Performance Appraisal Rating Anchors

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A landscaper from New York contacted me the other day to talk about using employee performance appraisals to drive more accountability in her organization.  Uncertain of the process, wary of making mistakes, and nearly paralyzed by the probability of conveying negative feedback to her employees, she sought basic support, clarity, and guidance from me.

During our lengthy conversation, we discussed the linkage connecting the performance appraisal form with the employee’s job description, the need for alignment between employee performance and organizational goals, and the interpretative nature of the rating standards found on the performance appraisal form.  In specific, she did not know how to accurately differentiate between the 5 points on the rating scale.   This aspect of performance appraisals is thoroughly subjective, contributing mightily to every supervisor’s intense anxiety level when deciding upon a rating.  

The most common set of performance appraisal rating anchors are as follows:  (1) Needs Improvement, (2) Below Average, (3) Average, (4) Above Average, and (5) Outstanding.  I whole heartedly disagree with that collection for multiple reasons.  First, the anchors seem to evaluate the employee as a person, rather than the employee’s performance (after all, it is called a “performance” appraisal for a reason; it’s not called a personal judgment, is it?).  Second, I do not know any employee, or person for that matter, who wants to be judged as “average.”  And third, there is no clear reference to any performance standard as a benchmark for achievement.

In its place, I frequently use the following five anchors on performance appraisal forms:

  1. Unsatisfactory
  2. Below Expectations
  3. Meets Expectations
  4. Exceeds Expectations
  5. Role Model

It is my belief that these anchors focus extensively on the employee’s performance, not his/her personhood.  To be clear, a performance appraisal has only one goal:  Improve employee job performance.  We are not concerned with the employee’s personal variables, lifestyle, traits, or opinions.  

Second, there is no objective index of “Average.”  Hypothetically, if all the employees are underperformers, an employee receiving a rating of “3” (i.e., “Average”) is still an underperformer.  Right?  That judgment of “average” lends no insight regarding employee value, success, or development.

Third, the middle anchor of “3” demonstrably clarifies that the employee has met performance expectations.  It’s not about his gender, or her political affiliation, or his religion or her world view; it is only about meeting performance expectations.  The ability of the employee to meet performance expectations (i.e., goals) increases the probability that the company achieved its goals as well (If not, we have a much more serious problem on our hands).  

So, as I shared this information with the landscaper, I advised that when she is considering a performance appraisal for any employee at the time of his/her formal review, that she only considers the degree to which each employee achieved his/her performance goals throughout the past rating period; other factors, are mere distractions, bias, or error.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.