World of WarCraft Classic lead engineer Brian Birmingham has left Blizzard in a dispute over the use of an employee evaluation scheme known as stack ranking, objecting to the process internally, and now publicly branding it as a toxic management practice.
Stack ranking has managers grade their employees on a bell curve, forcing them to give 5% of employees a low grade regardless of if they warrant it or not. If branded with such a grade, this “could hamper them from receiving raises or promotions in the near future,” as well as reduce their profit sharing bonus, Activision Blizzard sources explained to Bloomberg (paywall).
In an email to staff, Birmingham stated that Blizzard’s leadership justified the policy as a way to “squeeze the bottom-most performers” to push all employees to keep growing, also stating that managers were asked to keep the policy secret from employees. Per Bloomberg’s report, he was forced to lower an employee’s rating from ‘successful’ to ‘developing’ in order to meet a quota.
His departure from the company came as he told employees that he planned to resign, an HR representative then confirming this to be the case, and him telling them that he would no longer work as long as the policy remained. He was then fired.
Since the story broke, Birmingham has taken to Twitter to issue certain clarifications – he was not reached by Bloomberg for their story. In particular, stack ranking was implemented by directive from Activision Blizzard King parent company, so from above Blizzard boss Mike Ybarra, and put in place in late 2020.
Blizzard managers pushed back against the policy in 2021 and held it at back for a couple of years as the company was rocked by sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits, but ABK has seemingly now pushed ahead with its implementation.
I bear no ill will toward my former colleagues at Blizzard Entertainment. The Blizzard I knew and always wanted to work for is being torn apart by the executives at ABK, and it makes me sad. I truly respect the developers I worked with at Blizzard.
But ABK is a problematic parent company. They put us under pressure to deliver both expansions early. It is deeply unjust to follow that by depriving employees who worked on them their fair share of profit. The ABK team should be ashamed of themselves.
Stack ranking has been a controversial management practice for decades, and since it’s Activision Blizzard we’re talking about, it’s interesting to not that it was once used by would-be buyer Microsoft. After Vanity Fair reported on the disfunction it caused between Microsoft employees, incentivising them to sabotage rival projects and withhold information, the company stopped using the system in 2013. Even the original Xbox was bourn out of this mentality, with the DirectX team that developed the console famously in competition with the Windows CE department, and famously stole the Windows NT kernel that the Windows team did not want to share with the Xbox team.