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I work for a company that is rolling out a stack ranking process. I received a solid positive performance review this year (higher rankings are rare), and was told by my boss that he and his boss were very happy. In the past, he offered constructive criticism, which I applied. I was told certain aspects of my performance this past year were much improved. No criticisms or suggestions for improvement were offered on this most recent review.

We were recently told that a small number of upper level managers with whom I rarely interact (several levels above me) moved what my boss said was a substantial number of people moved down without speaking to any of the direct or next level up managers in order to force a bell curve. I was told last week by my boss that I was moved to the bottom tier. He said no reason or explanation has been given. He talked with HR and with one of the upper level managers involved to ask how the decision was made and for the criteria used to rank me. Neither could remember. No criticism of me was provided. He asked if they had read my performance appraisal, and was told they didn’t have time for that.

My boss said likely there will probably be a meeting of the higher ups to discuss the process that was used.

Is there anything else I can do to avoid the same scenario in the future? I told my boss the only approach for improvement I see is to focus on my visibility to management many levels above me. He agreed to help with this approach.

Do other agree this is the best approach, and is anything missing in our strategy? He advised against me going to HR, as that fellow didn't seem open to further discussion.

I appreciate the information from the "Why is it important to gain “visibility” in the workplace?" post. While this is helpful, my situation is somewhat different as I a stack ranking issue with upper management component. Increasing visibility may or may not be the answer as there are still lots of unanswered questions regarding what happened and why. It can't hurt, but may not be enough.

  • Possible duplicate of Why is it important to gain "visibility" in the workplace? – gnat Apr 1 '17 at 16:19
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    Not quite following you, is your issue that you got a glowin performance review, then higher management started grading people on a curve, moving their ratings down arbitrarily? If that's really what happened and your boss couldn't change anything even after pushing back against it then the only real advice anyone could really give you is to find a new job. – Lilienthal Apr 1 '17 at 17:23
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    @Laurie It's possible that they sold this system to investors and want to give out raises based on that, but got cold feet when a lot of people were ranked highly. Now they may just move down everyone but their favorites, in order to give them raises instead of the others. It's the same thing as it used to be previously, but now it's more overt because they (on the surface) comitted to a formula for it that they now have to skew to make their previous practices work. – mag Apr 3 '17 at 6:49
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    I would still complain to the HR person, or go over his head if there is someone in HR above him. What is he going to do? Downgrade you even more because he's not happy you did that? In any case, it's time to polish your resume and start applying at other companies. Flight is the normal response to a crazy nonsensical situation. – Stephan Branczyk Apr 4 '17 at 4:23
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    @NKCampbell: Could work -- unless the real motivation behind "rolling out a stack ranking process" is downsizing the workforce. I can't believe that any manager, given what is now known about stack ranking, could possibly believe that it improves productivity. The "small number of upper level managers" are delusional and think that they can squeeze the same amount of work out of fewer and fewer people. – A. I. Breveleri Apr 4 '17 at 21:39
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If this happened as you describe it, then you need to be prepared that you might get fired after any performance review, independently of your performance, and there will be very little you can do about it (assuming USA, in other countries there would be some laws to protect you).

So you can't expect that by working hard and doing a good job you will have a long and successful career with this company. The logical conclusion is that you stay if your salary is good enough to cover you for a few months after you get fired, and since hard work and dedication isn't going to help you, there is no need for hard work and dedication.

If your salary is not god enough to get a few months worth of savings, you start looking for a new position. You should start looking right now anyway, since it looks that you could be gone when this round of performance reviews is over. If you survive this time, you should be ready to leave before the next round of reviews.

If someone thinks this is all unethical and generally stinks, I'd say that's what the company did, and they'll get just what they deserve.

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There's a very telling article by Vanity Fair of the effects of stack ranking at Microsoft: How Microsoft Lost its Mojo. If you don't want to read the whole lot, scroll down to "The Bell Curve"

The important thing is not that you must do good work, but that you must be seen to be doing good work. If a colleague in another department asks you for something, you must ensure that their manager knows that you are helping them out.

Under a stack ranking system, every year a significant proportion of the workforce must be given below-average rankings. The aim is to make sure that's not you.

That article goes on to say that the more mercenary approach is not just to be seen to be helpful, but at the same time, you surreptitiously try to sabotage other people's work. If somebody asks you where to find a document, then you make sure that everybody knows that you found the document for them, while secretly failing to tell them that the document is obsolete and has been superseded by another. If this causes their project to be delayed, then their ranking will drop, causing yours to rise.

Edit: The reason why you must be seen to be doing good things is a process called "normalization". Most managers like to think that their teams are really good, and they want their team members to feel appreciated. So managers tend to give their staff "achieved expectations" or "exceeded expectations" ranks. At the end of this process, this leaves far too many people above average and very few below. "Normalization" is the process of downgrading enough people from their manager's initial rating to bring everything into line with the bell curve. That's why you need other managers to know how good you are.

  • Thanks Simon! One oddity my boss noted was that it seemed only one or two individuals three levels above me made the decisions, and they didn't consult other managers. I think overall I'm well-regarded. But those two know very little about what I do. I need to market myself specifically to them. – Laurie Apr 1 '17 at 22:45
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    @Laurie: Actually, you need to run from that environment unless you enjoy backstabbing and sabotaging your colleagues. – gnasher729 Apr 1 '17 at 22:58
  • @Laurie My employer adopted a similar scheme a few years back. We were lucky that it was dropped again a few years later, before it did too much harm. They still do normalization, but seem a lot less zealous about it. – Simon B Apr 1 '17 at 23:00
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    @Laurie Start looking for a new job. No job is worth having to deal with this. – Snowlockk Apr 4 '17 at 9:52
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    If you get rid of non-performers then every team member should be rated at least achieved expectations. That is one of the flaws in this logic. Another is that the bell curve is statistically valid for small groups of people. Anyone with an understanding of statistics know that is ridiculous. – HLGEM Apr 5 '17 at 18:01
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Is there anything else I can do to avoid the same scenario in the future?

You don't yet know what is behind this year's scenario. Thus it's hard to plan how to avoid something, since you don't yet know what you are avoiding.

Perhaps once your boss learns about the upper-management review of the new process, you'll have more insight. It's possible that the process will be revised to provide more feedback; that would only make sense. And it's possible the stack ranking process will be abandoned - I personally find them worse than useless.

But for now, there's not really anything you can do, other than continue to work to the best of your abilities as you have done. Continue to keep in touch with your boss and get continued feedback on your work. And hope for the best.

You might also want to make sure your resume is kept up to date, in case things don't get any better and you decide you've had enough.

  • Our area and others that were impacted are swamped. I find it hard to imagine they could get by with less people. But the message upper management is sending is clearly unappreciative of our contributions. I like my job, and don't want to look for another one. So I plan to pay close attention to any additional feedback or developments. I'll try to work with my boss to better market myself. But I agree I have no choice but to prepare in case things continue to go south. – Laurie Apr 1 '17 at 20:25
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You received positive evaluations in the past with suggestions for improvement. You acted on those suggestions, and got better reviews with all positive feedback and no negatives. Someone who didn't have the time to look at your reviews deemed you sub-par, based on nothing.

Start looking for another job. This happened to you without any basis or justification. The only way to insure that it doesn't again, or that they don't fire you for no reason is to not be there. Anything else is going to be a roll of the dice, I'm afraid. I don't mean casually review the market. Be aggressive and look as if you know that you'll be out of a job. The best time to find a job is when you are still employed and can pull out those positive performance reviews.

It's up to you whether you want to open the potential can of worms of asking your boss to be a reference in your search. I'd advise against it, but I don't know your relationship.

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THe fact that your boss was not consulted and objected to the change means that he has no political pull. 80-90% of a manager's job is politics and he has clearly failed miserably. Both of you need to gain much more visibility in the workplace when you are in a stacked rankings system. However, since you are on the bottom rank, you will be first to go in any layoff and they may just fire the bottom X%.

Your choices at this point are:

  • Continue as you are and probably get fired or laid off. Go to a new job and change nothing either and you may have the same thing happening again.
  • Try to work on visibility within this organization (Still a high possibility of losing your job before you can make the improvement)
  • Transfer to work for a boss who has more political pull (Assuming you are not laid off in the next few weeks)
  • Try to work on visibility within this organization for practice at it while you search for a new job. Then from day one practice being visible.

Only the last two have a probability of success and the third one only if you survive the low ranking layoff that may occur in the near future.

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