A Closer Look at Calibration

By Lauren Riebs
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Photo of a formal meeting setting

Calibration is a crucial step in annual performance reviews but the concept can be confusing to both employees and supervisors alike. What is the purpose of calibration? And what does it look like?  

Put simply, calibration is a way for the university to generate consistent use of ratings across the different departments. It is important to ensure each employee is being reviewed on equal standards, regardless of their department or supervisor. To do this, supervisors meet with other department managers and leaders to assess an employee’s performance through a shared lens.

“Calibration provides the opportunity to do a careful and candid assessment of ourselves and our performance individually and collectively,” shares Steve Roth, Assistant Dean of Social Sciences.

Supervisors use calibration primarily to deliberate on ratings of Exceptional, or those that are on the edge of Exceptional and Fully Achieved Expectations. Because Fully Achieved Expectations means strong performance of one’s job duties, it is important to ensure that those achieving an Exceptional performance review are truly going above and beyond.

“When we calibrate on top-performing employee’s ratings, we first discuss what it means to be exceptional,” says Sonja Colbert, Office of the Chancellor and Provost Business and Technology Services, “We go back and forth about whether or not an individual showed truly extraordinary skills or exceptional work, versus what level of success is already expected of them.”

Calibration meetings can range anywhere from 3 to 20 people per meeting and can include a variety of attendees, such as managers, department directors, senior leadership, associate vice chancellors, and divisional human resources managers. At the end of the process, the employees marked for an Exceptional rating – or being strongly considered for it – have been given sufficient and thoughtful discussion.

“In the past, because no compensation was tied to the performance rating, there may have been some complacency on the managers’ part,” explains Jita Buno, director of Supply Chain Management for UC Davis Health, “Now, it is very important that we recognize the value of our exceptional team members and ensure ratings are fair.”

During calibration meetings, an outside perspective can really tip the scales in either direction of an employee’s performance review. Amy Shuman, human resources manager for Student Affairs, shares some advice for supervisors walking into a calibration meeting.

“It’s natural to feel strongly about the performance of individuals you work with every day,” she says, “Try to consider how the measurements and performance criteria agreed upon by your peer mangers might apply to your staff. When discussing calibration of people you do not directly supervise, review their Summary of Accomplishments and draft performance review to ensure you are giving critical and productive feedback. The best conversations are ones where managers ask each other key questions.”

Some helpful guiding questions for calibration meetings could include:

  • What criteria do we believe constitutes “Fully Achieved Expectations” versus “Exceptional”?
  • What behaviors were observed?
  • What impact did the individual’s accomplishments have on the unit, department, college, school, division or the university?
  • What unusual circumstances took place this appraisal year that presented an opportunity for and Exceptional rating?
  • More questions can be found in Calibration 101.

Vicky Tibbs at UC Davis Health tries to incorporate these conversations into their organizational culture. “We arrange to meet with other managers in the department as a group in January, outside of ‘evaluation season,’ and talk about each category, and what behaviors we see in employees that leads us to each rating,” Tibbs shares, “It’s helpful to talk about that with my peers, to understand how my definition of ‘exceptional’ is on par with theirs.”

Some other important things to remember:

  • Performance ratings should be grounded in results and behaviors, not employees’ efforts or intentions.
  • Performance ratings should reflect only the effort and accomplishments of the current appraisal year.
  • Culture shifts, including the adoption of calibration and calibration meetings, takes time and practice. Be patient!
  • The application of merit dollars is a process separate and apart from the rating and calibration process.

For more information and resources, please visit the Pay for Performance website


Lauren Riebs is a student news intern for the UC Davis Division of Finance, Operations and Administration, which is responsible for the implementation of the Pay for Performance program on the Davis and Sacramento campuses.

Supplemental content