The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 19, 2013

Your Office Coach: Seething at 'pay for performance’

By Marie G. McIntyre
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

— QUESTION: I am appalled by the “pay for performance“ system recently implemented by my company, which has more than 10,000 employees. Forced rankings are used to assign performance review scores, so 60 percent of the staff must now be rated as “meets expectations.“ Only 10 percent are allowed to receive the highest rating of “outstanding.“

To place people in rating categories, each department holds a meeting in which the managers discuss their employees’ performance. Names are moved around until every category is filled. Even if there are many outstanding staff members, only 10 percent can get the top score.

I feel sure that all the managers will lobby for their own employees, so those of us who work for less persuasive or influential people are likely to lose out. What do you think about this approach?

ANSWER: Since most people agree that greater contributions merit greater rewards, “pay for performance“ makes perfect sense conceptually. The problem is that virtually everyone believes they are “above average,“ so lower ratings often trigger lengthy debates. To avoid these unpleasant arguments, many managers, left to their own devices, simply give higher ratings to everybody.

Forced rankings represent a logical attempt to require managers to differentiate among levels of performance. But while these standardized distributions work well across large populations, like your 10,000-employee company, they are completely invalid with small groups, such as a 10-person team. Trying to manage this contradiction can drive human resources people crazy.

Your company’s group ranking approach spreads the performance distribution across entire departments instead of applying it to each individual unit, which is a reasonable strategy for increasing validity. But, as you point out, assigning ratings through open discussion can easily create a “squeaky wheel“ bias.

If your boss seems to be a predictably feeble advocate, consider sharing this concern with your human resources manager. That may help to balance the scales, since the HR department is almost always involved in establishing final rankings. While your company’s new system certainly has both pros and cons, the same is unfortunately true of every other appraisal method.

Q: I work with a group of people who like to discuss their personal lives. Every Monday morning, someone will ask what my boyfriend and I did over the weekend. I am private by nature and would prefer not to share this information, but I don’t want to seem rude. How should I handle these nosy co-workers?

A: Most of the time, “What did you do this weekend?“ is an innocuous query, similar to “How are you?“ People are asking just to be polite. They have no interest in hearing a detailed account of events and would probably be dismayed to receive one.

Therefore, you can simply respond with a brief and bland answer - like “oh, the usual stuff“ or “nothing very interesting“ - quickly followed by an inquiry about your colleague’s activities. Since most people greatly prefer talking about themselves, this question should shift the conversational focus. The price you must pay for privacy is listening to the answer.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.“ Send in questions and get free coaching tips at, or follow her on Twitter officecoach.