Do Unintended Consequences of Forced-Ranking of Employee Performance Outweigh their Short-Term Benefits?

Forced ranking (“stack ranking” or “rank and yank”) of employee performance was one contribution to MSFT’s loss of momentum, according to Kurt Eichenwald’s article on How Microsoft lost its Mojo. 

His extensive interviews with current and past Microsoft employees point to forced rankings leading to:

  •     Competitive sabotage and undermining of peers
  •     Focus on short-term results that coincide with twice-yearly rankings
  •     Undermined intrinsic motivation in face of  “impossible”-seeming odds
  •     Reduced innovation
  •     Lack of collaboration
  •     Focus on “visibility” to managers’ peers instead of improving performance
  •     Misguided decisions
  •     Mistrust of management and colleagues
  •     Unwanted attrition
  •     Stress for all.Forced ranking systems, used by a substantial number of Fortune 500 companies, is the eighth most-frequently used appraisal technique in the U.S.

It requires management teams to evaluate employees’ performance against other employees, rather against pre-determined standards.
The goal is to create a meritocracy in which superior performance is recognized and under-performance is “managed.”

Steve Scullen

Steve Scullen evaluated “forced distribution rating system” (FDRS) in a simulation study of 100 companies of 100 employees each over a three year period.
He reported in Personnel Journal that forced ranking and hypothetically firing of the bottom 5% or 10%, resulted in a 16% productivity improvement.
Productivity gains increase when more low performers were removed.

He acknowledged the negative consequences of forced rankings for employee morale, teamwork, collaboration, recruitment, shareholder perception, and brand image.
Nevertheless, Scullen found that the potential problems were counterbalanced by benefits.

Scullen determined that most benefit from forced ranking comes in the first few years of implementation: “…each time a company improves its workforce by replacing an employee with a new hire, it becomes more difficult to do so again… the better the workforce is, the more difficult it must be to hire applicants who are superior to the current employees who would be fired.

Dick Grote’s Forced Ranking: Making Performance Management Work, argues that most companies achieve benefits of forced ranking systems in “a few years” and are advised to replace
forced ranking with other talent management initiatives after the organization has implemented a refined selection process to ensure hiring top talent.

Peter Capelli

Peter Cappelli of The Wharton School and author of Talent on Demand: Managing Talent in an Age of Uncertainty, quantified the benefit of removing low performers:  This group contributes about five times less to organizations than high performers, according to his research.

In contrast, Alys Woodward of IDC challenged these arguments in her article on misunderstanding and misuse of statistics in stack ranking.

Alys Woodward

She concluded that “stack ranking assumes the statistics dictate reality, rather than reflect reality.”

Likewise, W. Edwards Deming opposed ranking because he thought that it destroys pride in workmanship, and opined that “the only way to improve a product or service is for management to improve the system that creates that product or service. Rewarding or punishing individuals trapped in the system is pointless and counterproductive.”

W. Edwards Deming

Robert Mathis and John Jackson pointed out potential legal challenges to stack-ranking.
They note that the practice may be difficult to defend in a court test because it does not comply with the following legal criteria:

  •     Criteria based on job analysis
  •     Absence of disparate impact and evidence of validity
  •     Formal evaluation criteria that limit managerial discretion
  •     Rating linked to job duties and responsibilities
  •     Documentation of appraisal activities
  •     Prevents action from controlling employee’s career
  •     Counseling to help poor performers improve

Though most employees do not seek out employers who use stack ranking, organizations may realize a short-term benefit in streamlining the workforce.
However, the practice may have unintended “soft” consequences, legal challenges, and time-limited value.

-*What positive and negative impacts have you observed related to forced-ranking appraisal systems?

Twitter:  @kathrynwelds
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©Kathryn Welds


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