Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale (BARS)

Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale or BARS measures the performance of employees based on specific behavioral patterns.

Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale (BARS)
Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale

Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale (BARS) is a performance management scale that compares employee behaviors, typically on a nine-, seven- or five-point scale. The concept was engineered to leverage the benefits of qualitative and quantitative information in the appraisal processes.

If you are a manager in a company or have ever worked in HR, you probably know about the importance of measuring employee satisfaction. Typically, this takes the form of various surveys that employees fill every quarter or year to rate how they felt about the job experience.

However, the problem with this approach is that it relies too much on homogenized questions and not enough on a deeper understanding of the employees themselves. What drives them at their job? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

How can a manager help employees to work on their shortcomings and improve? That is where Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale or the BARS method enters the picture.

What is BARS?

Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale or BARS measures the performance of employees based on specific behavioral patterns. It is designed specifically to avoid the rating errors that often happen with conventional rating scales, as every employee is rated individually.

The BARS method involves using a vertical scale with numbers from one to five or five to nine to rate performance levels as poor, moderate, and good, with examples for each.

BARS includes qualitative and quantitative data and brings in the benefits of critical incidents, quantified ratings, and narratives. It is valuable to conduct performance appraisals before handing out promotions or raises.

Some features of the Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale include:

  • It is an objective way of assessing an employee.
  • It is a detailed, critical performance based on behaviors and performance.
  • It estimates whether the employee’s performance matches up to job expectations.
  • It helps the manager understand specific behaviors in the context of particular situations.
  • It is individualized to ensure that each employee is appraised thoroughly and on their own merit.

The role of Critical Incident Technique (CIT) in the BARS method

The BARS performance appraisal technique is developed by converting data into performance metrics, and the data is collected with the help of the CIT. This involves using specific incidents for each rating point to indicate how the employee performed.

The criterion is that each incident must have a clear business impact, such as a visit paid by a sales executive to a client or the act of pitching a deal to a client. Respondents share their stories about these incidents, their feelings, and their impact.

Data sets on these stories are then converted into metrics for each BARS performance appraisal method. Using a rating scale with specific behaviors for select jobs minimizes subjectivity that usually creeps in when evaluating employees.

Pros of BARS

The Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale indeed has several concrete benefits that make it a worthy investment for any organization, including:

1. Ease of use

BARS rates employees according to precise standards that managers and employees can easily understand. Each grade comes with a detailed explanation and example for further clarification, which leaves little room for subjectivity.

2. Personalization

The rating scale is tailor-made for every employee and job description, making the BARS method a very effective exercise.

3. Impartiality

The rating scale is based purely on behavioral traits and nothing else.

4. Behavior-based

The Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale clarifies how a job should be done and where the employee falls short, giving them a clear pathway for improvement.

5. Clear standards

The BARS method creates mutual understanding between managers and their employees on what they are reviewing and opportunities for improvement, which facilitates a development discussion.

Cons of BARS

There are a few downsides to implementing the Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale that every organization should keep in mind:

1. Requires highly committed managers

The managers in charge of the test need to take detailed notes on each employee and keep the process objective. All the statements and anchors used on the appraisal must be developed. They have to be 100% engaged with the process to do their job properly. Otherwise, BARS would not yield the desired results.

2. Not inclusive

Not all of the job details and expectations can be included in the BARS appraisal, which can cause difficulties later on.

3. Expensive

The BARS method is individualized for every person, which can take up a lot of time and resources, turning out to be a costly project for the organization.

4. Leniency bias accusations

BARS directly eliminates the opportunity for an evaluation to be biased. However, it does not remove them all. Some believe there is still scope for the leniency error.

Who is the BARS approach most ideal for?

The BARS approach to performance management requires a lot of time, resources and managerial commitment and is thus ideal for organizations with the necessary financial and administrative bandwidth.

It is also more suitable for businesses with some fixed categories or departments of jobs, rather than a large number of individual jobs. Besides, those companies that have observed biases in their current performance evaluation methods will find BARS beneficial.

A detailed Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale example

There is a range of employee behaviors for any job description that are the expected minimum and several that are not vital but highly appreciated. A top performer, ideally, will go far beyond the bare minimum.

Suppose we design a Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale for a cashier role. In that case, we can assign lower scores to people who do just the minimum or not even that and higher scores to outstanding employees who fulfill multiple ‘nice to have’ criteria.

Based on the typical duties of a cashier, we can assign narratives to each number on the rating scale as follows.

  • 5 - The cashier consistently makes mistakes with money transactions.
  • 6 - The cashier is constantly distracted or indifferent when talking to customers.
  • 7 - The cashier is diligent about tracking sales and inventory movement.
  • 8 - The cashier helps customers bag their purchases and suggests alternative bagging options to plastic.
  • 9 - The cashier smiles, is friendly to every customer, and makes conversation while running up the purchases.

This is different from a traditional rating scale, wherein there would be universal questions based on each behavior (such as ‘helps customers pack bags’ or ‘handles change correctly’) with a rating scale of 1 to 5, indicating ‘never’ to ‘always.’

Applications of BARS

Behavioral outcomes to evaluate performance are popular among organizations as it helps align performance with specific business priorities. Creating a comprehensive profile for each employee guides the entire employee life cycle. Some of the practical applications of the Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale include:

1. Talent acquisition

HR managers can screen candidates effectively and conduct structured interviews by knowing precisely what employee behaviors are necessary for a job.

2. Training and learning

BARS helps managers tailor learning pathways to each employee based on their specific needs.

3. Performance management

BARS enables performance appraisals to offer individualized feedback on how each employee can improve their job behaviors.

4. Succession management

With clear performance indicators in place, managers can easily identify the company’s high performers and the best potential successor for each.

5. Career pathing

With BARS, managers have clear inputs on mentoring and coaching each employee for optimum career growth. This helps to retain ambitious employees by providing them with the best opportunities.

6. Company culture

Behavioral inputs also demonstrate ideal behaviors that the company leaders and the organization as a whole should strive to emulate.

Other rating scales for performance evaluation

There are several alternatives to the BARS method, each with its own pros and cons:

1. Five-level graphic rating scale

This is the most commonly used scale to rate performance, with a descriptive label for each score such as ‘excellent,’ ‘good,’ or ‘average.’ It is easy to understand and implement but is prone to subjective biases and psychological discouragement. Other versions of this include three levels all the way up to 10 levels.

2. Point rating scale

Some years back, an engineering company briefly used this method with a two-point decimal rating scale from 0.01 to 10.00.

3. Stacked ranking

This was a technique developed by Jack Welch of GE that classed employees into A, B, and C categories. A-class members were regarded as the most profitable, while C-class members were dismissed. This method easily recognized and rewarded top performers but tended to cause destructive competition among employees. After much backlash, the technique died out.

Best practices for designing a Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale

While BARS can bring about excellent results, it needs to be planned out carefully and requires complete buy-in from employees and managers. Ideally, companies should budget about one and a half to two years for the transition. Here is how we recommend going about the process:

1. Set up a governance team

The key to BARS succeeding is to make it an organizational transformation rather than an HR-only activity. Reach out to high performers and senior leaders across the company and rope them in. They have a strong understanding of business priorities and can help you identify the right behaviors and provide insights into what employees need.

2. Identify subject matter experts (SMEs)

There should be two groups of SMEs for each department or job category. The first will identify behaviors associated with each job, and the second will convert those into clear performance indicators. Get commitments from subject matter experts to serve on your teams.

3. Behavior identification

SMEs can use the critical incident technique to identify various behaviors related to the job, be they negative, neutral, or positive. These are then converted into definitive statements that are free of redundancies.

4. Set up performance dimensions

Next, group behavior statements into suitable categories that serve as performance dimensions. For instance, a supply chain manager will have to do specific tasks, such as negotiating with suppliers and optimizing warehouse functions.

5. Retranslate behaviors

The second group of SMEs will use this data to realign each behavior to the performance indicator it fits best.

6. Scale behaviors

Finally, slot each behavior into a rating scale based on how effective or ineffective each employee behavior is.

7. Check for relevance

Use empirical data on behavior deviance or the judgment of SMEs to ensure that all the behaviors are relevant to each job description.

8. Edit the final version

Check that the scale is free of grammar and syntax errors and is clearly understandable in terms of language. The insights should not get lost in translation.

Key points to remember while developing a Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale

Even the most efficient performance management system would not be successful unless you prepare your organization for the change. We recommend you begin your project at least 2-2.5 years before the evaluations are due. Here is why:

  • Most BARS rating initiatives fail due to the lack of commitment from the top management. It would help if you managed the change before doing anything else.
  • Depending on the availability of SMEs, it could take months to develop performance dimensions and behaviors.
  • You may need to upskill your managers in the BARS process and performance conversations so that when the time comes, they are better prepared.

Over to you

The success of any business depends on the performance of its team members, individually and together. Optimizing team performance calls for a deep understanding of employee dynamics, performance indicators, and what each employee individually needs to do better.

That is where the BARS appraisal plays such a big role. While it can be tricky to design BARS for each employee, managers who put in the effort will enjoy the benefits of a rating scale that is bias-free and personalized.

Employees will know exactly how they need to improve, rather than make do with generalized comments, and thus be motivated to keep learning and growing.

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