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Career Q&A: Bosses often confer on internal job moves

Q: I recently applied for a position in another department without telling my boss. The job description sounded interesting, but lacked important details, including work hours. I figured, however, that I could ask those questions during the interview.

A few days later, I was shocked when my boss informed me that "Phyllis," the manager of the other department, had called to inquire about my work history. Shortly thereafter, Phyllis got in touch with me to discuss the position. When I learned that the hours would not fit my schedule, I withdrew my application.

Now I feel awkward around my boss, because she knows I applied for another job. Although there is no policy on this, I believe Phyllis was completely out of line to contact my manager before speaking with me. Do I have a right to be angry with her?

A: Probably not. Telling your boss about an external job search is hardly ever a wise move, but internal job postings are an entirely different matter. In fact, many companies require that the manager be informed before an employee can interview in another department.

Even without such a policy, managers frequently pick up rumors about these applications through the grapevine. Because bosses can feel blindsided by surreptitious transfer attempts, employees generally fare better if they explain the situation up front.

In this case, Phyllis apparently conducted a rather standard internal background check before scheduling interviews, not realizing that your manager had been kept in the dark. Since she neither violated a policy nor intended to do you harm, your anger would seem to be misplaced.

To avoid such unfortunate misunderstandings in the future, your human resources department should clearly define confidentiality expectations during the job posting process. Both managers and employees need to understand when and how this information can be shared.

Forced rankings system questioned

Q: I am appalled by the "pay for performance" system implemented by my company, which has more than 10,000 employees. Forced rankings are used to assign performance review scores, so 60 percent of the staff must now be rated as "meets expectations." Only 10 percent are allowed to receive the highest rating of "outstanding."

To place people in rating categories, each department holds a meeting in which the managers discuss their employees' performance. Names are moved around until every category is filled. Even if there are many outstanding staff members, only 10 percent can get the top score.

I feel sure that all the managers will lobby for their own employees, so those of us who work for less persuasive or influential people are likely to lose out. What do you think about this approach?

A: Since most people agree that greater contributions merit greater rewards, "pay for performance" makes perfect sense conceptually. The problem is that almost everyone believes they are "above average," so lower ratings often trigger lengthy debates. To avoid these unpleasant arguments, many managers, left to their own devices, simply give higher ratings to everybody.

Forced rankings represent a logical attempt to require managers to differentiate among levels of performance. But while these standardized distributions work well across large populations, they are completely invalid with small groups. Trying to manage this contradiction can drive human resources people crazy.

Your company's group ranking approach spreads the performance distribution across entire departments instead of applying it to each individual unit, which is a reasonable strategy for increasing validity. But, as you point out, assigning ratings through open discussion can easily create a "squeaky wheel" bias.

If your boss seems to be a predictably feeble advocate, consider sharing this concern with your human resources manager. That may help to balance the scales, since the HR department is almost always involved in establishing final rankings.

Career Q&A: Bosses often confer on internal job moves 08/15/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013 6:42pm]
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