I was wondering what your opinions on staff ranking are. If you do it - why & how, if not - why.

Many of the firms I have worked for have done it. Some with just a simple ordered list, some with complex weighted categories. I was curious what others think about it.


DavidB's picture

I was hoping to capitalize on the experiences of this group for this topic. Does anyone have any feedback on this?

I was asked this same question recently, and realized that I did not a well defined opinion. This topic seems to have floated below the radar for me. I am now wondering if I am doing a disservice to my teams if I do or don't do this.

So if you have an opinion, story, or system to share - please do. I am looking to expand my knowledge of this so I can make a more informed decision.

Thanks (as always)

Edwin's picture

First, as a disclaimer I will say that in my current position, I don't have to rank employees any more. I agree is a hard and takes a lot of time.

Having said that, you NEED to rank your direct reports. Nothing makes your top performers more annoyed than saying everyone is equal. Next, if you do a good job and talk to your employees during the year, nothing will really be a surprise.

During the period, you should make clear what is important and what the priorities are. You don't have to say X% will be on this, Y% on that, but everyone should know what is a priority and what are posteriorities.

With that in mind, you use a weighting that is appropriate and rank the employees. If you have a large enough group, there will be a couple of people that are close. This will take a judgement call. Then for a sanity check, do a one-on-one comparison for each pair (1st vs. 2nd, 2nd vs. 3rd, etc) to make sure that nothing is out of wack.

As a last piece of advice, reason why each person is at the appropriate rank because you will have to explain in your review. On a personal rant, nothing is more annoying than being told you should have worked more on Project A instead of Project B when you know that your manager told you to drop Project A for Project B. . This is why it is so important to communicate your priorities.


DavidB's picture

Edwin, thank you for your post.

I realized in your reading your response that I was not as clear in my request as I thought. I see by your post, that your are referring to rankings based on performance reviews. I was actually referring to a simple ordered list by each manager of who is most critical or valuable to the team. In many of the firms I have worked in, this is living list that is used for dynamic structures. For example, the bottom 2 from Team A will be paired with the mid 2 from Team B and placed under the top 1 from Team C. This new team will be structured to encourage growth & mentoring, while actually performing a useful short to medium term task.

At least, that was the primary way in which I have used it in my teams. It is also used to identify at-risk individuals for impending lay offs.

I have always been tasked to maintain a list like this for my teams, and I find myself in a role in which I am tasked to make the decision for the organisation as having these lists or not. Since the organisation I am presently in does not have frequent layoffs (1 in 13 years), I do not feel the negative pressures of doing it. I was also offered advice from a mentor to do it as one of my very first things, and use it as one of my guide posts for my new organisation. It was when he asked me how I felt about it that triggered this question.


Mark's picture
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I feel strongly that managers are more effective when they rank their folks, but there are many different ways to rank them. I do believe a manager's ultimate ranking would be based on performance review criteria, insofar as one believes that performance review criteria are the most legitimate evaluation (and they sure better be).

I might have an overall ranking, then one based on communication skills, and one based on promotability to MY job, and one for promotability to a couple of other jobs.

That said, there surely will be a lot of overlap.

I have never heard of the kind of team structuring you are referring to. I understand it, and I like the approach, but have no experience with it. IF IF IF you ask that number one to try to develop the folks, and it's clear that that is WHY you are putting the folks on the team - AND YOU TELL THEM THIS - then I think it's bloody brilliant. BRILLIANT.

And, I'd expect that number one person to be given feedback about not just performance but development as well.

If, on the other hand, it is kept secret, I would argue against it. First, because of course it's NOT secret - everyone knows, and thus management undermines the trust it begs for everyday.

Would I do this day one, as your mentor seems to suggest? Gee, how could you? Unless you're using the previous manager's ranking (and nothing wrong there), I'd say it's a waste of time.

I'd also say that there are other factors in the decisions around ad-hoc team formation, not the least of which is fit with the others on the team (Disc helps here)... and those make me think that I just don't see this happening day one.

But do I rank people? YOU BET. Do I require managers who work for me to have a #2, and to have a detailed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their folks, leading to some sort of -context-relevant ranking? YES. Would I use it in a layoff? YES, because it makes for better decisions, though doesn't lessen the bitter sting thereof.

Hope this helps! I too would love to hear other comments.


DavidB's picture


Thanks for the feedback.

I agree with your point about making sure the new team knows why they were put together, and yes I do tell them. I could not see it working otherwise.

The catch I have run in to in the past, is that no one else is/was doing this, nor did HR approve this. So, while I have been at liberty to share the actual rank #, I have found ways to communicate to the new team their relative positions in the overall ranking. I then tell them I want to group them together to solve a specific business task (that satisfies all of obligations like my boss & HR). Lastly, I tell them that this group was selected so as to foster growth & mentoring.

After the team is briefed, I approach the individuals for a non-public discussion about their specific role in the team. The team lead is told of his opportunity for growth by demonstrating leadership & management qualities, and by mentoring/coaching others. The mids are told that their roles ask them to step and support the new leader, and to help mentor the lower pair. The lower pair are told that this is their chance to improve themselves and increase their value to the overall organization.

I usually get the skeptical - 'Oh why me' from all of them, but in most cases it has improved all of them. Most appreciate it when the project is done.

As for multiple rankings, I do that as well, but I try to use the overall ranking for this. I have found that the staff rankings tend to be loosely correlated to the annual performance reviews (yes, I have only been doing annuals up until now. this will be changing thanks to you guys). The staff ranking trended towards more immediate performance metrics, while the annual review would be skewed due to the lack of detailed information from 6-12 months ago. There is also a bias on making the performance review better to get the team member more bonus pay. Sad to say, but I see it all the time, and it factors into feedback for my directs.

Thank you again for your response.