Nuisance of the Bell Curve in Employee Appraisal System

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on October 17, 2015

Something about that morning was special, aroma of the freshly brewed coffee, the cool breeze from Sahayadri, smell of crisp newspaper in my hand and the bold headline “Major IT Company to get rid of its performance management system”. I read further other companies are following the suit and have realized that the system doesn’t work.

I went back to the time, when I was called to my manager’s cabin to discuss my review. It was my first appraisal and as I nervously stead towards the glass doors, I wondered if they had noticed that I had never missed a deadline, that I had ramped up quickly, that I had stayed up late, worked extra hours, worked on weekends to deliver builds. I knocked the door and was welcomed by an extra warm smile from my manager. Uh oh! This is not good, whoever has seen the smile knows it’s a ploy! You know you will soon be subjected to “we appreciate”, “you have been really good at” and then the dreaded “BUT” with a string of adjectives like “you need to be more proactive, engaged, participative…”


You will be scrutinized over the leaves that you took (which by the way you are entitled to), the two days you went home early. The situation is even worse if you are really bad at selling yourself and your peer does this job well. All those breaks when you were loading on that caffeine to keep up your performance levels, he gained “corridor mileage” by talking sweet and building relationships.

I come out of the cabin and slump on my chair thinking of my mediocre ratings, when I overhear my peer yelling how he argued and got his ratings revised. My work on screen suddenly makes no sense to me. It is not just the pay linked with my performance that matters to me but the after diligent work through past year my work was undermined.
The process continues every year with average rated employees  like me, hanging on trying to reach the top that looks like Everest, while other lower rated employees (wrong side of the bell curve) on the tails trying to hold on, pushing themselves up in the fear of falling or pushed off the cliff. The issues leaves two options for employees ‘fight or flight’.

The news of companies doing away with the bell curve was breath of fresh air. They realized that the organizations had changed and the 90’s process of placing people on chunks of a hill doesn’t work anymore. The decision comes at the right time when organization are battling with the issue of talent retention. The purpose of Performance Management system as per T.V. Rao was to ensure that the employees knew of expectations from them and steer them in the right direction. The existing system was a skewed version of the same which forced people and analysed them on their past performance and not prepare them for the future.

The traditional system does not work for millennials who look for career growth and not get graded on past performance. They look for future plans, growth opportunities in career, coaching plans. The work environment has also changed, with shorter project cycles and rapid building times, targets for 12 months do not make sense. Also with teams spread across the globe, the fair judgement of the work done by an employee by his manager who sits far away on another sphere of globe, seems difficult.

Also the whole exercise of performance appraisals, filling up forms, conducting one on one meetings is a herculean task for managers who try to procrastinate till the last day and sometimes just complete it as the last minute.

The whole “rank and yank” process therefore seemed farce and pleaded to be reengineered. With 51 companies getting rid of the Dino-curve and others reviewing their systems it seems that the pleas are heard and “All will be well soon”. 

The article has been authored by Neha Sharma, Goa Institute of Management, Goa. Views are personal.

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