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Microsoft kills morale-wrecking employee ranking system

Updated Nov 13th, 2013 7:48AM EST
Microsoft Ends Stack Ranking

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With the Steve Ballmer era ending at Microsoft, the company has finally killed off stack ranking. ZDNet reports that Microsoft will no longer evaluate its employees’ performances on a curve because it wants to foster more cooperation between different workers and departments within the company. Microsoft’s stack ranking system, which has come under withering criticism from former employees, essentially mandated that all managers create tiers that ranked the best and worst workers within their departments. The top workers in each department were put on the fast track for advancement while the bottom performers saw their careers stumble into dead ends.

The problem with stack ranking was that it created a culture where talented employees were afraid to work with one another for fear of hurting their careers simply because they were the worst-performing people among a group of top performers. To get a sense of what this is like, consider what would happen if the player who batted ninth in the American League’s All-Star lineup every year didn’t just bat last but was also forced to return to the minor leagues after the game. In other words, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the light-hitting shortstops and catchers take their baseball bats to the knees of the slugging first basemen and left fielders just so they could move up in the order a bit.

This is essentially what happened at Microsoft, according to multiple accounts. Former Microsoft manager David Auerbach wrote this past summer that stack ranking “was a zero-sum game” where one person could succeed only if their fellow employees failed.

“This sort of organizational dissembling skews your psyche,” he wrote. “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.”

Microsoft employees likely rejoiced on Tuesday when they learned that this particular brand of fear and loathing had come to an end.

Brad Reed
Brad Reed Staff Writer

Brad Reed has written about technology for over eight years at and Network World. Prior to that, he wrote freelance stories for political publications such as AlterNet and the American Prospect. He has a Master's Degree in Business and Economics Journalism from Boston University.