Blizzard caught up in scandal. Again. This time it is all about ranking its employees

Activision Blizzard is like a giant magnet for scandalous news. Almost each week we hear of something that casts a shadow on the company. And this week is no exception.

Jason Schreier informed his Bloomberg readers that Brian Birmingham, who had been Lead Software Engineer at Blizzard Entertainment until recently, resigned because of the company’s unfair ranking system.

What system?

It is more accurate to describe the system as a management practice that is usually called a stack ranking or a vitality curve. It is often used in large companies (such as Motorola, IBM,Yahoo, Amazon and others) to rank the staff.

The main idea behind the practice is to compare workers against each other based on their performance. It can sound ok but the problem is that managers always have to highlight the share of low performers. Always. It means that even if all the staff work great, managers still have to point out “problematic” workers.

According to Bloomberg, this practice was introduced at Blizzard Entertainment in 2021. In each evaluation, managers were expected to mark 5% of employees in each team as bad workers.

Poor mark is referred to as “developing” status. Getting it means lower profit-sharing money (it is important if we are talking about mediocre salaries) and excluding any promotion in the company in a visible future.

What is the story of Brian Birmingham?

Managers who stood up for their team weren’t happy facing this initiative. Birmingham was one of them. And, as he mentioned in his Twitter profile after Schreier`s publication, during the first years it seemed that their resistance worked. More than that, there was an opinion that Blizzard Entertainment would allow managers not to use stack ranking at all.

But recently they discovered that it was just an illusion. In 2023 the 5% quota became a reality for the company. Some directors and leads tried to break the system, they asked to mark themself as low performers. It didn’t work, though. They “were told that it is not an option”.

When Birmingham was forced to lower an employee score as required by the system, it became the last straw for him. He wrote an email to his team where shared his criticism of the system and announced his resignation.

He said that would be glad to come back to the company but only after stack ranking was removed. Until then he refused to work at Blizzard Entertainment.

Who is Brian Birmingham?

Birmingham is a tangible loss for the company. He had been working at the company for 17 years as a Software Engineer. He was also a lead at World of Warcraft Classic.

Why did Blizzard Entertainment implement this practice?

According to Birmingham, this decision came from “ABK level, above Mike Ybarra” (the latter currently being president of Blizzard Entertainment, which, as you might remember, is a part of Activision Blizzard Incorporated, which also owns King, hence the abbreviation ABK).

He said that it was the will of corporation executives. From Birmingham’s point of view, they wanted to unify the process across all their properties, so they started to implement this type of management practices.

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