The Poisonous Employee-Ranking System That Helps Explain Microsoft’s Decline

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 23 2013 4:09 PM

The Poisonous Employee-Ranking System That Helps Explain Microsoft’s Decline

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer oversaw a system called "stack ranking," in which employees on the same team competed directly with one another for money and promotions. Critics say this rewarded brown-nosing and sabotage

Photo by Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images

There were many reasons for the decline of Microsoft under Steve Ballmer, including, as I wrote this morning, its lack of focus and its habit of chasing trends rather than creating them. But one that’s not obvious to outsiders was the company’s employee evaluation system, known as “stack ranking.” The system—and its poisonous effects on Microsoft’s corporate culture—was best explained in an outstanding Vanity Fair feature by Kurt Eichenwald last year.

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Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

Anyone interested in Microsoft or business administration should read the full piece. But here’s an excerpt from the part where Eichenwald explains stack ranking:

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At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor. …
For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door. …
“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.” Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate. …

So while Google was encouraging its employees to spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that excited them personally, Ballmer was inadvertently encouraging his to spend a good chunk of their time playing office politics. Why try to outrun the bear when you can just tie your co-workers' shoelaces?

Microsoft wasn’t the first company to adopt this sort of ranking system. It was actually popularized by Jack Welch at GE, where it was known as “rank and yank.” Welch defended the practice to the Wall Street Journal in a January 2012 article, saying, “This is not some mean system—this is the kindest form of management. [Low performers] are given a chance to improve, and if they don't in a year or so, you move them out. "

As the Journal and others have noted, what seemed to work for Welch—for a time, anyway—has produced some ugly results elsewhere. Even GE phased the system out following Welch’s departure. But in an interview with the Seattle Times just last month, Ballmer indicated that he was sticking with it. From the Seattle Times:

Q: A lot of people have slammed Microsoft’s stack ranking review system as contributing to a noncollaborative atmosphere. Is the kind of cultural change you want to effect possible with that stacked ranking system still in place?
A: We’re doing our performance reviews now. We’re finishing up our year (and there are) no changes to—no—I’ll say minor changes to our system. I think everybody wants to work in a high-performance culture where we reward people who are doing fantastic work, and we help people who are having a hard time find something else to do. Now, whether our existing performance-management system needs to change to meet the goal of fostering collaboration is something that Lisa Brummel [head of human resources] would take up.

It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft’s next CEO takes more personal responsibility for the company’s corporate culture—or leaves it for Lisa Brummel to take up.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.