According to Bloomberg (via PC Gamer), Brian Birmingham – who is the lead engineer on the 2019 game – refused to give an employee a low evaluation in order to meet a quota introduced by Blizzard in 2021.
It’s said that the process – called “stack ranking” – requires managers to give approximately five per cent of their workers a low performance evaluation to fit on a bell curve of relative performance.
Sources at Activision Blizzard told Bloomberg that a low rating results in a reduction of a staff member’s profit-sharing bonus and “could hamper them from receiving raises or promotions in the near future”.
Birmingham expressed his frustration over the policy in an email to employees, claiming that Blizzard executive leadership justified the process by saying it would “squeeze the bottom-most performers as a way to make sure everyone continues to grow”.
Additionally, he alleged that he was asked to keep the policy secret from staff.
Birmingham said that he thinks stack ranking “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”.
He told workers that if the policy isn’t reversed, the Blizzard Entertainment he wants to be employed at “doesn’t exist anymore”. Birmingham said he was protesting against stack ranking now as he’s unable to work around it like he has been able to previously.
The email also claimed that other staff members within WoW leadership had queried whether they could meet the quota by giving themselves a poor score, but they were told that this wasn’t possible.
Birmingham reportedly told a group of employees that he planned to resign prior to sending the email.
An HR representative spoke to him to confirm his resignation, and he told them he wouldn’t continue to work for the company while stack ranking remained in operation. According to Birmingham’s email, he was then terminated from his role.
I’m told the forced stack-ranking policy is a directive that came from the ABK level, ABOVE Mike Ybarra. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s true. Everybody at Blizzard I’ve spoken to about this, including my direct supervisors, expressed disappointment about this policy.
— Brian Birmingham💙 (@BrianBirming) January 24, 2023
A spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment told Bloomberg that the policy is meant to create “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”.
Microsoft stopped using the system – which was popularised by General Electric in the 1980s – back in 2013. Vanity Fair reported the previous year that stack ranking pits Microsoft employees against each other, encouraging them to sabotage projects and withhold information in a bid to protect their rank.
Birmingham has since posted a lengthy Twitter thread in which he confirmed he is “no longer an employee of Blizzard Entertainment”, but said he “would return if allowed to, so that I could fight the stack-ranking policy from the inside”.
“I’m told the forced stack-ranking policy is a directive that came from the ABK level, ABOVE Mike Ybarra,” he continued. “I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s true. Everybody at Blizzard I’ve spoken to about this, including my direct supervisors, expressed disappointment about this policy.”
Birmingham added: “We at Blizzard pushed back pretty hard in 2021, and I truly believed we had reversed the developing-quota policy,” Birmingham tweeted. “When the sexual harassment lawsuit was revealed later that year, we saw some change following that as well, and it felt like we could make an impact on ABK policies.
“The realization that there’s still a minimum quota for ‘Developing,’ despite our objections and sternly worded letters leads me to believe I was operating under an illusion. I hope Blizzard’s positive culture can overcome ABK’s poison, but it isn’t succeeding in doing that yet.
“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.”