World of Warcraft Classic lead dev resigns to protest 'stack ranking'
Brian Birmingham claims he walked after refusing to give team member a 'low' rating
Former Blizzard World of Warcraft co-lead dev Brian Birmingham took to Twitter this morning to confirm that when given a choice between stack ranking his employees – obeying a mandate to give a poor "developing" rank to an employee – or leaving the company, he decided to walk.
Extracts of Birmingham's emails to colleagues leaked to Bloomberg last night voiced concerns over the dog-eat-dog nature of the concept, with the dev writing: "This sort of policy encourages competition between employees, sabotage of one another's work, a desire for people to find low-performing teams that they can be the best-performing worker on, and ultimately erodes trust and destroys creativity."
We asked Activision Blizzard to confirm it uses the much-hated and hugely controversial employee evaluation technique, which amounts to grading on a bell curve. It said it had "nothing to share."
In a statement it provided to Bloomberg the company said the process was designed to facilitate "excellence in performance" and "ensure employees who don't meet performance expectations receive more honest feedback, differentiated compensation, and a plan on how best to improve their own performance."
The spokesperson added that "sometimes ratings move up or down" based on discussions between managers.
The developer's leaked email claimed he was forced to lower a worker he managed from the average "successful" rating to "developing" in order to hit the quota.
Staffers who are ranked low might find it hurts their compensation and/or future standing when it comes to raises and promotions.
The technique itself has come in for a lot of flak, especially because if you work with a team of excellent colleagues, it's quite unfair to rank some as poorly performing to hit a target they don't know about.
It's not clear who instituted the corporate policy. In a tweet late last night (or early this morning for those of us based east of the UTC time zone), Birmingham claimed he was told "the forced stack-ranking policy is a directive that came from the [parent company Activision-Blizzard-King] level," adding: "Everybody at Blizzard I've spoken to about this, including my direct supervisors, expressed disappointment about this policy."
Activision Blizzard was formed from a merger between Vivendi Games and Activision in 2008.
The developer also claimed in the email that several other directors and leads working at World of Warcraft had asked management if they could give themselves "developing" ranks instead of dishing them out to people they managed but were "told that it wasn't an option."
I wasn't intending to make this public, but apparently its in the news already, so I'd at least like to set the record straight. I am no longer an employee of Blizzard Entertainment, though I would return if allowed to, so that I could fight the stack-ranking policy from inside.— Brian Birmingham💙 (@BrianBirming) January 24, 2023
The dev also confirmed the veracity of the email seen by Bloomberg. We've asked Birmingham for comment.
Microsoft's eat-your-own-young management system axedREAD MORE
What is stack ranking?
The concept, also known as "forced ranking" or the "vitality curve," was first used in business by GE's CEO Jack Welch – aka Neutron Jack – in the 1980s. Welch, whose critics called his method "Yank and Rank," grew GE's market value from $12 billion to $410 billion, posting double digit quarterly profits that drove up the industrial giant's stock price while cutting 112,000 people from GE's workforce between 1980 and 1985.
The industrial giant no longer uses the system, having publicly announced in 2016 it was scrapping it in favor of performance apps and other metrics.
The method has also been criticized as a way of targeting staff for dismissal when a corporation is looking to cut costs, although we have no knowledge of this in relation to Activision Blizzard. According to HR tech biz SpriggHR: "This method of evaluation worked well for GE because, at the time of its introduction, the company had become too big, and the employees too comfortable."
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Some Reg readers might also remember that the method was infamously used by Microsoft under Steve Ballmer, although Microsofties say it was already in place before he took the CEO spot in 2000. One critic claimed it was responsible for "Microsoft's lost decade," saying the practice turned teams on each other who would otherwise be working collaboratively to put out products, potentially being part of the reason it was late on e-readers and why its mobile operating system, Windows Phone, was totally outpaced by Android and iOS.
Former Microsoft developer David Auerbach wrote in a 2013 op-ed about the practice:
The stack rank was harmful. It served as an incentive not to join high-quality groups, because you'd be that much more likely to fall low in the stack rank. Better to join a weak group where you'd be the star, and then coast. Maybe the executives thought this would help strong people lift up weak teams. It never worked that way. More often, it just encouraged people to backstab their co-workers, since their loss entailed your profit.
Microsoft killed stack ranking back in 2013.
The Windows giant itself is in the process of trying to buy Activision Blizzard, although it still has many hoops to jump through for global regulators, including the US Federal Trade Commission, which is attempting to block the deal. We have asked Microsoft if it will put a stop to the alleged policy after acquisition.
Do you have "stack ranking" by any name in your company? Have you been told it's a managers-only secret? Get in touch with us here. ®