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employee performance

Stack Ranking: A Controversial Performance Evaluation System


Performance evaluation is an integral part of any organization. It allows employers to assess employee contributions, identify areas for improvement, and reward high performers. However, the effectiveness of performance evaluation systems can vary significantly. One such system that has garnered both praise and criticism is stack ranking, also known as forced ranking. In this article, we will dive into the world of stack ranking, exploring its pros and cons, its impact on employees and teams, and alternative evaluation methods.

What is Stack Ranking?

Stack ranking is a performance evaluation system that categorizes employees into predefined groups based on their performance. Typically, employees are categorized as high performers, average performers, and low performers. The system requires managers to rank employees against each other, placing them in a predetermined percentage distribution.

The Pros of Stack Ranking

1. Differentiation of Performance: Stack ranking provides a clear distinction between high performers, average performers, and low performers. It helps identify top talent in the organization and rewards them accordingly. This differentiation can motivate employees to strive for better performance.

2. Fairness and Objectivity: The forced ranking system aims to eliminate bias and subjectivity by ranking employees based on objective metrics. This can create a sense of fairness in the evaluation process, as all employees are measured against the same criteria.

3. Identifying Skill Gaps: Stack ranking can help identify skill gaps within the organization. By clearly highlighting low performers, it becomes easier for managers to pinpoint areas where additional training or support is required.

The Cons of Stack Ranking

1. Toxic Competition: One of the major criticisms of stack ranking is that it fosters a toxic competitive environment. Employees may resort to unethical practices such as sabotaging their colleagues’ work to ensure better rankings. This can harm teamwork, collaboration, and overall morale.

2. Limited Recognition of Individual Efforts: Stack ranking tends to focus on relative performance rather than individual contributions. This can lead to situations where high-performing employees feel undervalued, as their efforts are overshadowed by the need to meet predetermined distribution quotas.

3. Demotivation and Employee Turnover: Being classified as a low performer can have detrimental effects on an employee’s motivation and morale. The demoralizing impact of stack ranking can ultimately lead to increased employee turnover, as top talent may seek opportunities elsewhere where their skills and efforts are more appreciated.

Alternatives to Stack Ranking

While stack ranking has its advantages, several alternative evaluation methods have been proposed to address the shortcomings of the system. Some of these alternatives include:

1. Continuous Feedback and Coaching: Shifting from an annual evaluation system to a continuous feedback and coaching approach allows for real-time performance improvement. Regular feedback sessions between managers and employees can promote growth and development.

2. 360-Degree Feedback: In a 360-degree feedback system, employees receive evaluations from their peers, subordinates, and supervisors. This multi-perspective approach provides a more holistic view of an individual’s performance and encourages collaboration and teamwork.

3. Goal Setting and Objectives: Focusing on goal setting and objectives allows employees to work towards specific targets aligned with the organization’s overall strategy. Regular review of progress against these goals helps managers and employees track performance more effectively.


Stack ranking, despite its intentions to differentiate performance and create objectivity, has been met with mixed reactions. While it can identify top talent and address skill gaps, its toxic competitive environment and limited recognition of individual efforts make it a controversial evaluation method. As organizations continue to evolve, adopting alternative evaluation methods such as continuous feedback, 360-degree feedback, and goal setting can support a more holistic and growth-focused approach to performance evaluation.