Forced Ranking…is it fair?

As a Manager, at some point in your career, you will be asked to force-rank your staff during annual appraisals.

No, you are told, you cannot have all ranked as “Very Good”…. you must force-rank them to have the whole company fall into some sort of bell-curve.

What’s wrong with that picture? Well, let’s answer that by first stating what’s right… yes, generally in a large enough population, people tend to fall into a bell-curve distribution. So what’s wrong with forced-ranking, where a Manager is told that he has to decide who among his team should be rated “Excellent”, “Very Good”, “Good”, “Unsatisfactory”? Simple answer: first, you must fulfill the condition, “…in a large enough population”. Too often, the instruction, “Get them into a bell-curve” is given without considering that pre-condition.

In a small group of people, you may get anomalies whereby “too many” are rated in one or the other extemeties. Or where all are rated “too average”. OK, in that case, why shouldn’t you then force-rank them? You have to decide who among them is the “better” or the “worser” one. Yes, no problem…let’s force-rank them. Until you realise you have done your Team members a great disservice. Your company, or department or unit is one of many within the Parent organisation. When you forced-rank your limited size unit, your “Good” men are now clustered together with all the other “Good” men from other units. Hey, but that’s not right you say. You know for a fact that your “Good” man is much better than the other unit’s “Good” man. If compared together, your “Good” man (who may have been rated “Very Good” before the forced-ranking within your unit) should be “Very Good” compared to the other unit’s “Good”. But sadly, they are now rated the same and presumably get the same salary adjustment. That’s not fair, right?

So what’s wrong? The answer, I repeat, lies in a “….large enough population”. The Parent organisation ought to have all its employess placed in one common pool before force-ranking. You may have a super Team of 10 people who are now forced-rank to be placed in similar ranks as some other mediocre people.

Sad, but it happens too frequently.


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