‘Like’ Wisely: Forced ranking and social media’s impact on the candidate

By Brad Boyson

One of the truly positive influences of social media is its ability to engage people with similar interests from around the world in truly global, constructive, real-time conversations no matter where they reside.

One of the best HR examples of late has been the Microsoft-Yahoo! divergence regarding the talent management practice known as forced ranking; Microsoft is ending the practice, Yahoo! is introducing it.

For those of you not familiar with this concept or debate it revolves around comparing then ranking employees’ performance against each other as a form of incentivizing a high performance work culture. Whatever the name used to describe this process, and there are many, the underlying rationale is founded upon a natural law, namely that measured phenomenon in nature tends to follow a bell curve, AKA a normal distribution.

It follows that if people are subject to the laws of nature then not everyone can be measured or ranked as ‘above-average’ let alone ‘high-performers’. This backdrop, in turn, becomes a tool and the objective justification for normalizing (i.e. re-distributing) the performance ratings of employees to mirror that of a normal, natural distribution.

What is perhaps most striking to me about this recent Microsoft-Yahoo! divergence is just how few HR people really understand and appreciate the full depth of this debate. Strictly speaking, and taken to its logical conclusion, applying a forced ranking system means that consistent low performers are respectfully but deliberately managed out of an organization, or to paraphrase leadership guru Jim Collins, they are dutifully asked to disembark from the bus.

One of the truly negative influences of social media is its ability to create misinformation, reinforce bad habits and perpetuate worst practices. Some of the most notorious examples I’ve seen of late relate to the manner in which idiomatic memes are ‘liked’ or ‘forwarded’ by people using social media.

Some of my personal favorites include the story of Bill Gates’ dad – the woodcutter, Einstein’s ever expanding database of quotations, info-graphics referenced as evidence and HR people who apply for jobs by commenting – ‘see my profile’. All of which made me reflect upon the marketing expression, there is no such thing as bad publicity.  However this adage only applies if you do not differentiate between famous and infamous. Moreover it does not apply in the world of HR and it most certainly does not apply to the world of searching for a job.

It never cease to amaze me how few HR people realize that social media creates an online trail of user choices – including their own – which can be pieced together to expose patterns relating to an individual’s values, work ethic and general attitude. Add to that organizations are inherently risk adverse and you have all of the makings for a perfect, self-inflicted, self-imposed, indefinite leave of absence called: self-employed. When I see HR people liking or forwarding misinformation or untruths, especially if that information relates to the field of HR, I find myself cringing like I’ve just witnessed an online car accident. The only difference is once something is posted online it is too late to pull over to try and help.

At the end of the day social media is just a tool that extends and leverages the underlying nature of the user. People make mistakes, nobody is perfect and I’m certainly not without my fair share of errant receipts seeking to repurchase a ticket on the time machine called, Hindsight is 20-20. Nevertheless if anything there is less of an excuse today for propagating misinformation or untruths precisely because there is so much access to information to cross reference.

One of essential competencies for people working in HR is the maturity (or acquired habit) to realize that seldom is the truth or a root cause visible on the surface; over time first impressions and gut instincts usually prove to be wrong and social media scales this game of truth-or-dare to a whole other level.  In terms of HR, social media can and does expose – for all to witness – one of the greatest shortcomings for any HR practitioner: the likelihood to be unduly influenced by what we want to believe, rather than what is true.

The bar to practice HR is being raised – globally, and a new distribution of HR practitioners is emerging. Only in this case the distribution is not being forced from the outside-in rather it is being exposed from the inside-out. And as much as most people hate the idea of a forced distribution system, at least that technology is designed to provide feedback which can allow the user to make mistakes and adjust their course accordingly. My advice: choose to like wisely; the internet has a long memory and infamy can wait.

Brad Boyson SPHR, GPHR, HRMP  is the Executive Director for SHRM MEA based in Dubai, UAE. SHRM is the world’s largest HR association with over 270,000 members located in over 150 countries with offices in USA, China, India and UAE. He can be reached on LinkedIn or Twitter

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