One of Microsoft’s most criticized policies has been its use of a “stack ranking” system to evaluate its employees that inadvertently gave employees an incentive to sabotage one another on a regular basis. As described by Vanity Fair last year, the stack ranking system forces managers “to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor,” which meant that “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.”
Now former Microsoft manager David Auerbach has gone on the record and written a piece for Slate that confirms all of the horror stories that we’ve heard from anonymous sources about stack ranking over the years.
“The stack rank was a zero-sum game — one person could only excel by the amount that others were penalized,” he writes. “And it was applied at every level of the organization. Even if you were in a group of three high performers, it was very likely that one of you would be graded Above Average, one Average, and one Below Average.”
It goes without saying that this discouraged cooperation between many employees and created an atmosphere of intense mistrust where employees were much more interested in squashing each others’ projects than in succeeding through collaboration. From a personal perspective, Auerbach says that this system was incredibly stressful and gave him a feeling of extreme paranoia that it took him a while to shake after he left the company.
“This sort of organizational dissembling skews your psyche,” he concludes. “After I left Microsoft, I was left with lingering paranoia for months, always wondering about the agendas of those around me, skeptical that what I was being told was the real story. I didn’t realize until the nonstacked performance review time at my new job that I’d become so wary. At the time — inside Microsoft — it just seemed the only logical way to be.”