resource: property that can be converted into supplies (Webster)

A friend recently related this, unfortunately not atypical, incident at my friend’s company.

It was the joyous time of year for personal evaluations. Way they do it at that company is to have a list of goals, agreed upon by employee and manager. Through the year both manager and employee track these goals, ending with the employee asked to evaluate their self on a scale of 1 (substandard) to 5 (outstanding).

The manager takes the employee’s self evaluation, adds their own comments, and passes the whole thing on to human “resources.” Whence various mystical incantations from that department are applied to the document.

My friend is a top employee, a fact which nobody questions, and so my friend gave four personal goals a 5 and one goal a solid 4. The form was then handed in.

It wasn’t long before a human “resources” resource got on the phone to question the ratings. “Did you know,” the resource questioned, “that your group is only allocated three ‘outstandings’? So you cannot put four of them for your self.”

There are more than two dozen people in my friend’s department. The following is roughly what was said.

My friend replied, “But I thought that I was supposed to rate myself. Isn’t that true?”

“Yes, but groups aren’t typically allowed to have so many high ratings.”

“Why not?”

“Because that group wouldn’t be balanced. It would have more ‘outstandings’ than other groups. It would stick out.”

“But I think my performance has been outstanding. Why can’t I put that?”

“Yes, we know you, and your role is secure. Everybody knows you do a great job. You just can’t use so many outstandings. You can talk to your manager about it. He’ll probably let you have one of them, and other people in your group will probably get the other two.”

My friend was somewhat flustered. “But isn’t the purpose of this form to rate myself?”

“It is.”

“Then why can’t I put what I feel I deserve?”

“You can. But you just can’t put so many ‘outstandings’.”

“Is this a formal policy? Why doesn’t the form say you can’t use the ‘outstandings’.”

“You can use the ‘outstandings’. It’s just that we have to have a balance between the departments…”

There is no fighting a resource, so my friend said “Ok, fine. What should I put then?”

“Well, a lot of people have been putting 3s (met expectations)…”

“But I did more than that. I’ll put 4s.”

“Hmm. You’ll have to talk to your manager about that.”

“Ok, I will.” And my friend hung up.

All this happened yesterday, so the conclusion has not been reached.

Certainly the resource has a college degree–who can get a job at a major company these days without a ‘degree’?—so this is just more evidence that a degree is only loosely correlated with knowledge and ability. Or maybe it’s just evidence that people given a desk and told to do something will make themselves busy. Like, by designing useless employee evaluation forms.

Anybody else have a similar experience?


  1. scp

    That’s standard HR. The corporate equivalent of grading on a curve, I guess. When the economy gets tight, the number of slots allocated for high-performers gets smaller. In the early 90s, I had a supervisor who told me that the highest ranking was reserved for “god-like” performance. It has always dumbfounded me that they intentionally use a system which is guaranteed to be wrong in a large number of evaluations. That’s what they do though. Every company I’ve ever worked for has done it the same way.

    A department full of high performers will always have a high percentage of people misranked. So will a department full of low performers. Makes perfect sense to me.

  2. John

    My employer offers “merit increases” based on similar surveys of self and supervisor evaluation, which will result in a 0.0 – 5.5% increase in base pay on you employment anniversary.

    To pat myself on the back, out of over 1000 employees in my position, for 2008 I was selected as 1 of 5 “finalists” for “of the year” based on performance etc. So when my annual merit evaluation came around in January, the recommended increase of pay delivered to HR was 5.0%.

    HR responds to my supervisor a few days later asking him to resubmit the evaluation with lower ratings on all the categories so the merit increase could be recalculated at 4.0%.

    Explanation “Your department average merit increase must be at or below 4.0%. Since no one in your department has been given below 4.0% so far this year, no one can receive above 4.0%”

  3. PaulH

    I thought this kind of stuff existed only in the world of Dilbert. 😉

  4. PaulH:

    What ever gave you the impression that we aren’t in the world of Dilbert?

  5. This is unfortunately how things work in big companies… In my company it’s almost impossible to get the maximum ranking in any of the performance criteria. In fact I don’t know anyone who has ever been able to have their maximum self-rating accepted. If you do give yourself a maximum score you WILL hear about it and you better be able to demonstrate unequivocally that the company would have folded without your work.

    When I worked at a small company I actually sat down with my manager and discussed where I was good, where I was great, and where I could improve. And I even got my maximum self-rankings to stay put.

  6. jack mosevich

    Exactly the opposite of Lake Wobegon where every child is above the average.

  7. Ari

    This reminds me of the evals I got at my first job in high school. I was told that the only people who could get 5/5 on anything were “Jesus himself.” Turns out that the manager’s friend was Jesus himself.

    Oh well.

  8. jack mosevich

    I have indeed run into this type of crap at almost every job. Companies and Universities have supposedly got “limited Budgets” for raises so they come up with various schemes of pseudo-equitable disposition. There was a Russian proverb: “the shortages will be divided among the peasants” which seems appropriate.

    In my 1st position as a Math professor I got dinged, being tha last hired. I was the only faculty member who published that year (in the journal Mathematics of Computation, a respectable journal). When I confronted the department chair with this fact he stammered that all of the faculty had the ability to publish if they wanted to. I left there shortly after and joined private industry.

  9. Joy

    Enclose a copy of the criteria/instructions for completing the self evaluation and fill in the form exactly as before.
    They cannot ask for a number from one to five but insist that this be no higher than three!
    It is for the other end to prove that your friend is exaggerating
    I’d advise that they write,
    “further to our telephone conversation…” etc and ask for a written request for the score to be changed with reasons given.
    I’ll bet the problem will go away. The pay rise is clearly not going to happen at the top rate, but it’ll give them extra work to do running round figuring out how they’ll finesse the rules to please the financial controller. “get the person to change the form” is the quickest and easiest way for them but don’t let them get away with that. Why should an outstanding employee be scapegoat for poor remuneration policy.
    They’ll have to “refine” their form for next year! I’ll guess they need more than five sections, after all if ‘3’ is ’I just turned up and did the thing with the thing,’
    ‘4’ is hardly that great either. So ‘5’ is only two slots from bog standard.

    They’re one slot short of a full form.

    The lesson here is that it is ridiculous to ask an employee to evaluate their own work. Trendy, maybe, but stupid.
    Don’t lie on someone else’s behalf! Especially when you are the subject of the lie. That’s what they’re asking your friend to do. I wouldn’t do it.

  10. Wade C.

    I just completed our “Leadership Training” for my company to prep me for the world of management, and during the three days of HR stuff (discrimiation, compensation, etc….), we were told that the company had recently disposed of a similar policy.

    Until two years ago, we had a formal policy that a manager could not allow more than 5% of his employees to be ranked a 5/5. Since my group has only 9 employees, we were told no one could get a 5. However, nothing has changed…now it’s just an unwritten rule.

  11. dearieme

    I used to work at a University where the top rank was said to be “The equal of James Clerk Maxwell”. I understood that no-one was The equal of Isaac Newton.

  12. I’m self-employed so must not only rank myself, but must approve or reject the ranking.

    Try as I might, I have never gotten more than a “2”.

  13. It certainly doesn’t seem “fair” but it is the only way that I can think of to make the ratings scarce so that they are only truly given to those that deserve them.

    Without this artificial scarcity you allow really crappy managers that only want to please their employees to give out ‘outstanding’ reviews like candy. Meanwhile, more honest managers try to give them fairly (and those with rigorous standards give them out sparingly) so there is a huge disparity amongst different teams.

    This isn’t to say that the system is perfect, but at least the inequity in rating is somewhat limited within a certain scale.

    I have worked for managers that don’t establish clear goals or objectives and rated everyone highly. I have also worked for managers with very high expectations and doled out “outstandings” like they were pure gold. I would much rather work for the later.

  14. Put the HR department into a department that does something useful like payroll. Or better still get rid of them and then check productivity.

  15. It is just the same in the government (and perhaps even worse).

    We’re scored on the 1 to 5 scale on multiple areas. Then the totals are averaged, and then multiplied by 100. On a regular basis, I have had my bosses apologize for downgrading my scores, but they complain they are restricted by their bosses.

    Now, what makes it even worse, is that when it comes time for pay increases/bonuses, theoretically they just line everyone up according to their scores. But, nooooo, what they do first is compare the average scores from each office, and if the average score of office A is 400 and the average score of office B is 380, then they multiply EVERYONES score in office A by 380/400 in order to even out scoring biases.

    So, if I’m an overachiever in an office of overachievers, the bonuses will go to the overachievers in an underacheiving office.


  16. Joy

    Chris, how is it remotely reasonable or even logical to ask someone to change their SELF evaluation? Does this not make a mockery of the system? Why have SELF evaluation at all? Why say “up to 5%“if it’s a mirage? It’s false advertising. It’s dishonest and counterproductive, a sham.
    Is condescension one module of an MBA? If not then it’s a good predictor of who will make it big in any business. If only I could bring myself to lie through my teeth and speak managese, I’d be coining it with the big boys. I just never could master the pencil twirl or the poker face.

    While I’m on a rant and I’ve gone right off topic, but it’s sort of relevant in a girlie way, two years ago I was working in a hospital where the “CEO”, who was known for doing sod all, set his secretary on to our department because
    “One of the patients has parked on the grass outside his office”
    I was very naughty and didn’t respond as expected, “oh, have they?” I said.
    “yes, and he’s very unhappy about it.”
    “So why are you telling me?” “would you like me to stop what I’m doing and help find the patient? We’ve only got one patient in at the moment and he’s in with my colleague. Would you like me to interrupt the consultation to find out if he parked on the grass?”
    “yes.”…(I kept her waiting as if I had far to go.
    “It’s our gentleman. Do you think he’ll mind if the patient gets dressed and finishes his session before moving his car?”
    “Well only if he’s not too long.”
    “He’s probably at a time in his life” I explained, ”being elderly and not very mobile, when he realises that there’s more to life than worrying about where one parks one’s car. I suppose he saw all the huge grounds and masses of space and thought it wouldn’t matter terribly, understandable I suppose.”
    “Hmm well it is a very serious matter the chief is on the war path.”
    “Is he allowed to walk on that?”
    Sometimes a scenario is too juicy to resist the temptation to stir. I ought to grow up.

  17. Nina

    I have worked for the last 15 years in the IT department of a Fortune 100 company. After the first couple years I realized that, since I did not have “leadership” aspirations in the company but was content to remain among the masses of workers, life would be a lot easier if I completely ignored the results of the rankings & ratings.

    One year I happened to pull a rabbit out of a hat, so to speak, and fix a system issue that was mystifying a lot of people. My manager thought I was a wizard and that year I got the highest ranking possible. For like an hour’s work, and consulting with a guru who pointed the way for me.

    Every single other year, no matter how much I accomplished, how productive I was, how many times I pulled the company’s fat out of the fire, I have been ranked in the middlle. Sometimes it is in the middle of 5, sometimes it is in the middle of 3. HR, or whoever it is that does these comparisons, loves to revamp their process every 3-4 years.

    I learned that rankings and ratings are not really about the employee and how she or he performs. They are about how well the individual managers negotiate with their peers for high rankings for their employees. It’s about the MANAGER, not about me. One less thing to worry about. Just stay out of the bottom tier.

  18. Good post. Most commenters here are missing the point. Corporations and government entities do not actually care how well or how poorly [or how fairly] any one individual is “evaluated”. It only matters that they are. And coupling yearly pay raises with evaluation scores was simply an afterthought and has no bearing on bureaucratic reality. The real reason for evaluations is they provide a corporate CYA in the event of a labor suit.

    Oh, HR folk will not actually cop out to this state of affairs, but they never base their personal annual requests for salary readjustments on “evaluations”. No, they use payroll data from other HR departments in similar sized and located firms to confirm that they, themselves, are underpaid and deserving of more $$$.

    If you are truly valuable to a firm and your resume is out there gathering attention from company competitors, and your bosses know it, your compensation package should meet or exceed your expectations. If it doesn’t you need to be emotionally prepared to bug out and move on. But, if you are satisfied to stay where you are then why should anyone consider paying you more? Its not logical.

    I once was the admin assistant for a regional manager. He oversaw 22 offices of various sizes, and their staffs. He had me write each office’s manager’s annual evaluation, [many of whom outranked me by quite a bit] plus my own, and signed them without comment or changes. I also wrote evals for his office staff, but that was OK because on paper I actually was their boss. His attitude was that evals were simply a waste of good time and he used other, simpler means to encourage performance and reward accomplishments. Best boss for whom I ever worked.

  19. Sylvain

    In 2001, I was working for an ISP here in Québec.

    After, the holidays they rearranged everyone into teams.

    After 3 or 4 weeks my supervisor called me in for my evaluation. In the meeting he complain about my call length with the costumer, which was too long.

    I must say that during the formation we were said that call length aren’t important, that we must ask the costumer if we can help them with anything else, etc.

    When telling me on how I could reduce my call time, he suggested that I dhould follow the example of my co-worker, who had perfect statistic.

    The funny thing is that this co-worker was hanging up to costumer, always helped the costumer to the Cie website, which even us were unable to find anything useful.

    Another complain that he had about my stats was that I had not enough call back (this meant that though my call time was high the problem were solved). He told me that I should tell costumer to try something and to call back if not working (they waited on average more than an hour at that time).

    Anyhow, the next day I was gone, and never dealt with that Cie after.

  20. Reed Coray

    I tried to post an answer to the blog question “Anybody else have a similar experience?” My answer contained a single word: “Yes”. However, the blog software told me my answer was too short and to try again. Given the content of the blog, I just couldn’t let the irony pass.

  21. Matt and friends

    My first response was flippant and I apologise for it, however it was a steal from a self made billionaire so I thought it was appropriate.

    What we have to realise is that in any organisation there are two types of employees. There are those that serve to fulfill the functions of the organisations (i.e. provide the service) and there are those that serve to protect the employees of the organisation.

    The HR department will always be comprised of the second form in a specialised subform. That is, they are a subspecies that is formed to protect themselves within the organisation, provide that they can recruit others (managers) to help them in their selfish goals.

    As we know from this blog, the erudite Matt (food connoisoir that he is) is of the first persuasion.

    The second form, over time, always wins, which is why we are always complaining about the public service (see for example the complaints about the UK Health system in the blogosphere – more managers than service deliverers)

    So Matt’s post should not be a suprise to us at all. The Socratarian Principle at work in all its fury. We need a circuit breaker – that is why I repeated the suggestion of the self made billionaire “whenever I take over a company I always relocate the HR department into payroll – they dont last long”.

    To finish – I remember when I worked for a large company in Australia which is now a well known International company – they undertook a review of all positions in the company against a thing called the Hay Scale. Guess what? The HR department ended up with the highest Hay Scores and therefore the highest pay scales. We were a Mining company. The people who got the bloody stuff out of the ground and onto the ships for export were way down the list. And my job? Getting government approvals so that the comapny could operate? They created a “special case” so that I could a bit more than an accounts payable clerk. I left soon after!!

  22. Vinnster

    I used to work at a very large company that did the same stupid thing. The HR policies and even the HR people seemed to live in an alternate universe. I worked with a group of 4 other folks. The other 4 were geniuses. In 55 years I had never worked with a more qualified, motivated group of professionals. I was the lowest compared to the other 4.

    My manager raked the 4 as outstanding (the highest) and me as above average in performance. the the HR idiots got involved and forced, as someone said, raking on a curve. HR would only allow 1 outstanding, 2 above average and 2 average.

    Six months later only 2 of us were still at the company. The top three performer left…and everyone of them stated the reason for leaving in their exit interview was the “forced” ranking.

  23. Mike B

    I once worked at a large American Corporation where we were given a presentation about the new rating system that was going to use the “Bell Curve” approach to ratings, i.e. a forced distribution. This particular corporation also took great pride in “only hiring the best.”

    After the presentation, I meekly raised my hand and inquired as to what kind of an indictment it was of management that they could hire “only the best” and then turn 50% of them into “average” and 10% of them into “unsatisfactory” in less than two years.

    After a few moments of silence and a vacant, blank stare, the HR Expert stammered a bit, and said, “let’s take that discussion off-line”. He promptly disappeared after the meeting.

  24. Briggs

    Mike B,

    That is absolutely hilarious.

  25. Matt, Mike B

    I don’t work there but know someone who does – I understand that Chevron uses the technique.

  26. I believe it is all about the types of people that are employed within organisations. Basically there are two types. The first type is there to provide the service that the organisation was originally formed for. The second type is there to protect the people that run the organisation. Over time the second type always wins. Classic examples Large Public Service units (e.g UK Health service) and Unions.

    HR departments are full of the second types.

    I remember one classic case when the HR department in a large comapny I worked for decided top use a thing called the Hay Classification to grade everyone so that they could “equitably” decide pay rates. After the scaling the HR dept had the highest scores and the people who actually produced the product got low scores. My job (obtaining govt approvals to allow production to continue) was so insignificant that the HR dept “invented” a scale for me that made me equivalent to an accounts receivable clerk.

    I left soon after.

  27. Matt, this thread has uncovered a gold mine of Dilbert material. Well done.

  28. Apparently Scott Adams’ office is just over the road from a large Chevron office

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