Microsoft Whacks Stack-Ranking with Extreme Prejudice

Ding-dong.

Last year, Vanity Fair published a much-publicized feature that characterized Microsoft as “bloated and bureaucracy-laden, with an internal culture that unintentionally rewards managers who strangle innovative ideas.” In the article’s telling, the once-feared company had fattened into a collection of slow-reacting fiefdoms overstuffed with middle management more interested in bonuses than competing against Silicon Valley’s more aggressive upstarts.

The Vanity Fair piece laid much of the blame for that culture at the foot of Microsoft’s dreaded “stack ranking” system, which forced managers to rank employees on a scale from “top” to “poor.” Because the system necessitated that some employees ended up on the bottom of the pile—even if everyone in a particular working group performed well—it sparked off massive quantities of backstabbing and conspiring, which in turn distracted from the company’s core mission.

A quick survey of Websites such as Mini-Microsoft, where Microsoft employees can congregate and vent under cover of anonymity, reveals a litany of complaints about the stack-ranking system. “Culture is beyond toxic and stack ranking is shooting msft’s top folks in the back of their heads,” read one typical comment on Mini-Microsoft, posted in November 2012. “They have dismissed so many talented people over the past year and we are heading to the nearest competitors as fast as we can.”

According to internal sources speaking to Slashdot, Microsoft management had spent the past few years attempting to make the stack-ranking system a gentler one. But at some point, someone must have thrown their hands in the air and acknowledged defeat: as first reported by ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, and later confirmed by numerous publications, the stack-ranking system has been killed.

The full text of an internal memo announcing the takedown, signed by HR head Lisa Brummel, is already making the rounds on tech-news Websites; here it is below, reproduced in its entirety (hat tip to The Verge):

To Global Employees,

I am pleased to announce that we are changing our performance review program to better align with the goals of our One Microsoft strategy. The changes we are making are important and necessary as we work to deliver innovation and value to customers through more connected engagement across the company.

This is a fundamentally new approach to performance and development designed to promote new levels of teamwork and agility for breakthrough business impact. We have taken feedback from thousands of employees over the past few years, we have reviewed numerous external programs and practices, and have sought to determine the best way to make sure our feedback mechanisms support our company goals and objectives.  This change is an important step in continuing to create the best possible environment for our world-class talent to take on the toughest challenges and do world-changing work.

Here are the key elements:

  • More emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.  We’re getting more specific about how we think about successful performance and are focusing on three elements – not just the work you do on your own, but also how you leverage input and ideas from others, and what you contribute to others’ success – and how they add up to greater business impact.
  • More emphasis on employee growth and development. Through a process called “Connects” we are optimizing for more timely feedback and meaningful discussions to help employees learn in the moment, grow and drive great results.  These will be timed based on the rhythm of each part of our business, introducing more flexibility in how and when we discuss performance and development rather than following one timeline for the whole company.  Our business cycles have accelerated and our teams operate on different schedules, and the new approach will accommodate that.
  • No more curve.We will continue to invest in a generous rewards budget, but there will no longer be a pre-determined targeted distribution.  Managers and leaders will have flexibility to allocate rewards in the manner that best reflects the performance of their teams and individuals, as long as they stay within their compensation budget.
  • No more ratings. This will let us focus on what matters – having a deeper understanding of the impact we’ve made and our opportunities to grow and improve.

We will continue to align our rewards to the fiscal year, so there will be no change in timing for your rewards conversation with your manager, or when rewards are paid. And we will continue to ensure that our employees who make the most impact to the business will receive truly great compensation.

Just like any other company with a defined budget for compensation, we will continue to need to make decisions about how to allocate annual rewards.  Our new approach will make it easier for managers and leaders to allocate rewards in a manner that reflects the unique contributions of their employees and teams.

I look forward to sharing more detail with you at the Town Hall, and to bringing the new approach to life with leaders across the company.  We will transition starting today, and you will hear from your leadership in the coming days about next steps for how the transition will look in your business. We are also briefing managers and will continue to provide them with resources to answer questions and support you as we transition to this approach.

I’m excited about this new approach that’s supported by the Senior Leadership Team and my HR Leadership Team, and I hope you are too.  Coming together in this way will reaffirm Microsoft as one of the greatest places to work in the world.

There is nothing we cannot accomplish when we work together as One Microsoft.

Lisa

Deep within the bowels of Microsoft, at least a few employees are probably cheering.

 

Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

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