Leveling Frameworks: A Step-By-Step Approach

Increasingly, employees are demanding more transparency about their career and growth and more clarity about whether pay, performance and promotion decisions are fair. At the same time, managers are asking for help, as they take on more and more responsibility, often with little to no experience. Thoughtfully created leveling frameworks support both of these needs.

Rachel Kleban
HR Consultant and former VP of People
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Aug 21, 2022
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Last updated on Apr 23, 2022

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of defining and communicating clear expectations as part of a fair and transparent performance review system. These expectations can take a lot of forms, but my personal favorite is a leveling framework. Leveling frameworks outline the career levels within an organization and define what is expected at each, typically organized around a few key competencies. 

Once developed, leveling frameworks can be the foundation for almost any people-related program, including compensation, performance reviews, promotion, development planning, recognition and learning and development. 

Unfortunately, HR professionals and functional leaders spend hours wordsmithing the perfect description of what it means to be an L3 Engineer or an Associate Marketing Specialist only to find their hard work not well adopted, understood or utilized.  So, how can you keep your leveling framework out of the proverbial filing cabinet drawer? This blog will outline a step-by-step approach for building and implementing leveling frameworks that have proven effective and act as the foundation for your people programs. 

Step One: Get Clear on your Purpose 

There are many reasons for any organization to build a leveling framework. What is important, however, is that you know why it is important for your organization. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If we rolled out a successful leveling framework, what would look different in a year?
  • What do employees, managers and leaders hope to gain from a leveling framework? Is there any conflict between these perspectives?

What common themes do you find? What are the most important goals this framework needs to achieve? Level frameworks can achieve multiple goals, including more fair and equitable decisions, increased clarity on career growth, greater performance accountability and more. It is useful to narrow down your organization’s why.

As you hone in on what a successful framework will be for your organization, consider too what it will not be. In my experience, expecting a leveling framework to act as a job description or a checklist for performance or promotion is unrealistic and hard to maintain. Additionally, when overly prescriptive, managers and employees cling too heavily to leveling frameworks, leaving little room to manage more nuanced situations. Zoom out and focus on the amount of detail needed to provide clarity, simply and effectively.

Step Two: Identify “What” & “How” Competencies

Leveling frameworks outline a set of critical skills, experiences and behaviors, which for the purposes of this post I will call “competencies.”

The What: 

At a minimum, a leveling framework should describe the experience and skills needed to perform the work and the nature of the work itself. Let’s call this the “What.” This typically includes competencies related to technical skills and job scope. To identify these competencies, you can ask:

  • When you think about your business goals and longer term ambitions, what skills do you need to see in people in order to achieve them?
  • What skills best facilitate getting work done in your organization?
  • When you think about the most effective individuals, what qualities do you see in them?

The How:

Additionally, adding competencies around the “How” provides clarity on the ways you expect individuals to behave and work together. To identify these competencies, you can ask:

  • What do our values tell us about what we expect of each other?
  • What ways of working are important to reward in our culture?

Ask these questions of your leadership and management team, but also ask a diverse range of employees. This will ensure the competencies you chose are inclusive, realistic and resonate with all end users of the tool.

Leveling frameworks typically have between six and eight total competencies, each with a few sub-bullets that define the expectation.  For example:

Pro Tip: This is an important time in the process to edit. While we want these competencies to be comprehensive, too many will be hard to manage and remember. Avoid including table stakes that aren’t differentiated by level and weave stated values or operating principles throughout rather than making them their own competency.

Step 3: Start with a Company-Wide View 

When building out leveling frameworks, there often is an instinct to build them function by function. After all, each team has slightly different expectations and all have different technical skills and experiences required. Instead of this approach, I would encourage anyone taking on this process to start by building one common, company-wide set of expectations. There are two compelling reasons for this, one philosophical and one practical.

First, a common framework drives consistency.

  • Regardless of job title, responsibilities or even compensation, there is value in a consistent expectation for employees in the same level across the company.  While employees may do vastly different jobs, they should have a similar level of responsibility and impact based on their level. 

  • A common set of competencies are also helpful in building a shared language and understanding of what is expected, particularly when working cross functionally.

  • Consistency is particularly important if a goal for your framework is to create more fair and equitable performance and compensation systems. As referenced in my last post, research shows that assessment systems built on clearly defined and consistent criteria mitigate bias and lead to more consistent outcomes. 

Second, and more practically, a common framework is convenient.

  • Leveling frameworks can be hard to maintain and keep relevant. The more versions of the framework there are with different language and format, the harder it is to keep them up to date. 

  • In a fast growing organization, it's not practical to create a new framework every time a function is created or changed. Small or newly built functions can use the company-wide framework until it makes sense to customize for their specific needs.

Once a company-wide framework is complete, it will offer a clear and consistent view on expectations, which can be calibrated cross-functionally and across leaders. It may be sufficient on its own, or can be used as a foundation to build customized frameworks.

Pro Tip: This is the step where you actually sit down and write out the expectations for each competency at each level. It can be tedious and hard to differentiate across levels. Use inspiration from many examples on the internet, then add your own language and culture to ensure it resonates with the team.

Step 4: Customize with Consistency (i.e. the “Mad Libs” approach)

Bringing leaders, managers and employees along in the steps above is critical to ensuring buy-in for the process and tool. At this phase, however, they can truly start to weigh in and make the framework more custom to their own team. 

To do this, while maintaining the consistency and ease of a common framework, I recommend the “Mad Libs” approach. Mad Libs are a fill in the blank story that let you add your own (often goofy) touch to a pre-written story. Similarly, customizing a company-wide framework allows leaders to add function specific descriptors to an otherwise consistent story about expectations.  

Here are a few examples, where the bolded words are being replaced with more specific and relevant details:

As you work with leaders to customize each competency, level by level, think about where the specificity is adding value. If it is too specific, it can run the risk of being limiting or becoming a performance “checklist.” If it is not specific-enough, it may not be worth building and maintaining a separate version. 

Pro-Tip: You don’t need to build customized frameworks to offer functional personalization. Consider training your managers to “translate” company-wide expectations into their own words and share in 1:1 conversations.  By using relevant examples and suggestions for what each expectation might look like in the employee’s day-to-day work, you allow an even greater level of specificity and ensure conversations about performance are occurring regularly.

Step 5: Always be Implementing!

The truth is, it doesn’t matter nearly as much what you write in your framework as how you implement it.  Here are a few tips to make sure your Level’s Framework is well understood and adopted.

  • Go back to your purpose and principles. Communicate the why behind your framework when talking to managers and employees about its value.

  • Make sure it's easy to find and use. Think about how the information will be provided to employees in a way that is easy to navigate and find. While not the most visually appealing, I typically recommend a spreadsheet view for the ability to look across competencies and levels easily. 

  • Build tools and programs on top of it. The more managers and employees see these competencies and level descriptions, the more they will be understood and accepted as a clear and objective set of expectations. Reference them in performance reviews, compensation communication, recognition programs, development planning and training programs. 

  • Train Managers and then train them again. When you roll out a new level framework, make sure managers understand how to use it with their employees - discussing it regularly and giving feedback based on the competencies outlined for their level. From there, refer managers back to the framework whenever possible. When they come to you with a performance, promotion or pay concern, ask them, “what does the leveling framework say?” Be a broken record about using it as a source of truth for performance and progression. Over time, they will use it as a first step in thinking about handling any employee concerns.

  • Revisit with some regularity. While you shouldn’t change expectations too frequently, ensure your framework continues to feel relevant and drive the right behaviors on an annual basis. Collect feedback from leaders, managers and employees about how clear, relatable and inclusive the competencies and level descriptions are to ensure ongoing adoption. 

In Summary

Increasingly, employees are demanding more transparency about their career and growth and more clarity about whether pay, performance and promotion decisions are fair.  At the same time, managers are asking for help, as they take on more and more responsibility, often with little to no experience.  Thoughtfully created leveling frameworks support both of these needs, while improving performance, building trust and ensuring fair and equitable practices within the organization. At almost any size and certainly for any company with growth ahead, implementing a level framework will be an investment that will continue to reap benefits.

Looking for more insight on how to implement leveling frameworks in your org? Reach out to Rachel at hello@troophr.com.

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