The Hell Curve

The Hell Curve
The Hell Curve

No, I deliberately wrote it as Hell instead of Bell.

Managers who have run teams must surely know this model. A friend of mine works in one of the top IT organizations this country has, every year he worries incessantly about how he is going to survive appraisals. Not his own, he is consistently in the top 10% of the firm, but his teams.

They carry out appraisals using the bell curve in this organization … that means in any project team, someone has to be top performer, someone has to be average and someone has to be in the bottom 10% … survival of the fittest in this corporate jungle … that’s the rule.

The problem with this rule is that managers are forced to take under-performers and average team members as opposed to top performers. This is so, because when appraisal time comes, he cannot appraise everyone as a top performer. So if he has more than 10% of his team putting their hearts into the project, then after a year, someone will get an unfair assessment … someone will be disappointed in his superiors. Someone will get disillusioned. And that someone would be reporting to the manager who appraised him.

The only solution available for the manager then, is to select a mediocre team and hope that they deliver the project. An entire organization that runs on mediocrity!

My question to HR personnel then are two-fold –

  1. Why the bell curve?
  2. What will you do if the curve becomes skewed (towards the top performer side)?

12 thoughts on “The Hell Curve”

  1. The problem with the “Hell” Curve in my company is that the guidelines say only 10% of the people can get top rating (1) and 60% should get an average rating (3). So what this does is that it results in a subjective grading rather than objective.
    What HR needs is a 2-point grading system –
    First systems grades your performance with expectations set for you by your boss at the start of the year
    Second system grades your performance with the rest of the people.

    Not having the first system gives the managers an easy way out to force opinions due to perception rather than opinions due to results.

  2. yes..I understand and relate to what’s this post about. In my three years of appraisals, the first one- though my appriasal rating was 2 ( as being anticipated and 1 -being top most), I was given a 3 for 5 , and I was told my rating was ‘normalised’ though individual performance was good. i really did not agree with that. later , in both subsequent apprisals I was rated 2–and the apprisal process being scewed is true atleast in my case. Its more of family business process- only when a senior associate quits/leaves the team, the juniors get a chance to be rated higher.

    I dont understand the whole point of apprisals, the associated work for the company right? they why are they not paid as per there performance – not just only that 10%? Why does management get to decide ‘HOW MUCH’ each should be appriased off when everyones putting same effort in thier own way?

  3. I fail to understand the criticism of this Hell curve. Considering it from the top, there is a budget allocated for the human capital appraisal, that stems from the total output of all resources which reflects in sales ! So, the better way of distributing is to normalize it. Isnt it what happens even in competitive exams ? I wouldnt say that the curve is wrong. The problem could be if the means to arrive at the curve is wrong. “putting heart into a project” isnt the right way to evaluate performance.

  4. @Aina – Yes. Expectations with transparent objective measurements would do for a start.

    @durga – Don’t equate efforts, equate outcomes. If outcomes met by two people are the same, then why should they be appraised any differently?

    @Don – The point I am making here is that the bell curve is counter-intuitive to wanting more top-performers in a company. So if you have the bell curve as an appraisal system, you are propounding mediocrity (the middle 60%) and not top-performers.

    @Biggie – A related post please :-)

  5. yes, true that in the end its only the outcome which matters, but the efforts should not go reward-less as well right? if they do- then what is the motivation for puting in efforts? No passion doesnot work for all:) I guess

    1. Durga, how can appraisal be the only motivation for putting in efforts? If the reward is not there, then I agree the efforts will go away, but the reward itself is not the motivation, no??

  6. yes.. reward itself is not motivation,but appraisal , I believe reflects someone’s efforts . May be you would have to blog about motivations as well:) . May be this is quite a deviation from the post , but many of us work , but how many actually think why are they working?what do they expect after they work? and what is the driving force for them to work?I can say – many would say ” to prosper- to earn money- to be recognized” and few who are really in their dream jobs would say ” this is my passion and I love doing this, it makes me feel great!”. Rewards as seem by these two individuals differ right?

    1. Durga,
      You have driven your point home!! I cannot agree more on this point, what drives one to work on something, not just for monetary gains, not for respect amongst peer … but something else … whats that something? Passion … fulfillment … yes it should make me feel great. My definition of an ideal day at work is one in which I come home with a smile on my face :-)

  7. How do you grade the people who report to you?
    And if you were given a choice to define the grading system for your company, how would you do it?

  8. Ashish, In my current firm, the structure is extremely flat. So no one reports to me.

    I would grade my team on outcomes met rather than anything else. Will try to have the right mix of leading and lagging indicators for these outcomes.

  9. I think the Bell curve is an asinine concept. Let their be rewards for the performances. I fail to understand that if you have a team of top performers, you obviously benefit form it as a company. If the company profits soar at 20%, why not appraise the employees to the same tune? The budget is assigned, true. But most of the times it is not as per the profit made by the company. It is a generic budget where company decides to increase their expense on the employees by an ‘x’ margin. This is as per assumption that the profit will be, say 1.5x. But if the profit is 0.8x, the appraisal budget goes down as 0.5x. But what if the profit is 1.8x? Will be appraisal also be increased in the same tune? The answer is no. And the reason is this stupid bell curve.

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