I didn't want to cross post but I feel that this may be a topic that could use some discussion.


My company uses a bell curve distribution model to "Calibrate" performance ratings. Consequently, many employee's feel that in order for them to get a better rating, they have to kill the high performers. We know that this is not necessarily true but all the same the perception is out there. This has been very demoralizing to some of my employees. It takes a lot of explanation and encouragement to get the average performer to think that they can do better. I know that my opinion of the system won't change it and I accept that. I am not looking for a bitch session about it. I am looking for tools....hehe

Mike and Mark, How do you feel about forced rating distributions? What message should we be sending our people to get them to try for the brass ring?

PierG's picture

I've not a great experience in Bell Curve. Could someone please give me some more hints?

bflynn's picture

[quote="PierG"]I've not a great experience in Bell Curve. Could someone please give me some more hints?

Bell Curve - You force rank your employees, then fit their rankings onto a bell curve. Those at the top of the curve get some great perks, those at the bottom usually are released. The grouping can be at any level, but is usually on a small group. The general criticisms are that the sample size isn't large enough to be statistically valid - if you did a great job recruiting, you [i]could[/i] have ten people in the 75th percentile. By the time the sample size becomes large enough, the accuracy of the rankings must be questioned. Additionally, some managers believe that bell curves are unethical because of the deceptive nature of telling someone that harder work will equal a larger reward.

As far as tools - I've been waiting for a response from the masters on this one. I don't like bell curves (you think? :D ), but I'm drawing a blank on any tools to work with people when forced to deal with them.


lou's picture

Your best bet might be finding a way to reward them outside of the system. This is where your personal relationships come in handy. Jim wants Tuesdays and Thursdays off an hour early to coach t-ball. Susan wants flex time so she can take every other Friday off. And Greg just wants a shot at the next promotion.

Look at your arsenal. Work-time, salary, bonuses, incentive pay, etc. I bet you can find some way to work around a system that says you can't possible have hired well.

AManagerTool's picture

Thanks to you all for replying. Focusing on the positive and trying to reward outside the system are the things that I am doing currently. Those are things make my directs feel that I am on their side.

I am having trouble conveying to them that the company is on their side as well. My point is that while I think that they are 4's on a scale of 1-5 the company has compared them to people at their level via some curve that I have little insight or input into and they have been re-calibrated to a three. This will probably happen year after year unless the top performers die, quit or start using drugs because it is in their own managers interest never to let a top performer loose rating. The system or the implementation of it seems flawed to me because it tells people that they are locked into the ratings they currently have no matter what their manager says.

Mark is this system flawed? Is it just my companies implementation of it that is flawed? Am I just not getting it? I realize that no matter what, I probably won't change it. Is there a way to address this issue that is correct for both the company and my people?

HELP, Please... :!:

sanguine_aki's picture

well why we forget that everything in life doesn't come so easy!... Bell Curve is difficult and complicated exercise but an objective one.

It removes subjectivity and bias of various supervisors as each supervisor has to explain in a group why his subordinate should be rated where he has rated him and with that objective data and expalanation there's mutual agreement with the management and HR to rank employees on the base of their competenecy and potential along with the task completion and other observations of supervisors.


It is very important to use bell curve and force ranking as the deservant guys get the reward. You need to take it positively


and yeah.. one thing remains this important and crtical process should be implemented in a very logical manner or else, it is subject to severe consequences.

todmv01's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge

In my case, two direct reports are being forced ranked down to a level 2. After a year of one-on-ones and feedback, I ranked them a level 3. I don't understand the rational and don't know how to explain it. Granted, they are not my top performers and will never be superstars. Slow and steady progress was made.

Kevin1's picture


you are right to not get it as a the bell curve forced rankings is fundamentally flawed.  

While the bell curve can accurately describe a population with a mean value and a representative spread of values, it is fundamentally wrong to believe that every single subset within the population will have the same mean and the same spread.  The smaller the sample the greater the expected variance from the mean- and this is just with random samples.

In an organisation, the human factors of hiring skill, development skill and general management should not all be assumed to be identical in all teams.  Some managers hire and develop higher performing teams, some are average and some are below average.

Forced ranking is based on the false assumption that all teams have exactly the same mean and the same spread.  A low performing team will be artificially raised and rewarded, while a high performing team will be artificially lowered and not receive their just reward.    Any deviation, even slight, requires a high degree of explanation and the manager generally is thought to be disruptive and trying to buck the system if they fight strongly for what they believe and what may well be entirely accurate.

I'm sorry, i cannot tell you how to explain this to your troops.  You can use the corporate explanation.  And send them to HR if they have questions




orioniv's picture
Training Badge

Hi all

I recommend you read the article by Jack Welch on the subject - he has been taking a lot of heat for other people’s poor implementation of Differentiation - it is often called "Rank and yank":

Link to Article

The key points Welch makes repeatedly in interviews you can see on YouTube are that you:

1.    First need to have candor and build trust so performance reviews are reflecting the true performancer of the directs - the directs should always know where they stand, he recommends a quarterly note telling them "this is what I like that you do and this is what you can do to improve".

2.    Then you can rank the team - maybe not to a perfect bell curve but some will be the best in the team and some will be the worst - he recommend something like a top 20% and a bottom 10%, but the ranges could be a little different if you like.

3.    The bottom 10% are coached "up" or coached "out" so they get to the expected higher performance level (lifted) or find a new job inside or outside the company where they can perform as expected (helped to succeed elsewhere) - they are not taken out the back door and "executed" immediately after a poor review (as many think he is actually suggesting). Persistent poor performance will lead to firing (or being asked to find something new in 3-6 months for a graceful exit), but Welch also tells that most people leave by themselves if they can't make it.

4.    This is how you constantly push performance up and create a winning team the "Welch Way".

5.    Differentiation, he argues, is something done to us during all the years in school and in higher education, but for no good reason it is not "nice" to do to employees once they join the workforce.

As you read the article, I think Welch is much more "humane" in his approach than the layoffs he talks about ("you were never very good").

The only two flaws I see with this is:

1.    I think the criteria for performance scoring must be fixed/shared for all and across teams - if you are forced to place the team on a bell curve within a team only, then one teams bottom of the curve could be much better that another teams top performer or much worse than a third teams worst performer. So within the team there is always a bell curve even if it is not perfect and symmetrical (they cannot all be above the teams average) that can be used as Welch suggests.

2.    What if the worst performers on your team are the best you can get? What if you can't attract better new employees, e.g. due to company policy to pay salaries in the low end of the scale or you are located where few want's to live on the "outskirts" in a rural area. Then you have to make a decision about keeping a poor performer and try to improve the person or gamble by trying to get a new employee.