Stack ranking, reviews, and Cubicle Warriors

By Scot Herrick | Cube Rules Commentary

Nov 18

“Stack Ranking” is back in the news because Microsoft stopped doing it — and Yahoo! started it. To get us all on the same page, stack ranking means that if a manager has 14 employees, those employees are ranked from one to fourteen in order. Not just having the “exceeds expectations” or “satisfactory” ratings, but actually ranked from best to worst — assuming your last ranked employee is really a poor performer.

I picked the number 14 for a reason — that’s how many employees I had at the biggest bank failure in American history when stack ranking totally changed my opinion about companies. It is when the “Cubicle Warrior” I talk about all the time changed from some theoretical creation to, well, me — someone who trusts nothing about a company and where each employee needs to ruthlessly understand the employment situation at the company.

It is where, later, Employment Security became the driving force behind my work here. People who are employed by corporations have to build their own employment security outside of the corporate largesse. Corporations will rip your heart out in a New York minute. And while personal loyalty still counts in companies, the truth is that if a manager above your manager says your gone — for whatever reason — your manager will let you go. Thank you very much.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The background

Here’s the back story.

We had a manager’s manager change at our biggest bank failure in American history. And, that manager was an idiot. Advocated nothing for his department, clueless as to how the department worked, and totally followed the company line with no nuance. Have you ever had one of these managers? Yeah, they suck.

As managers, we were required to stack rank our employees. I had 14 of them. And my 14th-ranked employee was rated “successful.” Not the greatest employee, but did the work, accomplished goals. There are worse things out there.

When the mid-year review time came, that employee questioned the “successful” ranking — he thought it was okay, but thought he was doing better. That’s the point where we reviewed performance, agreed it was really just successful — and then I told him of the 14-employees I had, he was ranked 14 out of 14.

Long silence.

Really? Yes, really.

And here’s why: my crowd was really good at their jobs. If you were just successful, you were at the end of the line. My crowd rocked. High performing, well respected, and proactively solving problems so they didn’t happen again. If you were in this group, you needed to perform.

My 14th-ranked employee took it to heart. And over the next six months to the end of the year, he became the most improved employee I had out of the 14.

The Idiot Manager strikes

And then the Idiot Manager did the idiotic thing: force ranking the lowest ranked employees to “needs improvement” for an end-of-year rating on the performance review. No raise. No bonus. Performance plan. Yeah, all that crap.

The death-knell of being employed — now you have a “performance improvement plan” and get wonderful weekly meetings about how your performance sucks. The whole intent is to move that employee out of the company. You “performance manage” the person into quitting. You know, force the employee out because you don’t want to fire that person. Firing people is bad, but forcing them out through bullshit hoops of a performance plan is okay in corporate-land.

The thing is, I wasn’t willing to rate him that way — he was satisfactory before and then, when he found out he was ranked last, did significant improvement to his work.

I didn’t have one bad thing to say about his performance since that mid-year review. Not one. And now my manager’s Idiot Manager wanted me to rate this person as “needs improvement.” Magically. No justification. Just do it because there was a new, unpublicized corporate mandate to cut the bottom performers despite the fact that their performance was just fine.

Despite all of the careful language here on Cube Rules, you have to understand that I was fucking pissed off. This was totally unfair to this person and I was being put into a position of being a fraud to what I was telling employees.

I told my manager I wasn’t willing to do it and if it came to going to HR (like they would help…right…) with the justifications (and, oh-by-the-way, we had GREAT metrics to measure people and their goals…), I had the goods that would prove this was all bullshit.

I still had principles

After 30+ years working in corporate, I was surprised I still had any principles left given the endless compromises we make working for a company. And I didn’t know what my stand was going to do to my own career — but at this point, I needed to believe in my principles of fairness or I would betray my life. There comes a point in a person’s career where one needs to stand for what they believe or lose their soul. I, apparently after all this time, still had some soul left to lose.

About four weeks later, I was laid off, along with most of my 14-employees and a bunch of other people. I never had to take my stand with either the Idiot Manager or HR. Since layoff were coming anyway, I can imagine how much easier it was for Idiot Manager to casually get rid of a bunch of people in my group and me as well. Probably took fifteen seconds to make that decision. Some of those employees have not yet recovered from that layoff because right after that the bank went under and the Great Recession took everything away from so many people.

And, yes, I’m still fucking pissed off at that Idiot Manager. I have a long memory and Karma is a bitch.

The Lessons

So:

  • There is no Corporate Loyalty, only personal loyalty
  • Personal loyalty can’t trump Corporate Loyalty
  • Idiot Managers, in the right environment, can destroy lives for those that are unprepared and hurt those who are prepared
  • We, as employees, need to break from corporations thinking corporations are looking out for our interests
  • We need to build Employment Security, not job security — because job security does not exist.

Cubicle Warriors may lose a battle, but with the right Employment Security, they will win the war.

How did a poor manager change the trajectory of your career?

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.

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