Tips to Survive a Yahoo-Style Bell Curve Performance Review

How to get co-workers and managers to give you good ratings

In another controversial leadership move, sources indicate Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer has implemented a bell curve performance rating system to identify and fire low-performing employees.

How it works: Employees and managers rate co-workers based on a set of criteria created by the company. Those that score lowest get fired.

Ironically, Microsoft just dumped this performance system because they found it was no longer effective. Executives stated it was having a negative impact on teamwork and collaboration.

Competitive Corporate Cultures Create Chaos (How about that for alliteration?)

The other challenge with this performance system is it can create a competitive, every-employee-for-themselves mentality that can hurt the growth of the company's talent pool. Example: If you knew hiring people more talented than you would push you down the bell curve, would you hire them? And, how generous would you be with the rating of your peers in the event they weren't equally generous? In short, while it might help the company in the short-term to get rid of people who are dead-weight, keeping a system like this long-term can have some nasty effects.

That being said, I've read many of the Fortune 500 still use this employee evaluation strategy. According to a BusinessWeek article, IBM has mathematical models of its own employees with an aim to improve productivity and automate management. They even have a word for it:

Fungible is a word used to describe workers who are "virtually indistinguishable from others" in terms of the value of their contributions in the workplace. You see, IBM's study is enabling them to identify top performers from average ones, with the latter being fungible – and I would assume that translates into expendable as well. (Read more)

I'd also argue that a lot of medium and even small businesses use it too. Why? It's the easiest way for them to make room for new talent. Out with the old and in with the new.

Tips to Survive a Bell Curve Performance Review

If you want to keep your job (you may not like it), but here's what to do:

1) Remember that you are being rated by humans who take their own needs into consideration when evaluating you.

While most employers won't admit it, people are evaluated on their performance based on three things AND in this order:
  • Personality - how likable you are and easy to work with.
  • Aptitude - your ability to adapt to doing it their way.
  • Experience - your knowledge and skills used to execute the job.
This explains why the person who has less experience than you and continues to make mistakes -- but is the life of the office -- stays while you go.

Does this stink? Yes. Is it fair? No. But, welcome to the world of work - discrimination is our reality.

2) Be a specialist - just make sure your specialty makes life easier for those rating you.

The surest way to stay at the top of the curve is to solve a problem or alleviate a pain for your co-workers and managers. When you make their jobs/lives easier, they want to keep you around.

That really annoying customer who needs to be talked to daily - volunteer to do it. The project nobody wants to tackle, say "Bring it on!" When you do the tough stuff, people keep you around.

3) Go one step past what's expected - and don't make a big deal about it.

Nobody likes a brown-nose, but we do like it when people make sure a project is done well and on time. We like it even more if they find a way to go just a little bit beyond what was expected as a sign of attentiveness. Exceeding expectations without making it look like it was done to score points is the key.

Manager asks for a project in three days? Get it done in two. Co-worker needs help with a project and asks to get on your calendar? Drop what you are doing (if you can) and help them right away. These little gestures go a long way.

Never forget you're a business-of-one ... and the customer keeps you in business.

I wish I could tell you that keeping your head down and doing a good job was enough these days to stay out of the firing zone, but it's not. We are all businesses-of-one. Our customers are the managers and co-workers who are filling out those "customer satisfaction surveys" the Bell Curve Performance Rating process provides them. To keep your job, you have to serve those customers in a way that ensures they are kind come review time.

PS - Can I help you here on AOL? I write for AOL on a number of career subjects. Feel free to email me a topic or question you'd like answered at In the meantime, here's another article you might find helpful.

4 Things to Keep Off Your Resume

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

More BRILLIANT American management thinking. How many of you are average? Will the real worker who is average please stand up? Using a bell curve to grade employees reduces the value to the customer as it focuses on the wrong things to measure. Performance measurements are horrible for measuring how the team performs. Deming's Red Bead Experiment proved mathematically how useless this approach is for fostering an environment that focuses on the Value Stream for a customer. When one employee is effectively pitted against another (especially within the same team), they are competing against an average. Taking the average of all workers and applying 3 Standard Deviations picks up 99.70% of all employees anyways. The only ones to stand out are the "outliers". She is nuts as are most American leaders today. They apply statistics to the wrong thing. Yahoo's customer is paying for VALUE somewhere. When these employees work within a system that is a consistently poor performing system, it is still a system. The willing workers didn't create the system for determining VALUE to the customer. The customers did. The stakeholders designed processes that supposedly added value for Yahoo's customers. Perhaps it is time to evaluate the VALUE Stream for Yahoo, and encourage and inspire employees to focus only on the things that their CUSTOMERS are willing to pay for. Management is responsible for 85% of all problems within a business because of the systems and processes they developed. When employees are inspired to improve the system by improving flow, and eliminating waste to improve variability, the value stream can be improved. Deming is still right even 63 years after he helped Toyota, JVC, Hitachi, Nissan, Honda, The Nation Of Japan, and most recently GM and Ford. WHy this Yahoo at YAHOO can't focus on the Value Stream instead of a bell curve is simply beyond me, but of course she invariably doesn't event know who Deming is.

January 22 2014 at 1:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In Soviet Russia, local leaders were invited by Comrade Stalin to submit lists of "traitors" from their area for punishment. Failure to comply would ensure that someone else made the list, and your name would be the first one on it. Classic "bell curve" performance management. Who went on the list? Not actual traitors (read poor performers in a corporate setting). Not at all. The list would be made up of people against whom the leader had some sort of grudge, or who he saw as a threat to his own position and authority, who might one day be in a position to put HIM on the list. The result of this was an organisation so incompetent that they were caught napping by the (on paper weaker) Germans in 1941 and almost completely destroyed. Only the weather and troops who were based a very long way from headquarters saved them. Just ask "would Warren Buffet invest in a company that used "bell curve" performance management?" I think we all know the answer.

January 03 2014 at 4:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Richard Griffiths

Simple sales - we need 100 units a month at 25% profit from each employee.

Most employees bring in 108 average - three bring in 100.

All of them produced what was needed to be viable. But the bell curve says lose 3? Hmm...very logical.

January 02 2014 at 10:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard Griffiths

I've another tip for the "Bell Curve Performance Review": If it's at all possible for you and your family - ditch the customer using it and find one with more humanity and deeper insight.

From everyone I've read on this subject to date, companies using this are themselves on the left hand side of the bell curve for foresight, employee happiness and even client satisfaction. Maybe that could be a nice data science project to prove this conclusively once and for all.

It's not hard to see it's a great Shark Tank construction method and a short term tactic at best. A clique generation machine and one that deserves to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Competence and results are NOT zero sum games - only the stupidest organisations fail to see this.

January 02 2014 at 10:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've had one job that used this exact method for employee performance evaluations. It led to an "inner circle" of employees that rated each other as highly as possible and scored everyone else down to ensure job security. So basically unless you were a complete brown noser to these people you might as well look elsewhere for employment. And you could 100% count on them taking credit for your work. That might have been the single worst job I ever had since morale was terrible. There was also one supervisor that based his evaluations on whether he personally liked you or not, and as far as I could tell he hated everyone who wasn't his superior. Didn't matter what you did for him either. If he called you to work OT and you refused even once, you could count on an impressively negative evaluation. And we had MONTHLY evaluations.

November 15 2013 at 12:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Picks From the Web