Topgrading & other 90s holdouts

Topgrading & other 90s holdouts

Image by Victoria_Watercolor from Pixabay


Sometimes a walk down Memory Lane is great. Other times it’s unnecessary and weird. Case in point: companies who still use 1990s hiring tactics and then wonder why they don’t work anymore. SMH.

A little while back, I had an experience that left me both stunned and disappointed. Just when we think, “Who still does this?” it’s as if some dinosaur pops up and says, “Hold my beer and watch this.” 🦖

Topgrading had a big moment in the sun back in the 90s.

“The term was coined by Bradford D. Smart and his son, Geoffrey, in a 1997 article in Directors and Boards magazine. The elder Smart had used practices similar to topgrading when he helped set up General Electric’s hiring practices in the 1980s and 1990s. His consulting firm practiced and taught topgrading methods. In 1999, Smart also released a book called Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People that detailed the topgrading process. The most recent edition of the book was released in 2012 and became a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.” –

But it didn’t end in the 90s. It just kept on going.

“Topgrading is a corporate hiring and interviewing methodology that is intended to identify preferred candidates for a particular position. In the methodology, prospective employees undergo a 12-step process that includes extensive interviews, the creation of detailed job scorecards, research into job history, coaching, and more. After being interviewed and reference-checked, job candidates are grouped into one of three categories: A Players, B Players, or C Players. A Players have the most potential for high performance in their role while B and C Players may require more work to be successful.” -Wikipedia, Ibid.

Sound familiar? You’ll still find companies touting that they only want to hire A players and everyone else can find a space at a competitor’s firm.

On May 6, 2022, Ted Bauer published, “The ‘A-Player’ discussion is morally reprehensible,” which you can find here:

In this, he writes:

Are “A-Players” even “A-Players?”
I’d argue “no.” Oftentimes they are C-Players who make bosses look good/better, so the bosses anoint them as “A-Players.”

“Morally reprehensible”
From here, and Marcus Buckingham:

He noted that in any big company, individuals who have been labeled HiPo “get all the goodies and everybody else doesn’t…. It’s morally reprehensible.” He asserted that potential is something that everyone has. “Any sort of human can grow and learn and get better,” he said. “It’s not a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset…. All of us have a growth mindset. The question is, where do you learn and grow the most?”

I’d agree with that, broadly.

-Ted Bauer, Ibid.


The entire concept of A, B, and C players is subjective even though the companies who still use that format will argue with you that it’s free of bias and human error. 🤣 As if!

I agree with Ted’s point because I’ve watched it play out in real time in my own corporate career. Employees who were snakes in the grass and reviled by colleagues but praised by management because they’d kick the guts out of anyone who got in the manager’s way. They would kiss the right behinds and to hell with everyone else.

“Why does that happen? Because that person really isn’t/wasn’t an A-Player. That person is an employee who’s good for that manager. It’s probably a M-Player (barely-ranked) who will step on the neck of anyone who crosses said manager. The manager keeps calling him/her an A-Player because the manager is now looking alright and putting out fires. But that employee ain’t no A-Player.” – (also from Ted Bauer)

I’ve also been the A player who was so labeled with a sneer, i.e., “Yeah, Sara is great at what she does but she’s one of those antisocial introvert types who never goes to Bob’s Saturday BBQs and she’s too much of a nonconformist. We only want safe rebels who’ll go along with the company’s agenda in the long run.” 🤮 Blech. No wonder I left.

What are a few signs that you might be dealing with out-of-date hiring methods?

Too many interviews. 

Unless you’re hiring for the C-Suite, a good rule of thumb is that anything over three interviews is too much. I’d argue for an entry-level role, anything more than two interviews is too much. So if you’re interviewing for a mid-level engineering position and the company expects five interviews before they can make a judgment call, be aware of what you’re saddling up for.

Asinine assessments.

It amazes me that any company would still use personality and psychological tests for employees. Are you hiring agents for the F B I or the C I A? No? Then cut that mess out.

Entry-level tests for anyone beyond entry-level work.

I remember a job interview when I was 16 where I had to show that I was capable of doing basic math. A little insulting, sure, but the store owner explained that there was a time when the cash register malfunctioned and he discovered that the clerks could not do math on a scratch pad. (This was before the proliferation of cell phones, folks.) Whenever I see postings on job boards and you’re then taken to one of those ghastly online tests, I cringe. Sorry if that offends you, but I do. If someone has 10+ years of proven experience, why TF are you asking them to take an entry-level test? If you’re asking a CPA to perform an Accounting 101 test on Indeed, shame on you. Get real.

Internally, they’re asking for Topgrading methods.

“We need to interview 30 different candidates for 1 job opening. Then we’ll sort them into buckets of As, Bs, and Cs.” Lord have mercy. Is that something you really want to do? Whether you’re in HR or some other type of hiring manager, is that what you want to do each time there is a job opening?

Hiring experts and refusing to listen.

“‘The best managers individualize,’ [Marcus] Buckingham explained about his research. ‘What they’re really doing is looking for every person’s source of strength and then leveraging that intelligently. They don’t fight against who you are.’ He views the strengths-based movement as a critical change of direction from the (however well-intentioned) ‘remedial deficit thinking’ that he says has traditionally characterized HR.” –

If you’re brought in under the guise of “improve our processes” or “help us do this better” and then you have zero autonomy and nothing you say is taken seriously, I would again ask you: is that something you really want to do?

I think at least some people are awakening to the reality that we’re in a recession and have been for a while. The unemployment rate is not truly 3.5% and there aren’t 2 legit open jobs for every 1 unemployed person. So my point here is: companies know this and will engage in shenanigans. Whether you freelance or you’re looking for full-time W2 work, you will encounter bad managers, outmoded HR practices, idiotic interview processes, etc. And I think the onus is on you decide what you can put up with and what you can’t.

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