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Bell Curve – Why so popular?

Performance Appraisals and The Bell Curve:

A Classic Choice with a Time-Tested Twist

In the world of corporate performance appraisals, there’s a tried-and-true method that has stood the test of time: the bell curve. Also known as the normal distribution curve or Gaussian curve, this method helps organizations evaluate and categorize employee performance. Let’s take a closer look at what the bell curve method is all about.

What Is the Bell Curve Method?

The bell curve method is a graphical representation of a normal distribution of data, typically in the shape of a bell, that extend symmetrically on both sides. In the context of performance appraisals, this curve is used to assess and rank employee performance in a way that reflects a natural distribution pattern. Picture it as the wise elder statesperson of performance assessment – classic, reliable, and, believe it or not, quite endearing.

The concept of the bell curve in performance appraisals was popularized by management consultant Jack Welch during his tenure at General Electric in the 1980s. GE’s adoption of this method contributed to its widespread use in many other organizations in subsequent decades.

Let’s see what the bell curve shape denotes — The top of the curve is where the stars shine brightest (high performers: 10-20%). Recognizing and rewarding your high performers keeps them motivated. The middle of the curve is like the dependable supporting cast (above average: 70-80%). These employees hold the fort, and with a little encouragement, they can move up the ranks to the star-studded section. Even the bell curve has room for improvement. The last section pertains to those who are expected to perform better (below average: 10-20%). By identifying underperformers, it gives them a chance to up their game, and who doesn’t love a good comeback story?

Why Has the Bell Curve Been Popular in the Past?

Bell curve appraisals force organizations to differentiate between their employees’ performance levels, making it clear who the top, middle, and lower performers are.
As a result, it can help align compensation and rewards with performance, ensuring that high performers are appropriately recognized and rewarded. For the rest of the employees, bell curve appraisals can motivate them to continuously improve their performance to move up the ranking. By categorizing employees, organizations can identify areas where additional training or development may be needed.

The bell curve method has been in use for decades, and many organizations have developed expertise and systems around it. Reasons for this are outlined as follows —

Simplicity: The bell curve is relatively straightforward to understand and apply. It provides a clear visual representation of performance distribution, making it accessible to both HR professionals and employees. It’s as easy as following a recipe with clear instructions and readily available ingredients – a recipe for success.

Tradition and Inertia: Organizational practices tend to change slowly, and the bell curve has become ingrained in many companies’ performance management processes. It’s like holding onto a vintage car that still runs smoothly. As long as it gets you where you need to go, there’s no need to trade it in for something newer.

Legal Compliance: The bell curve can help organizations demonstrate that performance appraisals are based on objective criteria, reducing legal risks associated with discriminatory evaluations. Just like having a set of rules that ensure a fair game, protecting both the players and the organizers.

The bell curve method of performance appraisals, with its advantages of performance differentiation, objectivity, and alignment with compensation, has been a popular choice in the past. It has played a pivotal role in talent management, guiding organizations in making informed decisions about their workforce.

Times are changing…

The use of the bell curve method remains a subject of ongoing debate within HR and management circles. It’s essential for organizations to carefully consider the pros and cons of the bell curve method in light of their specific goals and values, as well as the evolving landscape of performance management practices.

As the HR landscape evolves, organizations are encouraged to adapt their performance appraisal methods to align with modern goals, values, and employee expectations, while still appreciating the enduring benefits of the bell curve


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