Microsoft chucks controversial staff-ranking system

A 2012 cover story by Vanity Fair famously bashed Microsoft and CEO Steve Ballmer for the stack ranking process. Now that system has been thrown out.

Mary Jo Foley
Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network.
Mary Jo Foley
4 min read
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer looking none too sympathetic in the opening spread for the 2012 Vanity Fair article. Vanity Fair

Stack ranking -- considered by a number of current and former Microsoft employees to be a major detriment, both career- and morale-wise -- is no more at the company.

Microsoft is announcing to its full-time employees on November 12 that there will be no more curve and no more reviewing "on the curve" at the company. Lisa Brummel, head of human resources at Microsoft, sent an e-mail to staff Tuesday notifying them of the change, according to my contacts.

There will be "no more curve," Brummel said in her e-mail, and there "will no longer be a predetermined targeted distribution."

While other companies, including Amazon, Facebook, and Yahoo, have their own versions of stack ranking that allow them to weed out "low performing" employees, it's Microsoft that's been criticized in the press for the stack ranking process.

A 2012 cover story by Vanity Fair, entitled "Microsoft's Lost Decade," famously bashed Microsoft and CEO Steve Ballmer for the stack ranking process, via which leaders need to rate a percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor.

Brummel's mail said that the decision to change the way employees are ranked is part of the company's "One Microsoft" philosophy and strategy. Teamwork and collaboration are going to be given more priority in the way employees are evaluated going forward, she said.

Here's a copy of Brummel's mail to the troops:

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 we 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.

To learn more about the new approach to performance and development, please join me for a Town Hall today at 2:00pm PT, either in person in building 92 or via webcast (see details below).

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 predetermined 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.


A few readers have wondered aloud as to why Microsoft is making this move now, given that CEO Steve Ballmer's replacement is expected to be named anytime now. My personal guess is this is a move meant to calm the troops (and keep them loyal and engaged) in a time when there's lots of upheaval at the company.

This story originally appeared as "Microsoft does away with stack ranking" on ZDNet.