What is Employee Stack Ranking?

By hrlineup | 08.06.2023

Employee stack ranking, also known as forced ranking or rank-and-yank, is a performance evaluation method that involves categorizing employees into predetermined groups based on their performance, skills, or contributions. This approach gained popularity in the corporate world during the early 2000s but has since sparked intense debate and faced criticism due to its potential drawbacks. This article aims to shed light on the concept of employee stack ranking, its implementation, benefits, and drawbacks.

What is a Stack Ranking System?

Employee stack ranking involves classifying employees into different categories, typically into a predetermined percentage distribution, such as the top 10%, middle 70%, and bottom 20%. The categorization is based on various factors, including performance metrics, skills, competencies, and potential. This ranking is often used to make decisions related to promotions, bonuses, training opportunities, and even terminations.

Implementation and Process of Employee Stack Ranking

Employee stack ranking, also known as forced ranking, is a performance management system that involves evaluating employees against each other to identify high-performing individuals, average performers, and underperformers. While this approach has been widely debated and modified in recent years, understanding its implementation and process can shed light on its potential benefits and drawbacks.

1. Establishing the Purpose:

Before implementing employee stack ranking, an organization should clearly define the purpose behind it. This could include fostering a culture of performance, identifying top talent for succession planning, or distributing rewards and promotions based on merit. Communicating the purpose effectively to all employees is crucial to maintain transparency and fairness.

2. Defining Performance Metrics:

To conduct stack ranking, organizations must establish specific performance metrics that align with the company’s goals and values. These metrics should be measurable, relevant, and clearly communicated to employees. Common performance indicators may include productivity, quality of work, meeting deadlines, teamwork, and leadership abilities.

3. Collecting Performance Data:

Accurate and comprehensive performance data is vital for fair stack ranking. Organizations can use various methods to collect this data, such as self-assessments, manager evaluations, peer feedback, customer/client feedback, and objective performance metrics. Combining multiple data sources helps minimize biases and provides a more holistic view of an employee’s performance.

4. Normalizing Performance Data:

To ensure fairness during the stack ranking process, organizations often normalize performance data. Normalization involves comparing and ranking employees relative to their peers, considering factors such as team dynamics, varying job roles, and different performance standards across departments. This step helps prevent extreme outliers and ensures a more equitable evaluation.

5. Ranking Employees:

Once the performance data has been normalized, the actual stack ranking takes place. Managers assess each employee’s performance and assign them a relative ranking within their peer group. This ranking could be in the form of a numerical score, letter grade, or a ranking order (e.g., top 10%, middle 70%, bottom 20%). The rankings should be based on objective data, performance metrics, and the pre-defined criteria.

6. Calibration and Feedback:

After ranking employees, it is essential to conduct calibration sessions to review and validate the rankings. These sessions involve managers and leaders discussing the rankings, sharing perspectives, and ensuring consistency and fairness in the evaluation process. Calibration helps minimize potential biases, standardize the evaluations, and enhance accuracy.

7. Rewards and Development Opportunities:

Employee stack ranking often influences rewards, recognition, and development opportunities within an organization. High performers may receive bonuses, promotions, or special projects, while low performers may face performance improvement plans, training opportunities, or even termination in extreme cases. It is crucial to align rewards and development initiatives with the overall performance management strategy.

8. Ongoing Evaluation and Adaptation:

Implementing stack ranking is not a one-time process. Regular evaluation and adaptation are essential for refining the system and addressing any unintended consequences. Organizations should seek feedback from employees, managers, and leaders, and make adjustments to the process, metrics, and calibration techniques as needed.

Benefits of Employee Stack Ranking

We will explore the advantages of employee stack ranking and how it can contribute to enhancing performance and driving growth within organizations.

  • Identifying High Performers

One of the key benefits of stack ranking is its ability to identify high-performing employees. By evaluating individuals in relation to their peers, organizations can recognize and reward those who consistently deliver exceptional results. This helps create a culture of excellence, as employees strive to outperform their colleagues and secure top rankings. Identifying high performers allows companies to allocate resources and opportunities more effectively, ensuring that the most talented individuals are placed in critical roles and given appropriate recognition.

  • Encouraging Continuous Improvement

Stack ranking fosters a competitive environment that motivates employees to continuously improve their performance. Knowing that their relative position within the organization is at stake, employees are driven to go above and beyond their regular responsibilities. This results in increased productivity, innovation, and a commitment to personal growth. The competitive nature of stack ranking pushes employees to set higher goals, seek feedback, and develop new skills, ultimately benefiting both the individual and the organization.

  • Objective Performance Evaluation

Employee stack ranking provides a structured and objective approach to performance evaluation. Instead of relying solely on subjective assessments, this system compares employees’ performance against measurable criteria and benchmarks. By utilizing data-driven metrics, such as sales figures, customer satisfaction ratings, or project outcomes, organizations can ensure fairness and transparency in the evaluation process. This objective assessment eliminates bias and favoritism, promoting a more merit-based culture and reducing potential conflicts within the workplace.

  • Talent Development and Succession Planning

With stack ranking, organizations gain valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of their workforce. This information enables targeted talent development initiatives, allowing companies to invest in training and mentoring programs that address specific skill gaps. By identifying employees with high potential and providing them with growth opportunities, organizations can cultivate a pipeline of future leaders. Additionally, stack ranking facilitates effective succession planning by highlighting employees who are ready to take on more significant responsibilities or leadership roles within the organization.

  • Enhancing Organizational Performance

Implementing employee stack ranking can lead to improved overall organizational performance. By continuously evaluating and rewarding high-performing employees, companies create a culture of excellence that inspires others to strive for better results. This competitive environment drives innovation, efficiency, and collaboration among team members. When employees know their performance is being measured and recognized, they become more focused and engaged, contributing to increased productivity and ultimately driving growth for the organization.

Drawbacks and Criticisms of Stack Ranking

Employee stack ranking has faced significant criticism over the years. One of the primary concerns is the potential for a toxic work environment. The forced ranking system can create intense internal competition, causing employees to prioritize individual success over collaboration and teamwork. This can harm morale, hinder innovation, and lead to a cutthroat culture within the organization.

Another criticism is the inherent subjectivity and bias in the evaluation process. The rankings heavily rely on manager judgment, which can introduce personal biases, favoritism, or political considerations. This subjectivity can undermine the fairness and accuracy of the evaluation, leading to demotivation and resentment among employees.

Furthermore, stack ranking can discourage employee development and collaboration. Instead of fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement, employees may become solely focused on outperforming their colleagues, leading to a lack of knowledge sharing and a decrease in overall productivity.

Alternatives and Evolving Practices:

In recent years, many companies have moved away from traditional stack ranking methods in favor of more collaborative and holistic performance evaluation approaches. Alternative methods include continuous feedback, coaching, peer evaluations, and self-assessments. These approaches emphasize ongoing communication, skill development, and aligning individual goals with organizational objectives.


Employee stack ranking, despite its initial popularity, has faced significant criticism due to its potential negative impact on employee morale, collaboration, and fairness. Organizations must carefully consider the consequences of implementing stack ranking and explore alternative performance evaluation approaches that prioritize employee development, teamwork, and a healthy work environment. By doing so, companies can foster a more inclusive and productive workplace culture that encourages growth and success for all employees.