Stack ranking and Campbell's Law

Posted by Stuart on August 16, 2015 · 1 min read

A friend of mine tweeted this today.

And I have to agree on the basic sentiment. The idea of software that “promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event” is enough to strike fear into the average – and even the exceptional – employee.

I’ve experienced it at a previous employer too. It wsn’t even official there, it was just that the employer was sufficiently short of salary funding that their existing reward policy became quota-restricted to the point where it became a de facto equivalent.

However, the problem isn’t just stack ranking per se. Any system that depends on a high stakes measurement and links it to paid rewards will, inevitably, get corrupted. It’s Campbell’s Law:

"The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." (Campbell, 1976)

The problem isn’t just stack ranking: it’s any qualitative indicator that’s used to determine how much people get paid. Stack ranking just happens to be an especially obvious and explicit indicator that makes all the cheating much more legitimate.


Campbell, D. T. (1976). Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change. The Public Affairs Center, Dartmouth College, Hanover New Hampshire, USA. December, 1976.