What is Topgrading?

The process of topgrading was first used in the booming business era of the 80s and 90s America. A term coined by Bradford D Smart, it is essentially a corporate hiring and interviewing methodology.  

Topgrading is a 12-step process designed to identify the most qualified candidate for a particular position. The idea behind the Topgrading theory is that “A Players” can be identified before hiring managers have had a chance to see them in action.  

The possibility of a bad hire is also lessened; a situation that is undoubtedly a massive financial and organisational burden.

The Topgrading Approach

Topgrading has a unique approach which has been used both in the recruitment of new hires, but also when human resources teams are looking to restructure and promote internally.

Since its inception, it has been used as the recruitment model for some of the biggest names in the business. Barclays, General Electric and Lincoln Motors all champion this methodology.

Proven to be highly successful, it is not surprising that it can boast such noteworthy advocates.  

So what exactly is Topgrading, and how can these processes be employed in modern-day recruitment?  What defines its “success” and what are the benefits to companies who employ these methodologies?

This post aims to address all these points and more to give you a full breakdown of the topgrading process. As well as tips for how you may be able to implement these ideas in your organisation.

What You Will Learn About Topgrading…

A, B & C Players: The Topgrading Terminology.
Topgrading: Defining Success.
Topgrading: The 12 steps methodology.
Step 1: Forethought.
Step 2: Create a Jobscore Card.
Step 3: Use your Network.
Step 4: The Work History form.
Step 5: The Telephone Screening Interview.
Step 6: Competency-Based Interviews.
Step 7: The Topgrading Interview.
Step 8: Interviewer Feedback
Step 9: The Draft Executive Summary.
Step 10: Ask the candidate to arrange the reference calls.
Step 11: Coaching your new Hire.
Step 12: Measure your Hiring Success Annually.
Topgrading: The Benefits.
Topgrading: Are there any negatives?

A, B & C Players: The Topgrading Terminology.

Topgrading is one of these recruitment practices which you’ll come to see has a language all of its own. In order to understand the aims of the methodology, it’s important to understand what success will “look” like.

In short, the Topgrading process aims to identify candidates who fall into one of the following three categories:

  • “A Players”: are those candidates who fall into the top 10% of available talent for a job.
  • “B Players”: a candidate who is in the next 25% of available talent.  
  • “C players”: a candidate who is in the remaining 65% of the available talent pool.

When we say “available” for a job, it is important to mention that this does not mean all job seekers across the TOTAL job market. We are only talking viable applicants here – those in the right location, at the right competitive level, demanding the right salary bracket and in the right industry.  

Topgrading: Defining Success.

Success using the Topgrading methodology can be defined as 75% (preferably 90%) high performing “A Players” in every job.

Topgrading: The 12 steps methodology.

So what does Topgrading look like in practice, and what are the 12 steps to success?

At first glance, it seems time-consuming and will require a lot of effort. However, the rewards you’ll reap will be huge.  

Before you begin:

Step 1: Forethought.

To use the Topgrading process successfully, you should begin with some forethought. It is a good idea to think about what it is that is truly needed from both the candidate and the role.  

Far before the interview process even begins, having a clear vision will allow you to source only those candidates with the right profiles. You can also structure your interviews in such a way that will properly evaluate the experience, personality and competencies of each candidate.

Step 2: Create a Jobscore Card.

It is important to discern what an “A Player” will look like in your particular role and within your particular company.  An “A player” in the tech team, will look very different from an “A Player” in a different department. Even a different job role in the same tech team will require different skills.  

Being clear about what you are looking for will determine your ability to establish possible “A Players”.

In Topgrading, a Jobscore Card succeeds a traditional job description. A Jobscore Card will detail a list of the essential skills needed for your role.  

These criteria points can then be used to measure one candidate against another. By assigning each candidate a numerical score against each point, you will create yourself a tangible base on which one candidate can be judged against another.  

Step 3: Use your Network.

Before you open up the recruitment process, ask yourself if you are able to recruit from your current talent network. Maybe you have worked with or interviewed a candidate before who wasn’t an “A Player” for one role but would be perfect for your current requirement.  

To keep your talent pool ripe with possibility, make sure you offer all your applicants a professional and thorough candidate experience.  Offer advice and feedback at every stage.

By doing so you will ensure that candidates continue to view you as a desirable employer even if they were unsuccessful.  For more on the importance of giving candidate feedback.

Step 4: The Work History Form.

A Work History Form is a standard list of questions given to each candidate. It addresses subjects such as salary history, reasons for leaving previous jobs, job likes and dislikes, self-appraisal and manager ratings.

As the form will comprise of identical questions, it can then be used to directly compare and contrast the histories of each applicant.  Using a Work History form will also save you time. Trawling through CVs looking for answers to these questions can be a drawn-out process.  As a busy hiring manager, this is a task, you’d probably rather avoid!

The Interview Process:

Much of the Topgrading process works on the theory that the standard interview process employed by most organisations is flawed.  It is generally believed to be manipulated by unscrupulous candidates who fake their CVs and answer dishonestly at interviews. The result is that even the most unsuitable candidate appears to be a qualified contender.  

So how can you use the Topgrading methodology to address your interview process?  

Step 5: The Telephone Screening Interview.

While telephone interviews are standard recruitment practice these days, the Topgrading Telephone Screening interview is used in conjunction with the Work History form each candidate completed at step 4.  Topgrading Telephone Screening interviews are therefore more useful. Each candidate is asked to review the same information, and again, candidate answers can be more successfully compared. You can weed out those candidates who fall short against one another and only invite the strongest candidates to the next stages.

Step 6: Competency-Based Interviews.

Competency-based interviews are used alongside the results of the Jobscore Card from Step 2 and will compare candidate qualifications to those skills required from the scorecard.  Each question that is asked at this stage needs to address a specific requirement of the open job.

Competency-based Interviews should last about 50 minutes, and approximately 15 of those should be dedicated to candidate questions.  This approach gives your candidates a chance to meet more of the team and gain a better insight into company culture.

Step 7: The Topgrading Interview.

The Topgrading Interview can take up to 4 hours.  It is the longest, and arguably the most important of the Topgrading techniques.  This interview is a chronological review of the history of each candidate.

You should begin with their education and move forward until you reach their current position.   Done properly, it should cover every job, and conclude with a section on candidate self-appraisal and their future goals.

It is not surprising that the questions featured in the Topgrading interview are ordered and methodical.  

For each job, you should look to cover:

  • Why the candidate took the job?
  • What were their particular successes and how were they achieved?
  • What were their main weaknesses or mistakes?
  • What was liked/disliked about the job?
  • What was the name of their supervisor, and what were their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What would that supervisor say about the candidate in return?  What would that supervisor say were the candidate’s plus points and particular areas of need?
  • What were the reasons for leaving the job?

Threat of Reference Check

Another question that is at the heart of the Topgrading Interview process is the Threat of Reference Check (TORC) question.  Essentially, you should pose that at a later stage the candidate is responsible for arranging their own reference checks from former managers, colleagues and character referees.  

This is an interesting feature of the methodology, but one that succeeds in a couple of ways.  

  • Firstly, you have the details of a significant number of referees.  
  • You are also able to go on to indirectly verify the claims made by your candidate.  The failure of the candidate to be willing to complete the TORC principle can then be used as part of your appraisal.   At best, you can deduce that they are unmotivated. At worst, they have been less than honest during their interview. In short, give them enough rope and they may just do your job for you!

The detail you’ll glean from your Topgrading interviews will be pivotal in ensuring your success when recruiting your “A Player” candidate.  For even better results, it is recommended that you employ a Tandem Topgrading technique. As the name suggests, you should establish the help of an “A Player” colleague to conduct the interview with you.

This ‘tag team’ approach will allow you to smoothly cover for each other. An added opinion will also allow you further insight into your candidate. After all, two heads are better than one!

Step 8: Interviewer Feedback

Step 8 relies on the fact that you have been able to complete a Tandem Topgrading Interview.  At this stage, each interviewer gives the other feedback on their interview technique.

Each should identify 1-3 points where improvement is needed, along with those areas where they believe the other excelled. Over time, the result is an improved individual interview performance, possibly even negating the need for a tandem approach in the first place.

Step 9: The Draft Executive Summary.

Although writing a report following each interview should be standard practice it is often one that is overlooked.  To employ a Topgrader, you need to behave like an “A Player” yourself.

Topgrader hiring managers routinely categorise up to 50 behavioural traits after the interview and assess their ease of change.  

For example, somebody’s intelligence would fall into the “Very Difficult to Change” category, whilst their training needs would be “Relatively Easy to Change”.

As such, The Draft Executive Summary is the process of systematically analysing all the employment data you have gathered thus far.  It is also yet another way you can directly compare each of your candidates.

Looking at the candidate on paper only can be incredibly useful.

  • It allows you to keep your objectivity.   As people, it is natural that we like some people more than others.  Therefore, there’s a danger that you will give into your gut or go on a “feeling”. This is dangerous and compromises your chances of success.  The “A Player” candidate may not always be the one that you ‘got on’ with or that you liked the best.
  • It facilitates an even playing field on which all candidates can be judged.
  • It is also possible that individual interviews will blur and important points will be missed or forgotten.  With so much information to process from each Topgrader interview, you can easily be forgiven!
  • It will allow you to offer candidate feedback to your superiors should the end hiring decision not be yours to make.    

You will also need it further down the Topgrading timeline…more on this at Step 11!   

Step 10: Ask the candidate to arrange the reference calls.

Step 7 included the TORC principle, and it is at this stage that candidates should be required to set up their reference checks.  “A Player” candidates are only too happy to organise these.

It is rare that candidates of this calibre will leave a position on bad terms and as such are only too happy to endorse their achievements.

Indeed, case studies of companies who have used Topgrading, suggest that knowing they will be required to do this promotes honesty and openness from candidates during their interview.  

It is typically at this stage that you will extend a job offer to your preferred “A Player”.

Step 11: Coaching your new Hire.

Coaching your new hire through the onboarding process is vital to ensure that you haven’t wasted your efforts thus far.  It would be a shame to have gone through such a rigorous recruitment process only to lose sight of your “A Player” now.

It is at this stage that you can make further use of the Draft Executive Summary which you completed at stage 9.  The evaluation that you undertook on your “A Player” will have highlighted their development needs and is a great springboard for a thorough development strategy.  

Part of the Topgrading methodology teaches that your new hire should be promised coaching within the first three weeks of employment.  

Doing so at such an early stage is beneficial for many reasons:

  • You will capitalise on their early enthusiasm and motivation.  Expect a turbo-boosted performance!
  • You will create an opening for the possibility of further development for future positions.
  • Your new hire will feel nurtured.  A poor induction process has been proven to result in low employee retention rates.  Can you afford to lose your “A Player” because you have failed to induct them effectively?

Step 12: Measure your Hiring Success Annually.

Regularly measuring your hiring success rate will keep your recruitment process streamlined and ensure that you continue to see the benefits of employing the Topgrading methodology.

Topgrading: The Benefits.

A thorough and robust recruitment process such as this is great for your organisation.  

True; setting it up may take a bit of work.  You may even need to retrain your team. However, we’d argue that it’s worth the effort.

Here’s why:

  • Everybody is on the same page and working to the same end goal.  Even in your absence or while working on multiple roles, you can be sure that all the boxes are being ticked.
  • You will improve your candidate experience.  Review sites such as Glassdoor allow candidates to evaluate and publish their experiences.  Do you really want a poor review from an “A Player”?
  • You will improve your own performance and that of your team.  Conducting Tandem Topgrading interviews and the subsequent feedback will ensure that standards remain high.
  • You will lessen the chance of a bad hire, saving your organisation time, money and effort.
  • Your new, improved and personalised induction process will improve your retention rate.
  • You will identify any particular development needs of your “A Players” early on.  These can go on to be addressed. “A Players” will always be looking to bolster their skills.  A lack of training and learning opportunities have been cited as another reason why employees leave a job.  Hold on to your “A Player” by keeping them interested and motivated.
  • Birds of a feather flock together.  “A Players” attract “A players”…enough said.
  • Your current workforce will either embrace the opportunity to work alongside (and learn from) “A Players”, or be afraid their own shortcomings will be highlighted by the sheen of your new hires.  You may lose a few of your team along the way! But ask yourself…is this a bad thing? The chances are that these nay-sayers are “C Players” anyway, and you only want “A Players”, right?
  • You will grow your talent network, giving you a larger shoal of “A Player” fish!  B Players for one role, maybe A Players for another.
  • Play the long game! The ultimate reward for your endeavours may not be immediate.  In a few years, it is likely that your entire workforce will be filled with “A Players”.
  • If you are using Topgrading to promote internally, you will establish a level playing field that is fair and unbiased.  Especially in the early stages, you can almost look at all your possible applicants anonymously. This is great, especially if you have a preferred candidate in mind!

Topgrading: Are there any negatives?

One counter-argument that could be used against using Topgrading as your sole recruitment philosophy, is the possibility that you may miss out on the rough diamond candidates.

As experienced recruiters and hiring managers, we’ve all come across those candidates that may lack experience on putting together a CV or those who struggle in an interview.

However, it could be argued that the level playing field that Topgrading helps to promote (especially in the early stages), actually improves the possibility of these applicants making their way to the interview stages.

The Jobscore card and the Work History form are generic documents which put all your applicants on an equal footing. You aren’t blindsided by anything other than skill.So

There they are. The 12 steps of Topgrading; easily laid out and digestible.  

Probably, as Topgrading, “A Player” hiring managers yourselves, you are already employing some or all of these techniques, all be it in different guises.  

It is not a process that necessarily has to form all of your recruitment strategy. You may wish to pluck out certain techniques or see them as possible bolt-ons to your current process.  

However you wish to proceed, we hope that we’ve provided you with some food for thought. If you would like any help or specialist advice with your talent acquisition then please get in contact


Good Luck! We’d love to hear how you get on. Let us know in the comments below!


About the author: I manage the recruitment for a range of digital roles for my clients on both a retained and contingency basis. I specialise in senior and confidential appointments, always giving a first class representation of a client’s employer brand.

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