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Why stack ranking at Microsoft still exists

Stack ranking will be around awhile

Microsoft does away with Stack Ranking

As an HR Hack, I think that the change of heart at Microsoft on the stack ranking management review and compensation system is great for their culture and as well as for all of HR.  Stack ranking at MSFT gives all HR practitioners a bad name regardless of where they work. The HR side of me is glad MSFT pulled the trigger and the recruiter side of me is a little pissed. Working in a startup, I don’t have the fancy benefits program, I don’t have the fancy cafeteria, and I don’t have the world-class brand to help me recruit passive candidates. (Candidates not actively looking for a job)  The one thing I knew I could count on was that I could use the stack ranking management practice as a tool to recruit “A” players out of Microsoft. 

Bill Gates is the Bomb

I live in the shadow of the Microsoft campus and work on the West Syieeede AKA Seattle. I am a HUGE fan of what Bill Gates has done for the world and specifically the culture of philanthropy in the Pacific Northwest.  MSFT has created more gazillionaires and millionaires that have a sense of philanthropy than most companies out there and Bill Gates, I thank you for that.  In an age where most have an attitude of “me – me – me” your sense of giving is a breath of fresh air. The scale at which you execute this attitude toward giving is ludicrous, and I say that in a good way.  

As a recruiter and an HR person, I never cared for the stack ranking system.  

I have always been a proponent of the following hiring theory: 

If you have a single opening and Leonardo Da Vinci and Einstein are interested in the position, you pick em’ both up.  You find a way, you make room and you do not let one of them go to the competition 

Look to your left and to your right. One of you will be gone

What if you have a DaVinci, Einstein, Malcolm Gladwell, and Stephen Hawking on your team? How do you stack rank these guys? An outlier case to be sure, but you see where I am coming from. Tough way to build a team atmosphere and a culture of long-term relationships. No one wants to send a comrade to the short bus. It can be easy to chase an “A” player to the competition. 

The day the news came out that MSFT was abandoning the stack ranking practice, I received a couple of emails from employee friends that work at MSFT. These are senior employees.  Stupid smart and making crazy money, employees.  Some of these employees are making professional ballplayer money. One email rang loud and clear, and I quote:  

“I should probably start drinking champagne now.  This is the best news in the world. 🙂 

We are too nice

Not so much that this employee was worried about her position or her ranking. She was at the top of her heap.  Stack ranking just doesn’t build a culture conducive to the Pacific Northwest. Here pedestrians wave cars to cross an intersection ahead of us. We volunteer our directions when we see lost tourists trying to decipher maps of the local area.    

My gut reaction was that MSFT just made my job a lot harder as a recruiter. My initial thought was that the stack ranking was exactly one of the things that most of the folks I recruited were trying to escape and now that MSFT eliminated this “best practice”, one of my most potent weapons was off the table. I was coming to a gun fight with the proverbial knife.  

Old habits die hard

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t really have to worry. Although the practice of stack ranking may no longer be on the books at MSFT, there are many senior managers that have been practicing stack ranking for a lot of years. These folks don’t know any other way. To land a senior position, generally speaking, you will have been with the company for a lot of years. The practice of stack ranking is now inbred into the culture of the company. This mentality isn’t going to disappear overnight. I don’t see managers really changing their view towards middle tier players and bottom tier players.  They may not say it out loud, they may not have to write the name down at the bottom of the list, but the mentality will still exist. You don’t kill something like this overnight.     

Will it be easy?

Maybe it takes a minority to see this, but I wonder what kind of training that MSFT may be implementing to de-program its manager’s mindset around stack ranking. Just because an idea becomes a law, doesn’t mean that anything will change. Just because someone sends out an email, doesn’t mean everyone is going to play nice. My gut tells me that there will still be a glass ceiling that A-players in a pool of A-players will need to bust through. It will be very difficult.      

I applaud MSFT for updating its review process. All change takes time, and we need to start somewhere. The journey of 100 miles begins with a single step and this is MSFT first, single step.  That being said, I believe it will be awhile before the idea of stack ranking disappears from the culture.  

In the meantime, I will still be looking for A players out of MSFT who are tired of seeing other A players get the shaft. 

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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