Bourgeois Bingo: More Organizational Accountability, Please.

Bourgeois Bingo: More Organizational Accountability, Please.

Warning: *BIG* patented geoff crane rant incoming
(and an f-bomb even! duck and cover!)

Many years ago I worked in an environment where they had adopted a forced ranking system. You know, one of those contrived HR programs where they attempt to empiricize how much money staff should get for their bonus and who should be allowed to remain employed, by plotting everyone on a bell curve.

Screenshot from "Duck and Cover" fil...
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I’ll be frank: I dislike the system. However, it’s a system that is very popular among large organizations today, so I’m not going to bash it in this article (I’ll sneak my feelings into another article when nobody’s expecting it).

I was hired to take over trading technology for the organization. When I joined, I made the rounds with all my core staff…40 in all. I listened to each of them tell me their stories about what they did, and what they wanted to see, and how empowered they felt…and I came to the division secretary.

From what I could tell in the short time I’d been there, she was excellent at her job. No one needed to ask her for anything–the office hummed under her care. She took on small projects of her own initiative, got funding she needed (by herself) and executed them flawlessly from beginning to end. So imagine my surprise when I discovered she’d been rated the lowest possible rating for three years running. This didn’t jive at all with my observations, so I asked her about it.

She immediately burst into frustrated tears. For three years, all of her peers across the organization had been promoted to their maximum. All the other secretaries had one boss…this young woman had four simultaneously. Every year, when she presented her excellent work at review time, the four bosses sloughed her off to another, not making any time for her. When HR demanded grades, one of the bosses would slap her with a crappy grade to avoid having to defend her. The year I joined, she’d actually been told “we’re on a forced rank system. Someone has to be on the bottom, and you don’t actually produce anything.”

Geoff RantsI was furious. I had a good relationship with the man who hired me, so when I stormed into his office and demanded, what the fuck??!! he took the time to listen. He’d hired me when he took over that arm of the organization himself, so he could only relay what he’d heard.

Under the new world order, things changed. She immediately got the maximum grade to make up for what had gone before, and I made sure she (and all the others in the division) knew what to expect if they wanted to do well under the system.

So, very nice, good for her, good for me, clap-hands, isn’t that a happy story. Here’s why I’m so pissed off.

< RANT >

That company was not atypical of any other company I’ve worked for. It was no more or less dysfunctional than other environments I’ve seen. And in our contemporary environments we pump our people full of inspirational propaganda about taking initiative and empowering themselves at the same time we yank the carpets out from under them. We tell them that a lousy 4th quarter meant a tiny bonus pool in the same presentation we tell our shareholders we reported record profits. We tell them we’d reward them if they’d take more ownership of their work, and then throw the act of reviewing to the peers they compete with.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that inspirational horseshit we swill. I believe that someone who takes ownership of their work should be exceptionally rewarded…as long as the playing field remains level at least for one goddam review period!

“Let Zem Eat Cake”

That the young woman in my story stayed on as long as she did for the shit pay she got is no surprise. On her pay, she doesn’t have the luxury of saying, “oh screw it, I’m going to self-actualize and find a better job.” On her pay, with a husband and kids to look out for, she can’t afford a therapist to walk her through self-doubt and anxiety in between yoga class and watching her trans-fats. She is representative of the backbones of our collective organizations, and because she doesn’t create direct revenue for the firm, she’s not worthy at the very least of our consistency? COME ON!!

Okay, here’s where you accuse me of being a pinko commie for sticking up for the proletariat. But I’m not advocating putting everyone in an organization on the same salary band. People need to be paid what the market will bear, for the duties they perform. What I’m saying is more fundamental: if we tell our people what they should be able to expect, then we should goddam well make good on those expectations. And we don’t. For so many, many reasons, when it comes time to make good on our word, we don’t.

You may say to me, “but Geoff, as unfortunate as the story you told is, it doesn’t happen at our company.” Bullshit. It happens everywhere, at every company, all over the world. As long as there’s nothing to prevent it, it happens. While we live in an age of ISO and CMM and countless other TLA maturity models intended to install checks and balances, we wield but the barest of concern for the most fundamental aspects of our organizations: our people. Human Resources? Last I saw they were busy towing the corporate line. Ministries of Labour? Sure if someone actually gets the sack. But why must it come to that? Why must we turn our people into professional victims before we as leaders take stock of our own behaviour, methods and principles? Remember the horseshit propaganda we pump down our peoples’ throats? It applies to us too!

Coming back to the woman’s story I relayed earlier:

Where is the accountability at the H.R. level to ensure that forced rank policies are being carried out correctly?

Where is the accountability at the line management level to ensure reporting is accurate?

Where is the accountability at the executive level to ensure there are no abuses in their systems?

I’ll tell you where the accountability is: in every organization I’ve worked for, it’s left up to an individual with the authority to ensure it as they like. In other words, there is none.

What I would like to see is an organizational model that stops leaving it up to the individual to be a good leader, and starts demanding that leaders be good. Hrm. Maybe I’ll make one. Watch this space.


We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog reading.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • sas

    HERE HERE!!!

    I believe all that woo woo pinkie commie stuff too. 'Cept I call it kindness. My heart breaks when I find people in this situation. Good on you for advocating on her behalf.

    Also: that bell curve load of arse HR system? I suspect hell will be run by one of those…

  • zomg i know rite? you phrased it perfectly: it IS a “bell curve load of arse”. Just one more way senior execs don't have to be accountable. We'll call it “efficiency” instead so it sounds better. HAHA

    Thanks, Sas! I love your comments here! 🙂

  • Ty Kiisel


    Great post. Organizations need to realize, and realize quick, that the economy will improve and there will be other options for their employees—and they will start leaving organizations that make empty promises and change the rules like rats on a sinking ship. As far as being a commie pinko, I must admit that I reference the disenfranchised proletariat in these types of discussion all the time. (I just look out for Tea Party, McCarthy-ists who have no tolerance for divergent opinions.)

    As more organizations turn to project management to solve problems and increase efficiency, project pros will become more valuable—and able to leave crappy employers with a single bound.

    Keep on ranting!

  • WOOOOT thanks heaps, Ty! 🙂 Us commie pinkos gotta stick together! LOL At least we won't have to worry about McCarthyists in Texas where according to the school board there's no such thing. ZING!