Dear Workforce What’s the Alternative to Forced Ranking

By Staff Report

Nov. 5, 2004

Dear Out of Options:

Your aversion to forced ranking/distribution is common. Many human resources leaders find these approaches draconian. Although some companies have been successful–GE, for example, is famous for “rank and yank” as a cultural cornerstone–others such as Ford became infamous for doing it wrong.

First, consider what you want to accomplish and what forced rankings/distributions can do. Forced ranking, also called stacked ranking, ranks individuals from best to worst, typically within a department or a job level. Forced distribution buckets people, typically in bell-curve fashion, and limits how many fall into each category.

Either can be used:

  • To differentiate between employees when making decisions about employment, promotion, training and pay.
  • In the case of forced ranking, to supplement an existing performance-management system by rating individuals in relation to their peers.
  • To distinguish between employees for qualities such as flexibility, innovation and potential when a job requires a very narrow range of performance.

Forced ranking/distribution is a blunt instrument best used in consultation with legal counsel either (1) to help make difficult decisions related to reductions-in-force or (2) as a tool to identify high-potential employees.

If these are not your goals, what’s your alternative? Unfortunately, there’s no “off the shelf” prescription. Building a meaningful, comprehensive performance-management system to meet your goals and fit your culture consumes time and energy. It requires training, review, sessions on avoiding rater error, multi-rater approaches and coaching managers to deal with conflict.

Training is especially critical. Without it, organizations may spend hours on a system for which the outcome is virtually no variation in ratings–the opposite extreme of forced ranking. Often, this occurs because poorly trained managers have an inadequate understanding of their subordinates’ jobs and are unable to set challenging but achievable goals. This leads to either a “slam dunk” or an impossible challenge, resulting in a silly discussion that avoids conflict to spare people’s feelings.

It’s important to look at your organization’s goals and what you want to accomplish. Forced ranking/distribution has its time and place if your goal is to prune or promote. If your goal is to systematically guide the performance of your organization to a higher level, take another route.

SOURCE: Randolph K. Harrison and David L. Glueck, consultants, Capital H Group, Chicago, December 10, 2003.

LEARN MORE:Dead Man’s Curve.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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