In the February 14, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader discovers topgrading and the A, B, Cs of hiring.


As an employer and interviewer I’ve been reading about topgrading and would appreciate your thoughts and expertise on this topic.

  • How familiar are you with it?
  • Have you performed many topgrading interviews?
  • Have you seen many companies using it? How well did it work for them?
  • Do you know any topgrading experts I could connect with and learn from?

topgradingNick’s Reply

I don’t have to drink cynicism to know it’ll poison me. And I think topgrading is as cynical a way to assess job applicants as any job-interview tool you’ll encounter.

Topgrading was invented as a selection technique by Brad Smart at General Electric, during the tenure of “Neutron Jack” Welch, the CEO who invented stacked ranking of GE employees. It’s hard to tell which idea was the parent and which the evil spawn.

Also known as “rank and yank” and “forced ranking,” stacked ranking  was how Welch routinely got rid of 10% of his workforce. Managers were forced to rank all employees and to fire the bottom 10% — supposedly the weakest ones. As you can imagine, a team of top workers runs paranoid when everyone knows 10% will be cut regardless of how productive they are.

In other quarters, the practice is known as an HR Witch Hunt.

Topgrading is really nothing more than stacked ranking applied before hiring.

I’ve never performed a topgrading interview because I want to go to heaven. And I don’t have clients that use it because I wouldn’t subject my job candidates to it. If you want to find a topgrading expert, you’re on your own.

What is topgrading?

It’s worth understanding what topgrading is, especially if you’re going to be subjected to it when you’re applying for a job.

Like stacked ranking, it assumes that there are three kinds of workers. A people, who are worth keeping or hiring. B people, who aren’t. And C people, who have a kind of corporate leprosy or pellagra and will infect your A people if you let them in the door. (Don’t worry, there’s a way to keep them out — we’ll get to it.)

If you view the world as A, B and C people, you have no business in business. You’re a cynic who likes everything neatly labeled, and who likes things that don’t change.

The other big idea in topgrading is that you can figure out who’s an A, a B, and a C. Of course — here it comes — you can pay Topgrading, Inc. to learn how to separate the As from the Bs and Cs. The company claims its sorting method yields 75% A hires.

If you believe that, you probably have a stockbroker whose stock picking method delivers 75% winning investments. Which means you lost all your money to Bernie Madoff.

You might well ask, if Topgrading delivers 75% A hires, why isn’t every company using it? You might well ask.

A bad attitude

Ranking people to identify who will and won’t succeed isn’t so much a mistaken idea as it is a bad attitude.

Topgrading is based on a cynical premise — that candidates lie in job interviews. That’s a hoot coming from the guys who invented it — interviewers from GE who fooled loads of companies into using stacked ranking.

I’m not a fan of tricky interview methods. It would be interesting to see a corresponding methodology that attempts to identify employers who lie in interviews, and when they’re recruiting.

Consider what Topgrading, Inc. says to managers who’d like help hiring more effectively:

  • “there’s no verifying if candidates tell you the truth”
  • “Topgraders hire A players most of the time using because they use the ‘truth serum’ technique”
  • “It is an inexpensive tool that scares away low performers”

It sounds like a panacea for managers who believe most job applicants — non-A people — are liars that need to be scared away. Perhaps an effective sorting technique for companies is to look at which managers want to use topgrading, and fire them to get rid of the cynics.

The big idea

There’s just one big idea in topgrading: a technique used to expose all the liars who apply for a job.

Topgrading, Inc. calls this big idea “Threat of Reference Check” or TORC. It’s simple. You threaten all job applicants with reference checks before you even let them in the door. Here’s how they explain it:

“Because candidates know they will arrange reference calls, they tell the whole truth. And finally, you verify everything by talking with bosses (and others YOU choose); there is no phone tag because candidates arrange those calls.”

Get it? This threat “scares away low performers.”

An HR exec unloads on topgrading

Mike Smith is an HR executive in the San Francisco Bay Area who produces a blog called Back West. He rips the heart out of topgrading in Talent Wars: The “A” Player Hoax.

Smith says topgrading is a lie, and cites “performance research wonks” whose work suggests topgrading is simplistic:

“The prevarication that success comes to companies that systematically hire and develop only ‘A’ players is twofold:

  • “One, that talent is innate and that you really can’t do much to develop the 65% of your workforce that are “C” players, and
  • “Two, that filling your roster with all stars – and forgetting about things like right role, right culture, right boss and workgroup – is the simple (although it’s simplistic) fix.

Smith offers this caution to gullible employers: “Performance, both with individuals and organizations, just doesn’t work that way.”

The stack crashes

I think the best evidence that topgrading is crap lies in the highly publicized crash of Neutron Jack’s stacked ranking.

In 2014 The Wall Street Journal declared, “It’s Official: Force Ranking Is Dead.” The HR blog, Namely, tells how GE settled a $500 million lawsuit alleging forced ranking was biased against women. Yahoo! got sued over a claim that forced ranking was rigged — against men. In 2015, The Atlantic ran story about How Millennials Forced GE to Scrap Performance Reviews.

It turns out you can’t invest your money using a special method that ensures 75% of the time you’re going to win. And you can’t ensure 75% of your hires will be A people because, well, there’s no such thing as A, B and C people — or a way to separate them into bins.

Topgrading ranks right up there with Jack Welch’s two-dimensional vision of how to manage people — “rank and yank.”

There are far better, more direct ways to assess job candidates. For example, invite them into live, working meetings of your team, and watch how they behave and perform. (See Big Data, Big Problems for Job Seekers?)


The prevalence of indirect job candidate assessment methods like stacked ranking and topgrading has led management in America off a cliff. Perhaps it’s because managers expect just-in-time, perfect hires. They have no idea how to develop and invest in their employees. If they did, they’d know how to find them and interview them, too. (See HR Technology: Terrorizing the candidates.) If managers were looking for talent, they wouldn’t be using techniques that focus on finding liars.

If you’re a job seeker, and a company tells you it does uses topgrading interviews, I think that should tip you off to find out whether management also practices stacked ranking — openly or surreptitiously. If it does, my advice is, Run. It’s not healthy to work for cynics. Find an employer that respects you. (See Smart Hiring: A manager who respects applicants, Part 1.)

Have you been topgraded, sliced, diced and cut from the list? Ever been stack ranked, yanked and jerked around? Ever interview with a company that assumes you’re a liar? If you think tograding is a great idea, tell us the A, B, Cs of how it works for you.

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  1. Funny I came across this post; I’m currently working with a recruiter who I believe is using this technique and did not tell me. I’m almost positive she called my current job (a job I have not told I’m looking elsewhere) because HR has been treating me oddly. Also, the recruiter was on top of everything for the interview I went on on Thursday. However, after Thursday night she basically disappeared. This was also the night I got a cryptic email from my curreny company’s HR stating to let them know if we are using them as a reference.
    I have no idea what was said; my guess, recruiter called my current position to find out I really worked there, HR said yes and she figured out I’m looking for another job.
    If that is what happened (and I hope to find out) I am working with the wrong recruiters. I would NOT have allowed them to call my current employer. In fact, oddly enough, the recruiter not once has asked for my references, which I find odd.
    Thanks for the article. Good to know what’s going on out there.

    • Another sloppy, unethical and poorly trained, loose-cannon ‘recruiter’.

      • Not to mention the very destructive nature of this behavior. Total incompetence on display!

      • I wonder if referring to a recruiter as “sloppy, unethical and poorly trained, loose-cannon” isn’t redundant?

        For the most part, one could just say “recruiter”.

    • Formula Thinking = Failure

      All these methodologies are latched onto by HR and HA’s who have no innate ability to assess people and read between the lines.

      So they think that by following some matrix, the ‘questionnaire’ will do the work of a human.

      As is being pointed out, no matter what methodology is employed, fakers will still slip through the system if no one is available who can spot these people from the start.

      Unfortunately, the old days of putting applicants in front of “old man withers” who would come out from the back of the store, hitch up his overalls, give the person the fish eye and then either nod approvingly or walk away without a word are (with exception) no longer around.

      Until HR professionals are either picked for their ability to read people or are trained to do so, this merry-go-round of formula thinking snake oil will continue sell.

      One last thought, regarding those thirty minute reference calls- people/executives who are covering for their former employees/peers are not going to be forthright about those persons’ failures. Each time I finally came up with a ‘find’, it was because I was persistent and patient in coaxing that reference along until they finally tripped and gave away a clue that represented a problem about the candidate. It is true that it was my sixth sense that told me there was something to be discovered but I had no way to rush the process. It was not until the reference finally felt relaxed enough with me to say more than they ‘should have’.

      For recruiters and HA’s, I would say that the way to push through what will become a thirty minute reference check is to be engaging and not talk as if you are checking off those dumb questions attached to a clip board. Reference checking is itself an art.

    • If you lost your job because of that, I wonder if you could sue.

    • Are you still employed there?

  2. This technique was (1968) used when I attended Officer Candidate school at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. During that time I was first in my class academically, second in leadership and second over-all <leadership trumped academics.

    Also, in my professional opinion, Jack Welch is an educated Idiot. I would NEVER work for such a person.

  3. This must be why I have always been a tad leery of studying anything written by Mr. Welch, and definitely have had less than zero interest in his “university”.

    I avoided the book leadership tactics of Attila the Hun for similar reasons. Years after that popular book was out, a historian described one of the tactics.

    When Attila conquered a village, he rounded up all of the village leaders and had them buried up to their necks. He then rode by them on his horse, lopping of their heads.

    Technically, real violence is worse than psychic violence, but damaging workers’ souls will still delay your entrance into heaven, if not prevent it entirely.

  4. Ok, this is my own opinion not a blanket statement.
    I work at the Meatball and have for over a decade as a contractor. The quality of people I ran into when I walked in in 2003 was insanely high. Six sigma, LEAN, it all makes sense when you’re going for that last 1% of productivity that is on the table. Yes. It’s math, it’s a lot of work but omg it works – with the right people. The people I worked with were the A+++ ones, and any C’s stood out from a mile away. Fast forward a few years and a meteoric rise in market share. The place is now filled with a lot more folks hired from outside, who took a whatever attitude with them and are now the dominant demographic- getting rid of the bottom 15% is abandoned in favor of growth growth growth. Enter the economic crisis, and now mass layoffs and rank-n-yank is back, although it seems to hit the over 45 to the point that there are very few left. So, to summarize: life was great with rank n yank. But, only at the Meatball..

  5. I still don’t see how this technique can filter out someone who really wants to lie. Sure, I’ll be happy to arrange calls with my “former managers.” I’ll just get a few of my former work buddies to say they were my managers. What do they care? Titles are meaningless. “Technically, my title was development engineer, but I ran the department, and, yes, Chris worked for me. Great guy.”

    If someone is going to inflate their resume or make fake claims (sorry, alternative facts) about their work history and talents, what’s to stop them from doing the same with references?

    Of course, a real working interview would quickly determine who’s lying and who can actually do the job. If you wanted to scare aware the frauds, “threaten” them up front with an interview where they’ll actually have to do the job.

  6. @Chris..

    You mean an interview where you give the candidate a problem to work, aligned with your need, and then work through it together in the interview?

    That’s a great idea and you should patent it. ( Apologies Nick)

    Welch writes a bunch of scat on LinkedIn and gets the usual millions of lemmings cooing over his business acumen. After the carnage he did at GE, the place awaiting him is deep in the bowels of Hades.

  7. I was “Topgraded” once. It was truly horrible.

    First, the job application form itself. Pages and pages, documenting and detailing every job you have ever had. Company name, starting pay, ending pay, job role, reason for leaving, supervisor contact info, et cetera ad nauseum.

    Then, the little twist where the applicant himself has to arrange the calls with references. And it’s not a simple reference check. Topgrading requires that the interviewer spend about 30 minutes on the reference call, taking a deep dive into the candidate’s history. Thirty minutes! I felt bad asking my former associates to sacrifice that much of their time.

    What ended it for me was the endless nagging from the interviewer after the interview, regarding the reference calls. Every day after the interview, I got a message, asking if the references were ready yet. Apparently, I am supposed to have enough clout with my former bosses that I can get 30 minutes on their schedule at a moment’s notice.

    That was the final straw. I politely told them “Thanks, but no thanks.” I wish I had seen the light earlier in the process.

    But, it didn’t end there! After I declined, the interviewer became all soft and wishy-washy. “We don’t have to strictly adhere to the Topgrading process. Can your references spare five minutes? I don’t have to talk to all of your references; just one or two is fine.” Apparently they *really* wanted me.

    I repeated my “Thanks, but no thanks.”

    If you see Topgrading, run! As fast as you can!

    • @Jeff: The badgering about TORC seems to be the key element in topgrading. The emphasis seems to be on threats and intimidation, which is supposed to weed out liars. It seems to me it also weeks out honest people who are not willing to tolerate abuse and not willing to have their references abused.

      Thanks for a first-person account.

  8. these methods of grading potential employees and current employees smack of the Huxley novel A Brave New World. And sadly, we have a crop of ‘certified’ human resources ‘professionals’ who believe in these methods as well as the hyper screening of the online applicant systems.
    Is it any wonder why there are over 30 million under and unemployed folks in the US when there are thousands of open positions?
    Perhaps if there were a presidential executive order banning online applicant systems and topgrading with regard to hiring activities the 30 million would be greatly reduced.

  9. To me, top grading and forced ranking are methods upper management resorts to when the business is in a rut and they have run out of real ideas. Alas, they will spend huge sums of money in their quest only to find themselves in a blind alley years down the road. As clearly stated in Mike Smith’s excellent article, performance of an individual in an organization is about much more than his perceived talents. I don’t know when this type of goofy thinking is going to get crushed by it’s own weight, but I hope it happens sooner rather than later.

  10. This is the first time I have heard of stack ranking applied to hiring itself.

    Based on what I have heard about stack ranking, it doesn’t end well if you stick to it longer than necessary. To play devils advocate about Jack Welch, if I recall correctly, when he took over GE there was a problem with dead weight/being top heavy or something along those lines. In that sense, I could see GE trying to rank it’s employees and keeping the most productive ones.

    However, when run too long, you basically start cutting into your productive employees and that breeds massive distrust and bad feelings across the board. There were leaks out of Microsoft, when they used stack ranking, of people not willing to help out (others may get credit for good work) and sabotage/back stabbing.

    • I’ve been around a lot of hiring and management fads, but I’ve never heard of Topgrading, either.

      As to stack ranking, I have come into new teams where management has never received training and one of the tools I’ve used is force ranking to help them better differentiate between great/good/poor performers. Conducting the rankings doesn’t mean the bottom 10% must be fired, although sometimes it highlights real performance issues that have never been properly addressed and ultimately results in an employee leaving the company. The primary intent is to ensure that managers are recognizing great performers, giving solid feedback to good performers, and having honest conversations with poor performers.

      You are exactly right, though. If you actually do strong performance management, constant cutting is eventually detrimental to the team. As I always say to my managers, we don’t want people to fail, we want them to succeed. THAT’S the point: mutual success.

      Further, the factors involved in forced ranking are critical to its success. For me, teamwork, defined as getting satisfaction from helping teammates succeed, is on par with typical job performance measures. That way, someone who backstabs another by definition is ranked lower than those who support team members. Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets done,” right?

      • “As to stack ranking, I have come into new teams where management has never received training and one of the tools I’ve used is force ranking to help them better differentiate between great/good/poor performers.”

        What I’m getting at is that the so-called “poor performers” aren’t necessarily poor performers. If we assume that the true poor performers eventually get yanked, you’re left with people who do an adequate job. My beef tends to be where you must label 10% of your team “poor” or there will be hell to pay.

        • You are absolutely correct, being at the bottom of a forced ranking does not mean that person isn’t contributing or should be fired. The exercise is helpful, as a manager of managers, to learn how well managers understand the contributions of their direct reports.

    • When in an A, B, or C system you start viewing your biggest competition as the people in your group, not the ACTUAL competition of other companies.

      Someone need help? Sure, you could be a “good team player” and send that article that would push them through the difficulty… but if nobody knows you know that information, you could wait until they flounder and then come riding in with THE INFORMATION. Make you look like a White Knight and them, well, less so.

      • You are absolutely correct, and that’s why you have to be careful about the definition of “great performance” itself – define it too narrowly and you can end up with a team of a-holes defending their turf. At the same time, I have used forced ranking to generate conversations that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. (For some reason, I’m feeling the need to defend some aspects of forced rankings.)

  11. Another genius who canned employees as his claim to fame was Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap who displayed a hand grenade on his desk. These are not “deep thinkers”. . . just garden variety bullies.

  12. Hi Nick,

    Long time since we talked.

    I still read many of your newsletters and I found this one on Top Grading interesting. I had never heard of it before. Seems like a lot of work to go through before the hiring manager even knows if he is seriously interested in the candidate.

    As a CEO I did a lot of reference calls myself, especially when hiring for my own staff, and especially with critical top positions where there was little room for failure.

    But what really worked for me, and I wonder what you think of it, is “going off list.” When we called the references the candidate gave us, we would ask them if they knew of any other people who worked with the candidate. This revealed a lot. One candidate for VP of Sales had glowing references. But when we went off list, we found some people who were extremely negative. This gave us a more well rounded picture. Any thoughts on that?

    • Michael,

      I was turned down for a job because the recruiter went off script and called all companies I didn’t have a reference for. I understand why you do it, but it’s why I’ve lost out on a ton of jobs because of it.
      Every one of those jobs I was either terminated or quit myself because I have Bipolar disorder. These companies also didn’t offer health insurance (this was before I was married and Obamacare) I always disclose my disability but managers have a great way of working around that.
      And I know, I know I should be on disability. A lawyer told me Im a slam dunk case. But I want to work.
      Also Michael; what about references that were years ago. Let’s say you call a candidates last two jobs; give glowing reviews. You call the third job; don’t hear good things. People do change work habits, would you take that in to account?

    • Hey, Michael — Good to hear from you again! I had breakfast just a few months ago at the Los Gatos Cafe. Thought of you and our great conversation.

      Going off list to check references is very common, but care must be taken not to violate the law and the applicant’s rights. But this is also where people get very confused about what references really are. If you’re dealing with a job applicant, we call it reference checking. But suppose we’re not dealing with an applicant. Suppose we’re recruiting. Who does a good headhunter recruit? People recommended by others the headhunter knows and trusts. Before the headhunter calls a person about a job, the headhunter asks around to make sure it would be a good candidate.

      That’s reference checking in advance of even recruiting. It’s how to avoid the wrong candidates, and it’s how to focus on the best ones. But this is where today’s “recruiting” breaks down — potential candidates are not vetted in advance. They should be. Or why recruit them?

      Make sense? It’s done back-asswards, and it’s why employers waste so much time with the wrong candidates. Check them out before you even contact them. That’s how to interview only the best candidates.

      Having said all that, your approach of course makes sense. Just be careful of legal issues. Thanks for dropping in!

  13. Are the Top Graders aware that lots of companies forbid managers to give references? Not to mention the problem of asking your boss for one before you have a new job. What could go wrong with that?

    As for rank and yank, if I worked for a company like that and was involved with recruiting, I’d make sure to never suggest hiring a person smarter than I was.

  14. And another thing. If I could do a reference for a worker who I really would like to see go, I’d give a great one. I’ve seeb it happen in internal transfers.

  15. The threat of contacting references, including one’s current employer, prior to interview obviously forces some candidates to self-select out of the hiring process. It is a very effective way to discriminate against women, minorities, or any “brand” your firm won’t hire.

    It is used to chase away “A” list candidates so that the boss’s nephew, a first class slacker, can get the job.

    I’ve seen it, been subjected to it, as have others, and am still mad about it. On the other hand, would I want to work for a firm that hired this way? Yeah, maybe not.

  16. Stack Ranking
    I worked for The Big Color Company where they did stack ranking, but they wouldn’t tell you. What you find out eventually is that they have a 5 point scale (1, 2, 2+, 3, 4; not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). So if you get a 3 you are NOT average. And they use your ignorance to create people they can rank low and kick out the door.

    Also in order to get a 1, 2 or 2+, you must do extra credit projects for the VP (you report to a manager who reports to a director who reports to a VP). These extra projects (requiring overtime) are called “polishing your brand”. But they are necessary because the directors all get in a room and fight over who is going to be getting the 3 and 4’s. If you haven’t brown-nosed enough, you are on the list of people who rank low.

    They have X number of slots for rank 1s and so many slots for rank 2 and 2+ and the rest are lay-off material. Your manager is actually looking for lay off candidates to protect the people they want to keep.

  17. I’d love to hear from someone, employer, employee, candidate who has had good experiences with topgrading. Anyone? That’s not a loaded question — there must be some pros and advantages to using the system.

  18. So if top grading did work–and of course it couldn’t–how would you ever be able to “rank and yank”? You’d have nothing but A’s in your midst and no B’s or C’s to toss. Ridiculous that managers/companies don’t think that all the way through. Like you said, Nick, run!

    • @Charlene: That’s what I believe finally exposed stacked ranking for what it is. Even if you have a top-notch team, you can still rank them and cut the bottom 10%. It’s like cutting off your own nose because “the system” ordered you to. That’s why it was discredited.

  19. With about 40 years of management in the hi-tech arena in 3 different companies, who via growth and change were defacto probably 6 different companies.
    In so doing I’ve been exposed to the whole range of management environments and fads. From absence of anything to teeth gritting regimentation. sometimes in the same company.

    In my view everyone, management included has 1 basic job description, make the enterprise successful, and managers, particularly the 1st line managers working with their teams, find the best balance of time, budget process to make that happen, consistently.

    People really are the key, the right people and a good manager finds the right people. Not executive management (they’re supposed to find & development good managers and management process), not HR. The 1st line managers.

    It seems inevitable that in the course of growth, sr mgmt, who mostly is risk adverse, falls prey to fads, BS etc that promise to take away the risks involved with hiring and managing people. Gimmicks that eventually prove to have short shelf lives. Top grading is just another one, in the same pile as resume reading bots, personality tests and on and on.

    They all send this message “I don’t trust my managers to do their jobs” So I’ll provide a formula, a checklist, the perfect set of interview questions, the list of right schools. none of which give you any concept of whether a person can actually do the job or worse shove that consideration under a bus.

    This is why when you interview, if you get a whiff of this kind of nonsense you should do a quick exit. Because, you’ll have a boss who can’t scratch his ass without an OK from the top, and will have strict limitations as to raises, promos, career growth.

    As to Nick’s last question. Yes, as a manager I’ve used top grading although it didn’t have a fancy name. Almost in all cases interviews were consensus interviewing, so someone would get the bright idea of trying to pin managers to identify key performance indicators down and than create related checklists. With scoring related to A, B or C’s. And scoring. then it’s just mindless math. Does this have an upside? Yes, if it is used as, and remains a one tool, to provide some consistent insights to a manager’s decision making process. And it also is a good tool for moving interviewers who seem to use the sound of one hand clapping to make hiring recommendations rather than something concrete.
    But the downside is when instead of and aid to thought out hiring decisions they become a regimented crutch that is not thought out, but a substitute for thoughtful judgment.

    And ranking. Been there done that, as a manager. I not only had to do it, but was around when it was introduced. It’s a gut wrenching system for the rank and the ranker, basically pitting people against each other… and managers against each other. When it reaches the point of no wiggle room…i.e you WILL fit everyone into the bell shaped curve of top 10%, bottom 10% and everyone else in need to understand that is also tied into salary budgeting. Given the budget for the next year is usually done in the 4th are projecting individual performance for some people, worse case, a year ahead of time. This means aside from known questionable performers, new hires and the inexperienced usually end up in the low end. If someone turns out to be a superstar down there…you can move them up…but someone’s coming down so the bell shaped curve remains as projected. Hence a manager working in this system pays a lot of attention to who’s sitting on the edge of the lines between performance levels. These rankings aren’t done casually. In the background managers are slugging it out as to who is sitting at the top and bottom ends. Usually top performers aren’t hard to ID, they are known, But it can get ugly when I think my top person is solid & you think he/she sucks wind.
    Sounds ugly but there is an upside. You keep doing this and placing starts getting habitual. You guy is always #1, etc. And it seems to guide by ego. Real men develop, QA can’t be as valuable mindsets. Until there’s a top gun put in place. And he/she sits there listening to the ranking and why and says something like. “I’ve been working with Joe for 6 months now…I don’t see why he’s your #1 guy”..

    Hard to believe but all of these fads have some value.. When they are new and 1st used. And when they don’t become the singular approach to recruiting, hiring, career growth. Because organizations do develop habits and a different approach forces you to think differently, until you lean on it some much it’s no longer different. Top grading, resume reading by machines, ranking when 1st introduced have some value, but if slavishly employed effect the creation of the Borg…an organization of replicas, found by shoving good common sense human judgment out of the way in favor of low risk consistency,..which creates risk. By that I mean, if you even accept that these things will cull thru the great unwashed and deliver perfect A players every time. Giving you an organization of A are very nicely shooting yourself in the foot.
    A players are HMU’s High Maintenance Users, who you’ve pit against each other for starters. Add to this is A players feel they only do A level work, the heavy thinking and cutting edge tasks. In their minds, who does the grunt work? Why mere mortal B & C players. This is not a productive environment. it’s an environment where a lot of energy is spent internally, against each other, instead of the competition, an environment lacking the outliers who don’t fit your formula, who very often possess the creativity that launches new ideas and products..And who know the basic job function…make the organization win, even if if means doing some grunt work.

    Oh crap, I wrote a book. Sorry

    • Don: Large employers will claim they need a system to make candidate selection objective, “rigorous,” and “fair” because they have so many positions to fill and so many incoming applicants. That’s how they excuse silly systems like topgrading — it speeds things up and gives HR cover. “The system made us do it and we use the system because we really have no choice.”

      It’s like using a meatgrinder to get more people through the turnstiles faster at a football game. I think paying customers would object. Perhaps job applicants don’t object so much because they don’t pay for entry, eh?

    • Dear Don,
      Well if the premise of trying top ranking is to shake up a bad process of hiring, then I think managers need to think this through. If management needs a different approach, then trying an approach that is soul-deadening won’t be effective.

      I love your books. You usually give me a lot to chew on.

  20. It seems that the handling of employees is rife with fads, whether potential or current employees.

    Daft interview questions such as: ‘Why is a manhole cover round’ or ‘How would you move that mountain’ (that you can see out the window). Interviewee thinking: ‘Why are you asking me how I would move that mountain? I’m just applying for the software engineer position, not ‘Move Mountain expert’.

    Another fad is team building, i.e. doing silly; sometimes dangerous activities believing that somehow magically will make team members feel warm and fuzzy towards each other.

    Like lemmings other companies follow, adopting the same fads. By the time those that started the fad realize what a flop it is, many companies have already jumped on board with the same ridiculous idea.

    Employees are almost treated like perpetual guinea pigs. Regarding us merely as a ‘resource’, i.e. Human Resources, like lab rats are ‘resources’.

  21. How about this?

    Have a team of people – the potential manager, HR, and several potential co-workers (both in the group and from interacting groups) interview. Then, each person has to fill out a form for each candidate a la a Pugh Matrix. (Shameless self-promotional link to my Project Management class term paper below.)

    (Note – somehow got a blank page in there…)

    This removes so much of the uncertainty and subjectivity, and washes out any one person’s biases.

    • I went through the process you describe on one of my more important jobs and the process went well, I was interviewed by peers, (it was a technology job) and some of those peers I knew from previous work. The involvement with HR was minimal, functional and friendly. I got the job and worked for a long time. It was mostly positive.

      This latest interview I was “warned” by the interviewer was TopGrading. Had I done more research, I would have declined the scheduled call with HR and told them you have my references and resume, please have the hiring manager call me. I have not heard back, I don’t feel it went well, being asked to rate myself in the eyes of previous employers 1-9, a better response from me would be that I had advanced in all these jobs and got top reviews, but that wasn’t the question asked. Then questions about failure and embarrassment. How does that figure into working for your company. The hiring company is rated well by employees and the industry, but this Topgrade gate keeping is a bit soul sucking and makes me uncertain about accepting an offer if one is made. It is starting to make me realize why I have been self employed for so long. I am too old for corporate BS. I just want to get the work, do it right and get paid. Pretty simple and if asked I could demonstrate that competency.

  22. Worked for a company that had a RIF (reduction in force program). This was unusual for a company that kept people employed painting the plant during the Depression.

    The company applied RIF to small sample sizes, such as 10 employees. These were manufacturing people with specialized jobs, and not easily replaced. Employees were ranked from 1 (worst) to 5(best). Suddenly people who used to get ratings of 3-4 were getting ratings 1-2.

  23. If you, as a manager, are forced to “rank and yank”, try this: We all have a few great friends and relatives who are, for all intents and purposes, useless but a hell of a lot of fun. Hire them as your bottom 10%. They come in, you tell them to enjoy themselves, write them up. Put them on a PIP. Reprimand them over beer and hot wings. After much soul searching, fire them, saddened at your failure to turn them into a superstar. invite remaining 90% of team to throw them a party. If possible, create a rotating pool with other companies. Much nicer than submitting hard working people to The Lottery. Your buddies will thank you and your goals will be accomplished.

    • This has got to be one of the best examples of malicious compliance that I have ever heard. Bravo!

    • I had to read this twice. But it makes great sense. You are doing everyone a favor. Bravo! LOL!

  24. “Talent Wars: The “A” Player Hoax”

    The title alone should be carved into every HR manager/hiring manager’s office wall.

  25. An African saying that has stuck with me for several years is “When you run alone, you run fast, but when you run with others, you run far.”

    It must be lonely at the finish line for “A” players.

  26. It seems the insanity doesn’t stop, even more employers adopting employee ranking system:

    Can’t HR find something better to do, perhaps even playing computer games instead of making life difficult for employees?
    These same HR types will probably think that team building exercises will fix everything.

    • When I first started working my first long term job some 30+ years ago, I would hear managers complaining about other building “empires” within the company. I think this is what has happened with HR, it has become and empire within the company. I don’t want to belittle the importance of HR, but they need to recognize they are just a piece of the company, not the gate keepers.

      Going a bit off topic, Anthony Bourdain was in Antarctica recently and one of the employees interviewed mentioned how everyone on base was equally important, from the top researchers, the cooks, to the janitors and the sewage plant workers. The research would stop quickly if one of them were absent.

  27. I heard about Topgrading somewhere, and after looking it up, horrified by a process that magnifies the worst, most demeaning aspects of conventional interviewing. Some companies claim it works, but hard to believe candidates with options would endure such degrading treatment. Aside from treating applicants as criminals that are guilty until proven innocent, there is the flawed A/B/C player model that ignores, as Mike Smith and many others have pointed out, that performance is very context dependent. There are no shortage of stories about CEO superstars that were recruited into another company (often as turnaround artist) that failed miserably. Others have also noted the high risk of recruiting lower level superstar candidates; failure rates are high (although I don’t recall the percentages offhand).

    Of course, top grading can’t work even numerically because there aren’t enough “A” players out there, when presuming 80+% of the workforce is unhireable.

    Not surprised that companies are finally abandoning rank and yank, due to the incredible damage. But it took far to long for them to figure that out. At least 10 years at Microsoft? Talk about slow learners. If a company is cutting 10% each year, that means turning over up to half the workforce every five years. Did no one think thru the implications of that?

    Thankfully, I’ve never been top graded. Regular interviews are dispiriting enough. But I was subject to a recent bassackwards implementation of rank and yank at Intel, where retroactive criteria was applied to stock grants (normally intended to retain employees), so that those receiving too little stock over the prior three or four years were eliminated, despite satisfactory performance reviews. Many suspect an underhanded method to eject older employees, as they were very disproportionately affected.

    The Topgrade presumption that candidates lie reminds me of the 30 year parade of hand-wringing articles about increasing resume embelllishment. None explored why, ignoring the correlation between job requirement inflation and resume inflation, simply assuming an explosion of cheaters. My take is that employers brought much of that onto themselves thru overdone job qualifications.

  28. I recently completed a TopGrading interview for an E.Coast Pharma company, and my takeaway is that it was an utter waste of time for all parties. Not only did the interviewer ask me the same questions captured in the detailed in the career history I was asked to complete, but my *first-round* interview took 5 hours with tandem interviewers from the Exec team. I can only wonder what it’s like to work at a company where interviewers (Execs at that!) are expected to devote that kind of time to a single hire with multiple candidates- when does the real work get done?

    The candidate-led reference calls exhibit a glaring sentiment of distrust, which I suppose is the premise of TopGrading.

    Here’s a thought: In the spirit of fairness, has anyone demanded the hiring company line up reference calls with the last 10 employees who have left the company voluntarily or involuntarily?

    • Sounds more like you were interrogated by the CIA. Lol! Come to think of it… That might have been a more pleasant experience. Yikes!

  29. I had been asked by a potential employer to do a topgrading interview on top of the grueling interview they had just conducted. I’m glad you wrote this article. I had a bad feeling about it before coming to this page. Now I know my gut feeling was right. Funny thing is… The role is for an account manager. Like honest and for true? You’re going to grill a candidate for an account manager? Seriously that’s dumb! I will be taking advise stated above and just RUN!

  30. This article isn’t about why Topgrading is bad. It’s more about why candidates who suck are gonna hate Topgrading.

    Topgrading and CIDS interviews are *tools*, as are behavioral and cultural interviews, as is the authors idea of inviting a candidate to a live working meeting. Just like a hammer can be misused to bash someone in the head, so can any of these tools. They can *all* also be used to optimize your hiring process.

    The author just describes why he and other don’t like Topgrading while not giving any real examples or data as to why it fails. I’ll let you read the book for data on why it *does* work… As for examples, I have a few of my own. I inherited a tech operation with a 100%+ turn over rate – we had a lot of folk quitting out of frustration of many of their coworkers not doing any work. The previous manager had a hiring process that consisted of talking to the candidate for a half hour (not asking any real questions) and offering them a job if they listened. With Topgrading, I reduced that turn over rate to under 10%, and reduced the staff we needed to do the same job by a third.

    Almost everyone I interviewed told me afterward that it was the hardest interview they’ve ever been in, but also the among the best. That process made top candidates *want* to work for my org.

    Going back to the tool analogy, any complex system is going to be built using multiple tools. You can’t *just* use Topgrading for your hiring process… you need to modify it and use other hiring tools to fit your company needs. I used a technical panel interview before the topgrading interview, and I also modified the Topgrading interview to focus more on cultural fit.

    The author also points out the fact that forced ranking is dead as evidence against Topgrading. I’ve worked in several companies that used ‘forced ranking’ and it did suck, but it did get results for those companies that used it. Forced ranking was used from the mid 80’s to 2015 (and is still used in many companies – Intel, Microsoft). My question would be, if it was so bad (from an employers perspective), why did it 30 + years to die?

    The author states that Topgrading assumes that candidates are going to lie. This is not my takeaway at all, and I never applied that presupposition to my interview process. The fact *is* however, that *everyone* embellishes their resume and fudges their answers a bit during an interview. Examples would be on a scale of 1 – 10 how skilled are you in x? When they’re clearly intermediate, many people will answer 7, when 5 would be more appropriate. Or how would your previous boss describe your work ethic? They might say their boss though their work quality was always top notch, leaving out the part about their time management and organization skills sucking. Neither one of these things is an outright lie, but neither does it get to what I need to know as an interviewer. For me, that someone’s skill in ‘x’ is 5 vs 7, or that they need to work on time management and organization, are not dealbreakers. I just want to know that they are aware of their deficiencies or actual skill level in a subject, and that they know what they need to work on. I let people know their failures and weaknesses are not deal breakers. I merely want to know how interspective the candidate is and if we can train them or have someone else on the team shore up those weaknesses. I’d rather hire two people with complementary skills (e.g. one is an expert in X and sucks in Y, and the other is great in Y and sucks in X), than to have two hires who are equally mediocre. Which is why the reference check is important. It’s called trust but verify.

    The real problem that Nick is pointing out is not with Topgrading at all, but with hiring managers being dicks. If they go into the process assuming everyone is going to lie to them, then they’re only going to find liars. If they approach the process with cynicism or hostility, they’re not going to get the open answers they need to really assess the candidate.

    Topgrading, used correctly, is a great way to get candidates to open up and really talk frankly about their strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures. If they know that references are going to be called and that frank, honest discussions about failures and weaknesses are not dealbreakers, you’ll get to the heart of the candidate much quicker.

    It’s sad that Nick has dismissed Topgrading as a way to hire candidates, having never before conducted a single Topgrading interview. It’s a bit like a carpenter dismissing using a hammer, having never before hit a nail on the head.

    • Agree 100% with everything you said Nadia! Thank you for writing this response. It’s clear Nick is really hung up on the “Threat of Reference Check” portion of Topgrading and overlooks the main parts of the process, which are:

      (1) use a scorecard before you start
      (2) ask about the good and bad of a candidate’s past experiences
      (3) compare that to the scorecard

      If anything, to reiterate Nadia’s point, good candidates have stated time and time again that they appreciate how thorough the process is and also appreciate that the interview team truly understands what they’ve had to overcome!

      That is also to say that when interviewing a candidate using Topgrading, building rapport, putting the candidate at ease, and generally being a kind and real person is just as important — the Topgrading process makes it very clear that candidates are interviewing YOU just as much as you’re interviewing them.

      Lastly, I’ll also note that Topgrading is one of the few prescriptive interview processes out there that actually encourages and forces you to adhere to a structured set of interviews. This is tremendously important in (helping) to make more unbiased hiring decisions since you’re adhering to a standardized rubric and not just talking about where you went to college and how much you like playing golf.

      Having been on the both the giving and receiving end of Topgrading I’d argue that Nick’s response is more a reflection of what a BAD implementation of Topgrading looks like more than an indictment of Topgrading itself.