In The Workplace

Tony, the human resource (HR) manager, has discovered that Johnny, the operations manager, is playing office politics by making employees shoulder the extra load created by the incompetents and those with poor attendance records. When it comes to performance reviews, everyone gets average ratings and receives nearly identical merit increases. Tony has secretly brought up the issue with the chief executive officer (CEO). When confronted by the CEO, Johnny defended his actions by calling the bell curve is an obsolete theory and the current system a waste of time. Instead, he called for an overhaul of the system to make it more objective. What’s your take on this? — Lemon Tree.

This is a serious indictment of Tony and not Johnny. For one, Tony is making serious allegations against Johnny for playing office politics. What’s the basis for that? Second, what’s the basis for Tony to say that everyone gets the average rating and receives almost the same amount of merit increase?

Sure, we can always check the records. But then, how can Tony, not being the workers’ direct boss, claim something like that? Isn’t Johnny the only one privy to the workers’ performance?

Third, why can’t Tony discuss the matter with Johnny rather than elevate the matter to the CEO? If HR has done that, it could have averted a possible conflict between their two departments.

Fourth, Tony lost the chance to proactively study the matter. There is, in fact, a backlash against the use of the bell curve or normal distribution in performance evaluation.

In other words, Tony, being the supposed expert on people management, must be the first to know of the obsolescence of the bell curve, and not make wrongful accusations against Johnny and his department.

Adrian Gore, writing for Harvard Business Review (2022) says: “We need to let go of the bell curve.” This allows us to free ourselves from the bias of “average thinking” or “focusing on the mean,” which in most cases, is misleading, it’s like that joke about Bill Gates walking into a bar, making everyone in that bar a millionaire on average.

So, how do we resolve the issues between Tony and Johnny? This can’t be solved solely with the help of the two managers. In the same manner, you can’t delay in resolving this apparent impasse. And you want to prevent or minimize all potential problems that may come in, no matter what their possible reasons are.

In that case, consider the following solutions to address the problem:

One, create an ad hoc committee with the CEO’s full mandate. Assign all department managers to evaluate the company’s current performance appraisal system and recommend appropriate revisions, if necessary. Also, require the finance manager to be the committee chairman and give it a non-extendible timeline of three months to come up with a recommendation.

Two, respect the status quo in Johnny’s department. This includes his team’s performance evaluation and merit pay. Treat it as a non-issue in order not to complicate things and downplay the workers’ complaints. The committee must be tasked to investigate complaints by the workers forced to take up the slack of their absentee colleagues.

Three, benchmark against other companies’ policies. It’s better to compare yourself with the practices of other organizations within the industry or locators within the same export processing zones or similar geographical areas. This is an important consideration as your current workers are liable to be pirated by such organizations.

Last, require the committee to come up with an objective decision. At the same time, allow Tony and Johnny to come up with their respective positions (either concurring or dissenting) so the CEO can gain a complete picture of the recommendation. In the committee’s decision, don’t give the impression that either Tony or Johnny is wrong. Your goal is to treat the two managers fairly.

Hiring a management expert is also a good option as that person could give your company a professionally-made and emotionally-detached report. That is, if your organization can afford it. If not, you can always resort to the ad hoc committee that I’ve recommended.

Whatever you do, do whatever it takes to reconcile the interests of both Tony and Johnny. If it’s not possible, if someone loses as a result of the committee’s recommendation, let the result start a healing process for all. In other words, make the CEO and everyone in the committee look good. Do this and you’ll gain everyone’s confidence.

Recognize that there probably isn’t a lot you can do to get Tony and Johnny back to their original relationship. But that doesn’t mean that their situation is hopeless. Still, try to maintain peace and morale in spite of all this.


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