About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Brain Cells: Different From Each Other, But Similar to Something Else? | Main | Two From Glaxo's Old Days »

November 17, 2011

Business Note: Random Promotion, Anyone?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

Since it's end-of-the-year performance review time at many workplaces, I thought it might be an appropriate time to link to this article. It points to some recent research that suggests that traditional promotion strategies in large organizations are, in fact, counterproductive. The null hypothesis - random promotion - would actually be more effective. (Although it's not easy to see how you'd implement that!)

There seem to be several reasons for this. Difficulty in judging the criteria for promotion and picking the wrong criteria in the first place are certainly factors. And you certainly can't ignore Peter-Principle effects, where someone gets promoted to a position where they're less effective than they were before. Here's one of the papers talking about its results:

Notwithstanding the previous discussion on performance, the current study raises the uncomfortable suggestion that all the time and effort put into promotion and selection by HR practitioners doesn’t really matter that much. After all, even though performance went up and down in response to contingency factors, the average difference between promotion systems at a given level could be measured in single digits on a hundred point scale (even random promotion wasn’t that much different from the rest). Could it be that the particular method used for job assignment really has little effect on an organization’s bottom line? This is directly relevant to HR practitioners because they typically spend a lot of time on the job assignment task and such time might be allocated elsewhere if the effort in unproductive or inefficient.

But then, the people evaluating such systems and such ideas are generally HR practitioners themselves. . .

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Cellbio on November 17, 2011 4:25 PM writes...

I'd gladly take the title upgrade to Senior Unemployed, Principally a Scientist with no Work, Director of Downsized, Executive Director with No Direction or Vice President of my Residence. Maybe even stretch for CEO, Chief Eating Officer.

Permalink to Comment

2. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on November 17, 2011 4:29 PM writes...

I've solved the promotion problem permanently. I quite big pharma in 2005 to become an independent consultant. One job title from here on out. No more steps up the ladder. It also made the performance appraisal very simple. Either the client sends repeat business back or or they do not.

Permalink to Comment

3. Clueless on November 17, 2011 7:36 PM writes...

It tells that merit system is so clueless, LOL

Permalink to Comment

4. Anonymous on November 17, 2011 7:45 PM writes...

Promotions are already random in my place of employ (Big Pharma). Layoffs, demotions, and random promotions of the less-than-competent (being generous here), and no promotion for the competent - thats the norm right now.

Permalink to Comment

5. MTK on November 17, 2011 8:25 PM writes...

Let me guess, #4. You didn't get the promotion.

Snide remark aside, I'd like to know where the researchers found a company that actually used and admitted to the random promotion method.

Permalink to Comment

6. bbooooooya on November 17, 2011 10:00 PM writes...

This seems similar to picking members of congress etc. by lottery. Maybe not the worst idea: managers tend to promote their favorites, not necassarily the most qualified (though often the 2 attributes are coincident). Voters tend to elect those with the best 30s sound bites.

Plus, the BS evaluation forms that many HR rubes convince moron managers to use are typically massive wastes of time.

Permalink to Comment

7. Anonymous on November 17, 2011 11:25 PM writes...

#5 - you know what happens when you assume...

Permalink to Comment

8. Anonymous on November 17, 2011 11:42 PM writes...

We have have idiots in my workplace promoted to positions way beyond their ability. Even their publications are complete crap. Ass kissing goes a long way though.

Permalink to Comment

9. Succinate on November 18, 2011 12:01 AM writes...

I wonder if the same is true for the tenure process in academia.. Has anybody looked into it?

Permalink to Comment

10. DrFreddy on November 18, 2011 5:03 AM writes...

This was awarded with the Ig Nobel Management Prize in 2010:

I like it!

Permalink to Comment

11. A. E. Moser on November 18, 2011 6:53 AM writes...

Don't these results indicate that the HR department should be let go?

Permalink to Comment

12. Anonymous on November 18, 2011 9:06 AM writes...

Tell me how is this going to solve my unemployment issue?

Permalink to Comment

13. Denton on November 18, 2011 9:44 AM writes...

Working both in academia and in industry, thro not pharma, I'd say academia at second and lower tier school is even more heavily driven by politics than industry.

Part of the problem in industry* is that few companies have a science latter anymore and if you want to make more money, you need to manage even if your skills and personality are ill-matched to it. Secondly, HR and Upper management tend not to have science backgrounds so competency is estimated by presentations and reputation... Whether that reflects reality is another story.

And no. #5 I wasn't passed up. I got the promotion, realized I hated not doing science and was a crappy manager because I hated it, and found another job.

Permalink to Comment

14. pharmadude on November 18, 2011 9:46 AM writes...

Kiss your bosses ass and always agree with them. It doesn't hurt to also openly admire your boss like they're your 'hero'. Competence comes a big second to this, if it matters at all. Its sad but true, especially in big pharma where a lack of productivity doesn't really have much of an effect on anything. They should teach you this in grad school, would have made my life simpler had I known. Now everyday before work I remind myself that being productive is good, but always agreeing with your boss's dumbass ideas is priceless.

Permalink to Comment

15. MTK on November 18, 2011 11:32 AM writes...

@13 Denton,

Actually yours is a measured and reasonable response and I would have made no such remark regarding your career advancement.

Permalink to Comment

16. Dickweed Jones on November 18, 2011 3:17 PM writes...

After waiting 10 years for a promotion I finally got it. One week before I was laid off.

Permalink to Comment

17. Anonymous on November 18, 2011 6:06 PM writes...

@6 & 8

You must work at Roche. That describes exactly what's going on over in Nutley, esp. in med. chem. You're right on about the favoritism and butt kissing.

Narcissistic managers always promote their "boys" and admirers.

Permalink to Comment

18. eugene on November 19, 2011 7:44 AM writes...

Hey Derek (and co.), I think I posted this on your blog a while ago when the igNobel news came out (or maybe before that).

This might be a bit off topic for this thread but maybe not since it's the closeset one, but you might be interested in learning about W. Edwards Deming who died in 1993. He was credited with making Japan an economic powerhouse after WW2 and his theories on business performance outline everything that is wrong with pharma today.


From the wiki article (replace xx by tt above):

"Deming offers a theory of management based on his famous 14 Points for Management. Management's failure to plan for the future brings about loss of market, which brings about loss of jobs. Management must be judged not only by the quarterly dividend, but by innovative plans to stay in business, protect investment, ensure future dividends, and provide more jobs through improved products and services."

and this is actually relevant to random promotions:

"A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. A psychologist that possesses even a crude understanding of variation as will be learned in the experiment with the Red Beads (Ch. 7) could no longer participate in refinement of a plan for ranking people."

Permalink to Comment

19. bench_minion on November 21, 2011 11:27 AM writes...

Wait a minute. This isn't what we're currently using???

Permalink to Comment

20. bench_minion on November 21, 2011 11:30 AM writes...

Wait a minute. This isn't what we're currently using???

Permalink to Comment

21. Rummah on November 22, 2011 4:59 PM writes...

One of the pleasures of leaving corporate chemistry years ago was never having to deal with that rare species of humanity know as the "HR". However, I am now sure they are taking over the world.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry