#61 Old and In the Way (2002)

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

A lot of companies are really misplacing a lot of trust into HR's systems of "evaluating" employees. The state-of-the-business HR-PC term for the current boondoggle is "ranking."  Ranking has become a popular MBA-kind of thing to do, especially in the cubes of the misFortune 500-5000.  An interesting side-effect is that companies (like Ford, Microsoft, Goodyear, Conoco, and GE) are finding themselves in court, a lot, for the way ranking works in the real world. 

The theory is that if the performance of one employee is compared to other employees, management can find a true value for the output of each individual cog in the wheel.  It's a lovely theory and like most of the weirdness that comes from the minds (applied loosely) of MBAs, it's flawed.  Mostly, because it depends on the competence and fairness of the manager doing the comparing.  Talk about a system that was doomed from conception!

To apply a sports comparison, ranking is very much like valuing a player based only on his stats. Lots of players, especially in the severely screwed-up pro-sports gangland, have found that it's a lot easier to generate impressive personal stats than it is to make a useful contribution to the success of the team.  Since most team owners come from successful careers in corporate backstabbing, the stats-first players have become very rich from this economic discovery.  Players who haven't learned this lesson are coming up to speed quickly and fans are noticing the difference in their favorite teams a lot faster than the owners are catching on.  As usual, management is the last to know what's going on, if it ever figures it out.

One of the consistent outcomes of ranking is that older, more experienced, sometimes more expensive employees seem to rank lower than their younger coworkers.  You might suspect that this is a sign that management is trying to weed out older and more experienced talent, but I suspect you'd be over-estimating the management's cleverness.  Mostly, this seems to be a symptom of management's unfamiliarity with how teams work. Not being team players, it shouldn't be surprising that MBAs don't know much about being contributing members of a team. 

I think the real reason many older employees are getting low ratings is that they've either failed to adapt to the new idiotic rules or don't feel compelled to do so, for personal reasons.  The most valuable team contributors, like their sports counterparts, make everyone around them better.  If a group is really going to shine brighter than the sum of its individual points of light, something has to happen to focus the electrons.  That "something" is usually an internal leader and almost never management.  It's possible that a team-oriented player could come from youth, but it doesn't seem to happen all that often.  Usually, it's experience that creates teamwork and experience isn't usually a characteristic of youth.  So, in MBA-think's usual anti-wisdom, ranking is cutting the guts out of the thing it's trying to optimize. 

It's also true that management, in its eternal battle to take credit where credit isn't due and turn silk purses into sows' ears, is snatching defeat from the mouth of victory.  The only companies that can afford stupid practices like ranking are those who have resources to waste.  In other words, companies that were successful in the past.  In paring away the company's experience and history, companies are setting themselves up for failure and inefficiency.  What ranking might accomplish, in the long run, will be to provide start-up companies with experienced, talented, team-oriented employees who may be specially equipped and motivated to do damage to past employers. 

We can only hope.

July 2002

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