Blizzard Manager Departs In Protest of Employee Ranking System

(Bloomberg) — A manager at video game developer Blizzard Entertainment said he was ousted after refusing to give a low evaluation to an employee that he felt didn’t deserve it in order to fill a quota. 

In 2021, Blizzard, a unit of Activision Blizzard Inc., implemented a process called stack ranking, in which employees are ranked on a bell curve and managers must give low ratings to a certain percentage of staff, according to people familiar with the change who asked not to be named discussing a private matter. Managers were expected to give a poor “developing” status to roughly 5% of employees on their teams, which would lower their profit-sharing bonus money and could hamper them from receiving raises or promotions in the near future at the Irvine, California-based company, known for games like Overwatch and World of Warcraft.

Brian Birmingham, who was the co-lead developer of World of Warcraft Classic, wrote an email to staff last week to express his frustration with this system. He wrote that he and other managers on the World of Warcraft team had been able to circumvent or skip filling the quota for the last two years and that he believed the mandate had been dropped or wasn’t strictly enforced. But recently, Birmingham said, he was forced to lower an employee from the average “successful” rating to “developing” in order to hit the quota.

“When team leads asked why we had to do this, World of Warcraft directors explained that while they did not agree, the reasons given by executive leadership were that it was important to squeeze the bottom-most performers as a way to make sure everybody continues to grow,” Birmingham wrote in the email, which was reviewed by Bloomberg. “This sort of policy encourages competition between employees, sabotage of one another’s work, a desire for people to find low-performing teams that they can be the best-performing worker on, and ultimately erodes trust and destroys creativity.”

Birmingham wrote that he refused to work at Blizzard until the company removed this stack ranking policy. “If this policy can be reversed, perhaps my Blizzard can still be saved, and if so I would love to continue working there,” Birmingham wrote. “If this policy cannot be reversed, then the Blizzard Entertainment I want to work for doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll have to find somewhere else to work.”

Before he sent the email, Birmingham told a large group of colleagues he was resigning. He said he was then called by an HR representative to confirm his resignation and he told them that he was still considering it but that he would not work until the policy was retracted. He was then terminated, according to the email. Birmingham didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A Blizzard spokesperson said the company’s employee evaluation process was designed to facilitate “excellence in performance” and “ensure employees who don’t meet performance expectations receive more honest feedback, differentiated compensation, and a plan on how best to improve their own performance.” The spokesperson added that the evaluation process involves conversations with multiple managers “and sometimes ratings move up or down based on those discussions.”

Stack ranking, which first gained widespread popularity after it was brought to General Electric Co. by then-Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch in the 1980s, is used at several tech companies including Amazon.com Inc. The process, often criticized for pitting employees against one another and for facilitating toxic environments, has become less popular over the last decade. Microsoft Corp., which plans to acquire Activision Blizzard for $69 billion pending regulatory review, put an end to its own stack-ranking program in 2013.

In recent years, Blizzard’s corporate overseers at Activision have taken a larger role in operations, pushing the company to cut costs and produce games more quickly.

In the email, Birmingham said he had been asked to keep the process secret but that he had refused. “We were asked to keep it confidential because it was an ongoing discussion, and we don’t want Activision executives to make things even worse,” he wrote. “That threat of retaliation cannot be allowed to motivate our actions.  Even if that’s legal, it’s certainly not ethical, and I cannot support it.”

Birmingham wrote that several directors and leads on the World of Warcraft team had asked if they could be given “developing” ranks instead of their employees but were told that it wasn’t an option.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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