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Does Praising “At Level” Employees Lead to Mediocrity?

evaluationMost of us are doing employee reviews all wrong. You’ve got an employee who does his job well, so you tell him that he is exceeding your expectations.

But aren’t employees supposed to do their jobs well? Should they really be receiving accolades for doing what they are paid to do?

I think not.

June is employee review month at Rose, Snyder & Jacobs. It is a month of reflection, recounting, and projection. One of the tasks of all managers is to evaluate the performance of each of their team members. We have a descriptive grading scale. The top end of the scale is “Outstanding” and then “Very Good.”

The middle descriptor is “At Level.”

At level is for people who are meeting the expectations for that position in all respects.

Here is where some of our managers have a hard time: They want to reward their good employees with some sort of reward. “At Level” doesn’t seem like enough.

Those of us who were in the helicopter-parenting era are used to rewarding any positive behavior and results with vocal reward. Even “mediocre” got some sort of ribbon or trophy.

As employers, though, we never hire people in hopes that they are mediocre. We pay them to do their jobs well. This is what it is expected. “At level” means that you are far, far better than mediocre.

Do you give your employees who are merely doing a good job—what is expected of them—a better review than you should? If so, here is a tip: Sleep on your evaluations and reflect. Does this person exceed the expectations you had when you hired him or her? If so, that upper scale is appropriate.

But if they are merely doing the job you paid them to do, then they are At Level.

And by the way, being At Level is a good thing! It means you are satisfied. It means that you have no problems with their performance, and that they will probably keep their jobs for their foreseeable future.

But let’s be clear with your employees. You can’t earn an “At Level” standing unless you are doing a good job. Your mediocre employees are not performing “At Level.” They are doing worse than your expectations when you hired them.

When you develop a common and mutual understanding with your team, you can begin having useful discussions about how your employees can be more productive. But if you reward what should be expected, mediocrity can become the status quo.

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