Tales of Unintended Side Effects
We act with good intentions. But those actions often lead to an equal and opposite side effect. Are you thinking about what those might be?
The assembled engineering managers were being surprisingly polite.
A few members of the HR department were carefully explaining some small updates in our top grading policies. For those who aren't aware, top grading policies are one of the names for those policies where organizations are required to rate poorly (and/or fire) a certain percentage of their teams each year. It's a method which uses brute force to solve the "I have co-workers who don't pull their weight" problem. The top grading policy in general has many issues. I'm just going to focus on one of them below.
Now, before complaining about things, I'll say that I had some remarkable HR business partners. As humans, they tried their hardest to do things properly. But… Well, you'll see.
As a reminder, my anecdote policy.
Bonnie said, "These goals on ratings and un-regretted attrition are due to be completed in three months, at year-end. Once we begin the new year, we'll be distributing updated goals based on current headcount."
I raised my hand.
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"We've run into this before, and I don't see it addressed in the policy. If an organization exceeds their goal for one year, it doesn't look like there's any recognition of that." I said. "This means if someone is let go in November or December when an organization already achieved their goals, it won't count for our next year's goals."
Bonnie nodded. "Yes, each year is distinct, and we expect people to manage the performance of their teams on a yearly basis."
I shook my head, "But currently, we have a few months left in the year. Some organizations have achieved their top grading goals, as we've talked about. So these organizations will hold on to their poor performers so they can count towards next year's goals."
Bonnie and Roland, the two HR representatives, looked flabbergasted.
"That would never happen!" Roland said. "I'm sure people will do the right thing!"
"And if I do the right thing-" I said insistently, "would I get credit next year, for managing out an extra person or two this year?"
"No?" said Bonnie, confused. "As I said, they're distinct years."
"Do you two not know how this works?" I said, in a way I'm sure was more rude than needed. "We don't ever have exactly X% poor hires. Some years we have a few bad hires, and some years my team is great. You must know that your policy is strongly incentivizing us to do the wrong thing. It incentivizes us to keep our poor hires sitting around."
"I'm quite sure no one does that." Roland insisted, in a room which was full of managers, where I knew for a fact that many of them were doing exactly that.
Taking actions, and getting reactions.
Every action you take has a reaction. This is true in physics, and corporate policies, and people interactions.
First, there are the intended reactions. You create a policy to require people to work from the office. You get people to work from the office.
Next, there are the unintended reactions. You create a policy to require people to work from the office. Some employees rate your company worse on Glassdoor, some of them quit, and some work shorter hours. Of course, there are yet others who enjoy their job more than when they were at home. You need to be aware of all of these.
The funny thing is that the unintended reactions are frequently as strong, if not stronger, than the intended reactions. Yet, people spend a huge amount of time planning out their intended reactions, and act as if the unintended reactions were completely unexpected.
I'm going to walk through some situations where I witnessed unintended consequences. Not because these actions were wrong, but because we need to be aware of the inevitable impacts of the actions we take.
Engineers couldn't transfer.
"I'm just dying to get off this team." Jeanetta said.
The engineer I was chatting with seemed sincere. They were helping my team integrate with their APIs, and in a private moment they dropped that random revelation.
"What's wrong with the team?" I asked. This team was a peer team of mine, and I had to be a bit careful with how I talked about things.