World of Warcraft lead quits due to ‘toxic’ ranking system

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WORLD of Warcraft co-lead developer Brian Birmingham has said he felt ousted from Blizzard after he refused to give employees unjustly poor evaluations.

He revealed that in 2020, Blizzard, developer of WoW, implemented stack ranking, which is a way to rate employees’ performances against each other.

World of Warcraft Dragonflight was apparently released early due to pressure from the parent company.

Birmingham has said that he and other managers were told that they had to give 5% of employees a “developing” rating, even when he thought their performance was adequate.

According to a report by Bloomberg, Birmingham was told he had to move some employees’ performance ratings from “successful” down, in spite of their actual performance.

Aside from the mental strain of being given a poor rating, being classed as developing could mean that employees miss out on bonuses and could be overlooked for promotion.

A spokesperson for Blizzard said that stack ranking was introduced to “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.”

Stack ranking was popular in the ‘80s as a way to improve performance, but has since been proved to have the opposite effect.

Many companies that previously implemented the policy have since abandoned it, including Microsoft which removed stack ranking in 2013.

The ratings system can cause competition between employees, stunt creativity, and at its worst it can cause some to sabotage others’ work. 

In an email to staff Birmingham wrote: “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.”

In tweets Birmingham clarified that the policy came from the parent company Activision Blizzard King (ABK), and not from Blizzard Entertainment.

This suggests it came from CEO Bobby Kotick and his team. It should be noted that the parent company is currently in the midst of a lawsuit regarding creating a “toxic workplace culture.”

The emails also claim that Birmingham had been asked to keep the policy secret, but had refused.

He wrote: “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.

“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 resigned from the company over the policy, though says he would work at Blizzard again if the policy was reversed.

He also called ABK problematic, but praised the development team currently at Blizzard.

He tweeted: “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.”

Written by Georgina Young on behalf of GLHF.