly clear which makes the entire process much less confusing.
  2. It is based on behavior. The ultimate goal of employee appraisals is to improve performance. Having a better understanding of the behaviors and what leads to them, allows the company an added perspective to what works and what doesn’t.
  3. It is impartial. Because BARS is heavily focused on behavior, the evaluation process seemingly has more fairness to it.
  4. It is completely individualized. BARS creates the ability to design a unique performance management experience for every position within an organization.

The downsides of using the BARS approach include:

  1. It is a time-consuming process. As great as it sounds to design the unique experience for each position, an organization with many different roles would have to invest an enormous amount of time and resources to get it done.
  2. It can be expensive. Time is money. For smaller organizations with multiple roles, this may not be feasible to accomplish in the short run.
  3. It demands a management team that is highly devoted/motivated. All of the statements and anchors used on the appraisal need to be developed. It is demanding and managers would have to be highly involved.
  4. It can be accused of leniency bias. BARS directly removes the opportunity for an evaluation to be biased, however, it doesn’t remove them all. Some believe there is still room for the leniency error.

Who is it best for?

After taking a closer look at the pros and cons of using Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales, one can expect that the method is best used by larger companies financially capable of pursuing the project. However, realizing that major manager input is mandatory, the company also needs to have understandable time and commitment expectations.

It would be ideal if the company did not have a large number of different positions but rather, groups of positions or departments made up of similar types of jobs. Being that this approach is still a measuring system used for rating employees, another suitable use for BARS is when you encounter bias challenges in the current performance management process.

It’s emphasis on behavior produces objective ratings difficult to distort.

How to set yourself up for success?

If you want to include BARS in your performance management plan, it is highly recommended that you start by diligently researching the approach. Be prepared with a full understanding so that you can execute the method properly for your own organization. Also be sure to have a team onboard. As previously mentioned, managers will need to be greatly involved. The following steps will assist in developing the final product:

  1. Collect examples of adequate and inadequate behavior related to jobs. Some use the Critical Incident Technique.
  2. Convert data into performance dimensions using examples of behavior.
  3. Ask your team of subject matter experts (SMEs) to translate into their own performance dimensions.
  4. Give the remaining behaviors a scale, usually a 5 to 9 point one.
  5. Discard the higher deviated standards to ensure SME agreement on behavior ratings.
  6. Develop the final scale accordingly.
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