Force Rank

Force Rank

A new chief decides that it’s time to make a supreme change. (1/2006)


The two men sat in oversized tan leather chairs, smoked cigars, and sipped brandy. The wood-paneled room was hazy with smoke, and dimly lit from the banker’s lamp on the large mahogany desk that overwhelmed the room.

“Go ahead. Explain what you have in mind,” John said to his younger brother.

Roger wasted no time, and dove right in. “Every year, we rank all of our employees. Not just ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘needs improvement’ or that kind of thing, but an actual ranking of all of our employees, 1, 2, 3, and so on.”

Unused to the idea, having spent his life in a completely different sphere of life, John asked, “You actually rank your employees from one to, what, 28,000 or so?”

“Yes, that’s right. It’s called ‘force ranking’. It is not at all uncommon in Silicon Valley. Most of the successful companies do it.”

John took a sip of his drink and readjusted himself in his chair. He didn’t like where his brother was going. He said, “And?”

“And once we’ve force ranked everyone, we get rid of the bottom 10%.”

“Get rid of as in fire?”

“That’s right,” Roger said. For us.

John put his snifter down and put his index fingers together and touched them to his lips. John lost himself in thought and his younger brother allowed him the silence in which to do so. A full minute of silence ensued. Finally John said, “And then you bring in new people, better qualified, who will hopefully perform better?”

Roger smiled. “Exactly.” Leaning forward, cupping his glass in his huge hands, he added, “You’ve said yourself that he’s been an embarrassment. For, what, 19 years?”

The two men finished off their drinks, and John poured refills.

Roger began applying the pressure he’d come to apply. “You have eight folks besides you. So dropping one out of nine is just about 10%.” Roger had to smile at his casual euphemism, ‘dropping’.

“Why don’t you walk me through your reasoning?” Roger asked. “Who would be rank sorted last?”

“Well, it’s a little hard since I’ve only been on the job for four months or so,” John hedged.

“Too bad—you have to do it. Bill’s dead and you’re in charge now. Don’t shirk your responsibility.”

John recognized that he’d just witnessed one of the many examples of why Roger’s software company was one of the fastest, ruthlessly growing companies in the world. He felt compelled to follow Roger’s lead.

“Okay, fine. Normally, I’d look to put either Stephen or Ruth at the bottom since I don’t agree with them on most issues. The other team and all that, you know. But both are extremely intelligent, write clearly and persuasively, and are active participants in our work. I can’t fault Bill—the other Bill—for hiring either of them.”

“Go on,” Roger prompted.

“I might pick Sandy, but she’s leaving soon anyway. I mean she’s smart and articulate, but, man, she still believes she’s playing politics even after 24 years. But like I said, she’ll be gone soon in any event.”

“That leaves David, Tony, and J.P. besides ‘Pube’.”

“Don’t call him that,” John snapped. “Have at least a little respect for his position.”

“I’m sorry,” Roger said sincerely. He recognized that he had just witnessed one of the many examples of why his older brother would bring honor to his new role, and his new organization, and would excel now like he always had.

John’s eyes swept over his floor-to-ceiling wall of books. Furrowing his brow, he continued explaining his thoughts about his coworkers to his brother.

“Tony is an ass and I can already tell I’m going to hate working with such a blowhard, but for all his rhetoric about strict interpretation and activism, he too is a brilliant thinker and clear writer.”

“What about David and J.P.?” Roger prompted.

“David of course hasn’t turned out exactly like Papa thought he would, but I respect him. His decisions are well-thought-out and sound, even if I wouldn’t have come to some of them myself. And, J.P., well, he’s been here so long and helps tie us to the past, helps keep us from inventing anew when we should utilize and follow from the past.”

“N.I.H.,” Roger mumbled.


“N.I.H. Not Invented Here. It’s an important concept in high tech circles. We try to get people to reuse existing constructs wherever possible, and senior people help in this regard.” Roger paused, realizing he’d steered off course. “Never mind. Go on. I believe you’re down to just you and Mr. Thomas. You’re not imagining ranking him higher than yourself are you?”

“God no,” John exclaimed.

“Good. Now we’re getting somewhere,” Roger said, working to control his impatience at his brother’s need to slowly but surely line up all the dots in a row and then connect them. Roger was okay with skipping a few dots now and again, but knew his brother wasn’t. “So now give me your argument for why he should go. Why he must go.”

John was uncomfortable, but didn’t want to be admonished by his younger brother again. Besides, he knew Roger was right.

“He went to Yale, which sounds impressive until you realize he was let in under alternative criteria, shall we say. He opposes the very affirmative action and racial preferences that have helped him his entire life—including getting his current job when his predecessor resigned.”

“You’re not worried about this seeming racially motivated, are you?” Roger asked.

“Just because he’s black doesn’t mean this is happening because he’s black,” John said simply.

“Go on,” Roger again prompted.

“His opinions are so convoluted as to be incomprehensible.”

“He hardly ever participates, asks questions. All he does is nod pensively while Tony and Anthony do all the heavy lifting.”

“The other side has gone public with brutal commentary against him. He’s a disgrace to this organization and its hallowed tradition. And to this country for that matter.”

Roger thought his brother had a flare for the melodramatic, but knew John had finally reasoned for himself who was, definitively, the weakest link.

Roger said, “In my world, after we’ve rank sorted, we fire the bottom of the barrel. You don’t have that option.”

“No, I don’t,” John said quietly.

“Could you force him into retirement?”

“No. Never. I mean, if he was able to sit through that colossal embarrassment 14 years ago—with Anita, the porn, and yes, the pube—there’s no way he guy has a strong enough sense of decency to step down. I seriously don’t think he’s smart enough to know what a laughing stock he really is.”

“Then there you have it. There’s only one thing left to do,” Roger said in a measured tone. “Say the word and I’ll have it taken care of.”

John gulped the remaining liquid in his glass. In the silence, he could hear the ticking of his centuries-old grandfather clock. The Board of Directors, as he thought of them, would not be happy losing someone so consistently and extremely aligned to their side. But with Junior around for several more years, the chances were good that they’d find somebody better. Almost anybody would be better.

John regulated his breathing and stared down into his empty glass. It’s time someone took action and fixed this problem. He looked up at his brother, and nodded his head in consent.

Roger practically jumped out of his chair. He stood in front of his brother, putting his hand on John’s shoulder. After a few moments, he turned and walked toward the door. He let himself out, and John, lost in thought, heard the click of the door closing like a gunshot in the distance.


One month later, a nondescript man wearing a nondescript business suit and a nondescript raincoat visited an exclusive neighborhood just outside the City. After ensuring the man’s wife would be out for the evening, the nondescript man walked up and rang the doorbell. After a few seconds of deep resonating melody, the bell stopped. Then the man opened his door.

“Hello. May I help you?” the tall burly black man said to the man on his porch.

The visitor said, “No, I’m afraid not,” and pulled his hand out of his pocket.

“Clarence,” he said, squeezing his finger back twice, “you’re fired.”






This story was written in January 2006 during the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings (he will take Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat on the Court when the Senate confirms him as expected). Alito was nominated after Bush’s nomination of Harriet “George Bush is the smartest person I’ve known” Miers went down in flames.

At the time of writing, the U.S. Supreme Court is comprised of:


Justice Nominated Birth Date
John Roberts, Jr. (Chief) G.W. Bush R 9/29/05 1/55
Stephen G. Breyer Clinton D 8/3/94 8/38
Ruth Bader Ginsburg Clinton D 8/10/93 3/33
Clarence Thomas G.H.W. Bush R 10/23/91 6/48
David H. Souter G.H.W. Bush R 10/9/90 9/39
Anthony Kennedy Reagan R 2/18/88 7/36
Antonin Scalia Reagan R 9/26/86 3/36
Sandra Day O’Connor Reagan R 9/25/81 3/30
John Paul Stevens Ford R 12/19/75 4/20

William H. Rehnquist served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court until 9/3/05. He was succeeded by John Roberts, who was originally nominated to fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat when she announced her retirement in 2005. As far as I know, he does not have a brother named Roger.

Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia. The senate voted 52-48 to approve his nomination. It was and still is the closest vote in nomination history. And, finally and importantly, no one should interpret this work of fiction as an indication that the author believes Mr. Thomas should be offed.

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