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Sep 16, 2019

As Lacie and Bets step into the elevator, they begin the typical morning-commute banter, gleefully chippering away about work, career prospects and Bets’ adorable, and apparently hysterically funny, cat. As they exchange goodbyes, both raise their mobile devices, aim them at one another and swipe to rate the interaction. Both hope for that coveted 5-stars that will win them admiration, better friends, and in Lacie’s case, a shot at that luxury apartment she can only afford with a 4.5 rating or above.

What seems like a normal workday interaction turns awkward as they stand face-to-face and rate one another, wielding stars like a magic wand with the power to spawn a Cinderella-like transformation — or send one’s entire life into a nosedive.

If this sounds like some kind of bizarre dystopia, that’s because it is. In the episode “Nosedive,” part of the Netflix original series Black Mirror, the society-wide rating system determines everything about a person’s social and socioeconomic status, frighteningly similar to China’s upcoming Social Credit System.

As workplace ratings increasingly become part of how companies manage employee engagement and performance, it raises important questions around how to keep company culture from spiraling into a ratings-driven fake fest, where authenticity goes out the window in the interest of racking up stars.


Criticized as demotivating and subject to bias and unfairness, companies are experimenting with different methods of performance evaluation and feedback. See “How to Ditch Performance Ratings and Still Evaluate Employees Fairly and Accurately.”


Not only the numbers

With some 53% of workers still disengaged at work, it’s no surprise companies are working overtime to measure and improve engagement within their own organization. Many are implementing 360-degree review programs, some of which include employee ratings based on performance and interactions, hoping this feedback will help cultivate a more engaged culture.

The problem is, unless ratings and reviews are handled properly, on paper, the results could make the organization look like a thriving Black Mirror-esque dystopia: everyone looks happy, works hard to cultivate their reputation, and things appear to be working just fine. Everyone’s polite, and there’s no bickering or finger-pointing. Things seem copacetic.

But under the surface, there could be a cauldron of brewing conflict and resentment fueled by employees who “manage up” at the expense of their co-workers, those who are all about the ratings at any cost, and still others who are afraid to speak up — or worse, have no opportunity to do so.

Strategies to consider

If you’re thinking of implementing a 360-degree review system, or some other feedback or peer-to-peer recognition system, ratings can be a helpful component of the review process to measure employees’ effectiveness in the workplace. To avoid creating more problems and make the process effective, it’s critical to implement the right strategy to fuel a thriving, engaged and collaborative culture.

Keep it anonymous

In “Nosedive,” every interaction ends with an awkward moment where individuals often look one another in the eye while handing down status-destroying low ratings. As you can imagine, it spawns anger, resentment and frustration.

At work, when negative ratings are handed down, it’s easy for employees to get caught up in the “who” rather than the “what.” They’re more concerned about who has been critical of their performance than the performance itself and how they could improve. In addition, some people may be hesitant to offer honest feedback if they are afraid it might hurt their co-worker’s feelings.

To keep this from happening, use an anonymous feedback and ratings system that encourages authenticity and allows employees and the company to focus on the substance, rather than the source, of the feedback. That way you can take action, rather than getting bogged down in who said what.

Avoid gaming the system

There’s a Black Mirror scene where Lacie is trying to increase her score and expectantly rates a service worker 5-stars, but then gets agitated when the clerk rates her 2-stars in return, even confronting the clerk over the rating. The clerk is confused and responds that it “wasn’t a meaningful encounter.” The social rating system had become gamified to the point where everyday interactions were used to inflate people’s ratings with disingenuous 5-star feedback.

This is understandable in “Nosedive” because so many aspects of life, from travel to housing to even holding down a job, depend on an arbitrary number.

Every interaction is not 5-stars, and that’s OK. People should be encouraged to have genuine relationships. Rating systems should not be about putting individuals under a microscope to see if they’re getting as many 5-star ratings as possible. This just encourages gaming the system with phony feedback and devalues the rating system.

Instead, ratings should provide a holistic view of an employee’s standing and be used productively to help employees orient themselves at their job.

It should be expected that ratings will go up and down throughout an employee’s career, and increases should be the result of meaningful action by employees, not from gaming the system.

Make it constructive

One of the most frustrating aspects of the “Nosedive” community is that Lacie is forced to just accept the negative ratings she receives — asking why or questioning motives could drive her rating even lower. Even when she feels it was unjustified, she has no choice but to paste on her most polite smile, accept it and move on.

In the workplace, this spells disaster. By denying employees a chance to better understand the background behind criticism and feedback, you deny them an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. This is a surefire way to kill engagement — employees will feel helpless, and eventually just paste on their polite smile and move on, potentially to your competitor.

Everyone should participate

One of the bright spots in the Nosedive society is that virtually everyone — from the high-ranking influencers to the average 3.0 Joes — has the power to offer ratings. That is, unless you’re stripped of the privilege due to some infraction.

At work, having this comprehensive perspective on an employee’s performance is critical for getting a clear, accurate and complete picture. Even Gartner suggests that peers who are familiar with a person’s work beyond formal relationships (such as collaborators from other departments) should be asked for feedback about an employee.

A true 360 collects input from all directions, including managers, subordinates and peers, and even employees in other departments, not just those who report to the same manager.

Include qualitative data

As companies have moved away from relying on annual performance reviews to more real-time, ratings-based feedback, some have swung the pendulum too far, overly focusing on ratings when it comes to measuring engagement and performance.

That drives employees into a Lacie-like frenzy, obsessing about their ratings and lacking any real substance and authenticity to their relationships. It also eliminates context and circumstantial data from the equation in determining performance evaluation.

Instead, use ratings as a day-to-day benchmark, but also make qualitative feedback part of the mix. By including this kind of detailed input, it encourages employees to build genuine relationships instead of just using their peers for a ratings boost.

As ratings become an ever-larger presence in society, influencing everything from the vacuum cleaner we choose and the car we buy, to the restaurant we dine in and even the handyman we hire to maintain our homes, it’s easy to see how cultivating 5-start ratings could become a primary motivation. This is especially true in the workplace where high ratings could mean the difference between a promotion or a raise and a stagnant career and income.

By implementing a comprehensive, balanced and constructive ratings system, companies can make sure they’re getting the input they need to fuel engagement and make smart talent decisions, without sacrificing authenticity.

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