Bell curve ranking system has outlived its usefulness

I cannot agree more with Mr Sean Lim Wei Xin that the bell curve system adversely affects teamwork and collaboration in any organisation (Rethink grading on bell curve; June 1).

Many human resources departments still follow this rigid ranking system, which forces the appraiser to classify his subordinates into three categories: excellent, average or poor performers. The assumption is that most employees will fit neatly into the mid-range.

The manager is required to satisfy the distribution pattern by placing a smaller number of employees at the top of the curve and a few unfortunate individuals - who may not be under-performing - at the bottom.

Employers believe that the bell curve makes it easier for HR to reward top performers, spur those in the average range to try harder and identify the weak.

However, personnel under this system inevitably end up as digits to be given fixed grades to fill the requirements of the curve.

Bosses in small companies may end up demoralising their workforce by ranking a few as top performers, a slightly larger group as average and, invariably, a few as poor, even though they may all be equally capable.

The bell curve remains a much despised system of appraisal as average-ranked employees - who form the majority - end up believing that their contributions have not been appreciated by the management, while the bottom performers will feel insulted by such a label.

Similarly, sub-par individuals who are graded favourably may not actually be performing well, but may end up at the top of the curve as they pose no threat to senior management.

Staff morale is quickly destroyed through this classification method.

HR departments must review their individual key performance indicators and ensure that the criteria are accurately set, with an effective system in place to track them.

The bell curve is nothing more than a regressive form of appraisal with more drawbacks than benefits.

As the workplace has evolved rapidly into what it is today, this forced mode of ranking has outlived its usefulness.

Edmund Khoo Kim Hock

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2019, with the headline 'Bell curve ranking system has outlived its usefulness'. Print Edition | Subscribe