What Is Forced Distribution?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2019
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Also known as forced ranking, forced distribution is a type of evaluation process that can be used to rate the performance of employees. The particulars of the system are usually kept very simple, with the ratings or rankings conducted by managers and supervisors usually limited to classing the function of the employee in one of three categories. Those who are rated near the top of the scale are often considered ideal for possible promotion, while the vast majority are thought to be adequate for current roles but not likely to be eligible for promotion at the present time. A small percentage of those rated will be considered low performers and may be recommended for remedial training in order to continue employment.


The exact structure of the forced distribution will vary somewhat, depending on how an employer chooses to manage the evaluation of employees. Some will use a checklist that calls for managers and supervisors to rate the employee with a score of excellent, average, or poor for each line item on the list. Some will assign a numerical value for each of these three levels, making it possible to total the amounts at the end of the list, divide by the number of line items and decide where in the pecking order that employee current stands. Typically, the top ten percent are those who are esteemed to be excellent at their work and likely to be considered for advancement. Roughly 80% of the employee base will be considered competent at what they do and are likely to remain employed in their current positions or transferred to a position that is considered lateral in the company organization. The bottom ten percent are those who are not performing up to basic standards and are most likely to either be fired or included in some sort of remedial program in an attempt to salvage the working relationship.

While the concept of forced distribution or ranking is commonly employed, there is some controversy regarding using this method of assessing the merits of employees. One common objection is the fact that the simplicity of the ranking process is somewhat subjective, in that supervisors or managers may focus on issues that have occurred with employees rather than objectively considering all the actions of those employees. At other times, there may be extenuating circumstances that make it difficult for an employee to easily fit in one of the three basic categories, creating a situation in which supervisors may be forced to include an employee in a certain category even if there are some reservations.

One benefit of a forced distribution approach is that it does work very well in some employment situations, especially when the corporate culture involves clear cut criteria for each position within the organization, and it is possible to rely mainly on statistical data to create the ranking. For example, if the rating process for an employee in a textile plant focuses on elements such as the number of units produced per labor hour, the punctuality of that employee, and his or her ability to perform other tasks that are easily measured, the forced distribution method is more likely to produce an equitable ranking for that employee. In situations that are more fluid, such as in an office environment where employees may be called upon to cover a number of ever-shifting tasks, this approach will likely be more subjective and may or may not be truly indicative of the value of an employee to the company.


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