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Managing the Employee Promotions Process

“Managing the Employee Promotions Process”

What happens when an upper-level position opens up and several employees want the job? Strong management and a good succession plan can help you reward your best performers, soothe the wounded egos of those who were passed over and keep team morale high.


A productive workplace is a blend of teamwork and leadership. But what happens to the team when the leadership changes as a result of a promotion? When one individual succeeds and others are passed by, business productivity can take a nosedive and office politics can destroy employee loyalty and morale. A succession policy, smart management methods and effective communication can minimize the rejected employee’s discomfort and avert the in-office negativity that can ruin a workplace.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Three steps to take before deciding whether to promote an employee.
  • Management methods designed to preserve the respect of the passed-over employee.
  • Strategies for rebuilding the team.


For employees who are passed over for a promotion, the experience can be ego-crushing and embarrassing. Without an effective promotions process, the emotions and actions of a rejected employee can escalate, threatening client relationships, production, employee retention and even the company’s bottom line. But experts say bad experiences related to the promotions process are usually a result of one thing: bad management. For those managers who plan before the promotion, what is often an uncomfortable experience can be one of open dialogue, understanding and mutual respect.

Steps to take before you decide whether to promote an employee

  1. Plan for succession. Every company should have a promotions plan listing how staff transitions will be handled. Like a detailed business plan, your succession strategies should identify how each job will be filled, the process for each promotion and the qualities of each employee required for those positions. It should also list training requirements and opportunities for staff development.

  2. Get appraisals in place. Once a year is not enough when it comes to evaluating employee performance. Develop a pattern of employee evaluations that track the employee’s career development, work patterns, attributes and flaws, and other characteristics that can determine whether this person has the leadership qualities required for a promotion.

  3. Call in the experts. With several suitable candidates vying for one job, it’s important to determine how the attributes required by the position measure up in each candidate. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you’re busy; and you’ll tend to go with your best judgment when making promotions. But for upper-level promotions you may want to turn to organizational or corporate psychologists or consultants specializing in employee assessments. These professionals can provide precise details and identify specific, often undefined, qualities in your candidates, and evaluate how those qualities will influence the position being considered. Also, call on the expertise of your human resources department. These specialists should be your partners in any promotions process.

To preserve the self-respect and morale of the passed-over employee

  1. Know the reasons why. Before making your decision public, identify the specific reasons why the person did not earn the promotion. Does he or she lack critical training that will help him or her become a leader in the future, or is he or she incapable of leading at the higher level? Be clear about your motivations, and make sure you can articulate them.

  2. Meet with the passed-over employee before the outcome is announced, and communicate honestly. Specify the job requirements and the capabilities needed to meet those requirements. Show the employee the areas (which should be clear on multiple employee appraisals) where he or she struggles or has not demonstrated the skills demanded by the job. Explain honestly, politely, and sympathetically why someone else got the job. After the explanation, be a good listener and be open to questions. Often disappointment escalates to anger. Let the employee vent but maintain your control and temper and move on. An angry confrontation is not effective communication.

  3. Don’t offer false encouragement or empty compliments. Not every employee will have the skill set needed for advancement. If this individual has no chance of future advancement, say it honestly, but make it clear that he or she is valued as an individual contributor in his or her current position.

  4. Do express appreciation for work well done. A good performance review and raise will boost the passed-over employee’s morale and speed recovery to full, enthusiastic productivity.

  5. Establish a plan of action. What can the individual do to improve his or her skills in preparation for the next opportunity? If the person has potential in the corporation, discuss training options, seminars and improvement strategies. Offer suggestions and ways in which management will support the individual who wants to grow and improve, e.g., assignment to projects that permit a worker to demonstrate exceptional achievements. Follow through on promises and continue a consistent pattern of employee evaluations so that together you can identify areas of improvement and those still lacking. If the employee has reached a plateau, and it is unlikely he or she will have promotion opportunities, discuss other employment opportunities either within the company or outside.

Strategies for rebuilding the team

Office politics often play a role in job promotions. Factions can develop with employees lining up in support of both the candidate who received the promotion and the one who didn’t, usually destroying the team mentality needed to accomplish the work. Offset office politics by implementing team-building activities:

  • Start by talking. Disappointment over a missed promotion can cause rumors and a breakdown of communication within the department. Hold a team meeting with all involved. Explain your promotions policy, how the decision was made and the promotions procedure for the future. Let others know that this is not an arbitrary process or a case of favoritism. If this doesn’t quiet the gossip, or if the disgruntled employee sabotages projects or other people, you must decide whether it’s beneficial to keep him or her at the company.
  • Organize an office retreat. Encourage employees to attend workshops and seminars individually or as a team. Ask people to share what they’ve learned with the group and to identify ways in which this knowledge can be implemented or used in the business.
  • Provide roundtable discussions by either bringing in an outside expert to discuss particular business-building aspects over lunch, or by discussing business-related topics determined by employees. This is a great way to foster creative thinking that can lead to innovative strategies or products, but it’s also an opportunity to interact as a group.


An honest communication policy worked for Kathy Christian, co-owner of Art Media, an art supply company with three stores and about $6 million in annual sales based in Portland, Ore. When one candidate for a store manager position did not possess the job skills required, managers decided to talk to that person direc
tly. The employee was valuable to the company, but he was not ready for the promotion, she said.

Managers met with him and discussed why he wouldn’t get the job. They committed to helping him improve on the job and offered other opportunities to help him build his skill base in preparation for the next opening.

"We try to be open about the process and very specific about the skills and commitment we need and the aspects the job requires," she said. With 43 employees in purchasing, sales and administration, Christian said it is important for managers to be clear about job expectations.

"We know that just because they aren’t ready now, they may be ready in the future," she said.

DO IT [top]

  1. Evaluate your succession policy. Does it specify how the promotions process should be implemented? Does it indicate which skills are needed for which jobs? Is it clear which candidates can be considered? If you don’t have a thorough policy in place, get your human resources department on it immediately or find a consultant who can help you develop one.
  2. Consider implementing a promotion structure that permits advancement through a series of grades without increased supervisory responsibilities. Outsourcing and modern flat management structures limit promotion opportunities severely, and promotion in place may enable you to reward good ambitious employees enough to keep them.
  3. Talk to managers. Look at personnel files. Determine when and how frequently employee evaluations occur. Establish a routine pattern of employee appraisals of at least three a year. Start scheduling them today.
  4. Research assessment tools that will help you identify the qualities key personnel will need to be promoted into lead positions. Having markers in place before the process actually begins will help reduce ambiguity, or worse, the appearance of favoritism or impropriety.



Love ’em or Lose ’em: Getting Good People to Stay by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Ways to keep and motivate employees in general — not just those passed over for promotion.

Internet Sites

"Can You Manage?," by Chris Penttila, Entrepreneur (July 2003), 74-75.

"Success in Succession Planning," by Jana Matthews. Kauffman Foundation.

"Finding the Leaders Within," excerpted from Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan (Crown, 2002). CIO 16:2 (October 15, 2002), 111+.

Article Contributors

Writer: Polly Campbell

Dr. Jed Friend, an industrial-organizational psychologist (www.jedfriend.com) based in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this article.