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Forced employee ranking is a foolish approach

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Measuring and tracking individual and team performance is an effective way of both motivating employees and celebrating successes in organizations. But there's one aspect of the performance review process (particularly in large companies) that is counter-productive, and frankly, foolish. I speak of the process of "forced ranking" that demands managers and supervisors fit their employees into pre-set slots on a bell curve.

In case you're not familiar with the concept, bell-curving has its roots in the educational system where the objective is to minimize or eliminate the influence of variation between different instructors of the same course, ensuring that the students in any given class are assessed relative to their peers. In the final assessment, because a bell curve ensures a balanced and normal distribution of academic results, it holds some logic in an educational setting. But it absolutely does not make sense in a work environment. Bell-curving basically forces a manager to say that a certain percentage of his/her employees are sub-par. Repeatedly. Every year. And regrettably, it is standard operating procedure in many large organizations.

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Here's why this is senseless and damaging. If you trust that your managers and supervisors are good leaders (and if not, why did you put them in their roles?), then you have to also have confidence that they will hire good people. Which means that there shouldn't be a necessity to have people on the lower end of the curve. In fact, ironically, bell curve performance assessments only encourage the hiring and retention of so-so (or worse) employees. And even more destructive, bell curve performance assessments are hugely demoralizing to employees. Imagine hiring brilliant people only to label them as unworthy because you are forced to place them on a bell curve.

As if this isn't bad enough, many organizations add insult to injury by insisting that leaders compare all their employees and put them in order of best to worst within each segment on the bell curve. If bell-curving is a bad idea, then this is even worse. Now let me be clear – I don't have a problem with assessing an individual's performance and recognizing that some employees are higher performers than others. I am certainly not a supporter of the "everyone is a winner" camp. But it's the process of forcing every single person into a rank order that I find objectionable. There are times when a numerical ranking is possible and even sensible, say based on revenue generated, or calls handled, or some similar metric. But for the most part, exceptional performance is not a numerical score, so when you try to force-quantify it, all you end up doing is demoralizing your people. If you assume that you hired good employees to start with, then every single one should bring unique value to the workplace. So why would you try to force a comparison if it's not appropriate? Sure, there may be rough groupings that employees naturally fall into (exceptional, very good, and good, for example), but imposing a numerical ranking when it doesn't fit the situation is pointless. Worse than pointless, this numerical ranking on a bell curve actually drives good people away. An employee that's forced into a No. 5 ranking because of minor things separating him from No. 1 will just move on to an organization that appreciates his talents more. And their gain will be your loss.

Bell-curving doesn't have a place in high-performance workplaces. And unless the employee's job has quantifiable metrics, forced numerical ranking doesn't either. It's time to get rid of both these distasteful practices.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author with 17 years of management experience in corporate Canada. Reach her or join the conversations on her blog at TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.

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