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What Does It Take to Get a "5" on My Performance Evaluation?

by Marnie Green

If you are responsible for completing performance evaluations for employees, be prepared to answer the age-old question: "What does it take to get a ____ rating?" Regardless of the scale used in your organization's performance management system, employees will either ask you or wonder what they have to do to earn higher ratings. This is especially the case if higher ratings translate into higher pay. As a manager, you are the only person who can answer this question.

To answer, consider the following truths:

1. Employees deserve a clear and specific answer. If you can't explain the difference between 3-level performance and 4-level performance, how can the employee, in good faith, make an effort to achieve higher levels of performance? "I'll know it when I see it," conveys to the employee that you haven't really thought about what you expect and what you consider good performance.

2. Vague definitions don't help employees. Responses like, "work a little harder" or "you've gotta be a top performer" only add to the confusion for employees. It's critical that you provide specific examples of what performance looks like at every level represented on the scale.

3. The answer will vary based on the job. Application of the performance evaluation rating scale to the position of a welder is vastly different than applying the same scale to the job of an administrative assistant. What a "5" looks like in one organization will be different than it does in another organization. The only way to clearly and usefully define the rating scale is for the supervisor and the employee to agree on job specific behaviors and outcomes that represent "5" level performance.

4. The rating will always be a judgment. It would be nice if we could fully quantify employee performance so that the fives were clearly distinguishable from the fours. Human behavior is just not that simple. As much as you can try to add measures and calculations to determine performance ratings, there will always be an element of subjectivity.

5. Specific examples provide tangible targets for employees to shoot for. To answer the question, "what does it take to get a _____," first start with defining specific examples of performance that describe average or acceptable performance. From there you can add or subtract to define the higher and lower ratings.

While some organizations are exploring the idea of eliminating employee performance evaluations and others have eliminated rating scales altogether, most still employ a scaled approach. The merits of the scale can be debated and there are pros and cons for three-level, four-level, and five-level scales. No matter how your organization chooses to categorize employee performance, you, the supervisor, are the only person who can answer the question, "what does it take?"

Marnie Green may be contacted at

Marnie E. Green is Principal Consultant of the Management Education Group, Inc. and is a leading expert in the management of public sector employees. Her book, Painless Performance Evaluations, is used worldwide by federal, state, and local government leaders. Contact Green at phone: 480-705-9394 email: web site:


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