Will Your Employee Promotion Strategy Improve Or Harm Your Work Culture?

By Pamela DeLoatch

When you think of workplace culture, what comes to mind? You may think of how your team interacts in a meeting, if employees hang out with one another after hours, or if there’s a table tennis tournament lighting up your office. But culture goes beyond that, and is created by the sum of your—and everyone else’s—behaviors and actions.

One important element that defines and reinforces work culture is employee promotions. Who gets promoted, why, and how can reveal more about your culture than your mission statement. A thoughtful promotion strategy like the one outlined below, can go a long way in defining what you want your work culture to look like and influencing what it becomes.

The Good, The Bad, and The Disengaged

Great Places to Work surveyed 400,000 U.S. workers and found that when promotions are perceived to be fair and well-managed, employee engagement and retention soars. Fairness in advancement opportunities seems to also go hand in hand with success. 75% of employees at the 100 Best Companies believe promotions go to those who deserve them.

Unfortunately, that means the reverse is also true: 25%–a full quarter of employees at the best companies—believe that promotions don’t go to the right candidates. With career advancement (and increased compensation) being high on the list of what employees desire, poor promotion decisions can be catastrophic.

Today’s employees anticipate fewer promotions due to flattened organizations, and that reflects in their decreased degree of commitment and engagement to work. A Gartner survey shows that 23% of employees in the U.S. (and only 16% across the globe) are willing to do the extra work needed to be promoted.

With the perception of fewer opportunities for advancement, there is increased scrutiny of who actually gets promoted. If the right person isn’t selected (either in reality or as interpreted by fellow employees), that promotion can have a ripple effect on a workforce. Because promotions are often made in a vacuum, with leaders thinking about the immediate needs of the team or business unit, the overall effect on organizational culture can be overlooked.

An Employee Promotion Can Sabotage Your Culture

Promotions, even the ones with the best intentions, can sabotage your culture. Here are some typical examples of how that happens:

The promotion is based on time served. Jada has been in her position for four years and the other original team members have been promoted except for her. But Jada is an average performer, unlike her stellar teammates. Should she get a promotion, so she can keep up?

What to do: Promotions should be based on an ability to perform new tasks and proven success on past performance. But for Jada, the question isn’t whether she should be promoted, but rather why is she an average performer?

Is she receiving employee feedback that outlines performance expectations? Has her manager asked her about her career aspirations and discussed ways to get there? Is Jada receiving the employee development she needs to be successful (as defined by her manager and her)? Is her manager dedicated to helping Jada succeed, and does the manager have the skills to do so?

The answers to these questions can provide a foundation for helping Jada take her next steps at the company and in her overarching career.

Promotions are not the only option for an employee who may feel stuck at a certain level. Lateral movements and more interesting projects are ways to bring freshness and opportunity to a quality employee without providing undeserved advancement. These options are especially pertinent when an employee does not have the desire or ability to manage others.

Also look for opportunities to improve employee development, and if employees aren’t progressing, check for the underlying reasons. If employees truly cannot be motivated, you may need to make the hard decision to let them go. Otherwise, you’ll encourage mediocre performance with the message that what you do doesn’t matter—it’s how long you do it for that counts.

Expand The Employee Promotion Pool

It’s been said that it’s not what you know, but who. But not all stellar employees enjoy the same visibility as others:

Not all qualified candidates are equally considered for promotions. Underrepresented candidates, those without a champion, or those without similarities to leaders (race, gender, language, school, sports, family, etc.) can—perhaps unconsciously—be overlooked. This can easily happen, especially when you consider this: women apply for positions if they meet 100% of the criteria, while men apply if they only meet 60%.

It follows that when women think about asking for a promotion or throwing their hat in the ring for consideration for the next level job, the same reservation applies. If you only pay attention to the obvious choices, you may be overlooking excellent alternatives.

What to do: Be intentional in seeking out and considering all qualified candidates. The NFL applies the Rooney Rule to find good underrepresented candidates for head coaching jobs. In order to increase diversity in coaching and management, the NFL requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and general manager positions.

Although your efforts don’t have to be solely about race, use the Rooney Rule for inspiration: look for those invisible candidates; ones you don’t know as well or have as much in common with. Yes, you still want to find the best candidates for promotion—but you might not if you prematurely limit your pool of possibilities.

By widening your lens your actions reflect that everyone’s contributions are important, that the promotion process is fair, and that you are committed to diversity and inclusion.

Employee Strengths and Values

According to Gallup, promoting an employee into a job that needs skills they don’t have backfires 80% of the time. And when you promote an employee who performs well but doesn’t live the company values, you risk creating a rift between the actual and perceived values of the organization. Below are two examples of what to do when an employee performs well, but may not have the skills or commitment to values that warrant advancement.

The new job doesn’t match the candidate’s strengths. Vijay, for example, may have had a stellar sales year, but that doesn’t automatically mean he’s the right person for the new sales manager position.

The independence and extreme competitiveness that achieved sales success may not be helpful when it’s time to strategize, coach, and motivate a dispersed sales team. As your once-stellar performer struggles in the new position and the sales team chafes under Vijay’s command and control management, sales and productivity slip. Frustrated with the unanticipated difficulty, Vijay quits and goes to work for a competitor.

What to do: Be clear on what skills and experience a candidate needs to succeed in the new job. While training may be necessary, the candidate should have the foundation that allows for growth.

What are the true essentials of the job? Maybe it’s being creative, energetic, and compassionate, with a desire to problem solve, combined with technical knowledge. For Vijay, managing people was not the right fit for his skills. His manager could have considered other ways to use his expertise as a respected individual contributor.

A mismatch between skills and job requirements shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ongoing performance management and development with their managers should help employees recognize strengths and weaknesses and prepare them for next steps in their careers.

Knowing what is needed in the job and finding the right person to do it tells your employees you want to invest in them and that you care about their success.

The person promoted doesn’t reflect company’s stated culture. Your company states that integrity is the bedrock of the institution, yet Dennis brags about how he closed a deal using questionable practices.

Innovation is key, your company says, yet Wanda, the leader of your creative team, is known for shutting down ideas she doesn’t like.

When people like Dennis and Wanda get promoted, it suggests that you don’t reinforce what you’ve said you stand for, and that your ideals are applied situationally.

What to do: Employee promotion is a clear example of actions speaking louder than words. When you promote someone, be clear on why you’ve selected them and understand what the perception will be. Your decision shouldn’t solely rest on what will be supported by the team, but consider all aspects of the promotion decision to ensure you have the best person, not just for the job at hand, but for the company.

Deciding if an employee is ready for a promotion shouldn’t be difficult. It should be a result of a quality performance management strategy, where you and your employees have had ongoing conversations about employee goals, strengths, weaknesses and interests, and the company’s needs.

Have an ongoing conversation about your employees’ goals, strengths, and career trajectory. Give 15Five a try!

Doing consistent work by setting quarterly objectives and providing frequent employee feedback and coaching clarifies who to promote and when, based on actual relationships and performance data. With promotions, it’s not what you say, but what you do. Your company culture depends on your commitment to the latter.

Pamela DeLoatchPamela DeLoatch is a B2B technology writer specializing in creating marketing content for the HR industry. With a background as an HR generalist and specialist, she writes about the employee experience, engagement, diversity, HR leadership, culture and technology. Follow Pamela on Twitter @pameladel.

Image Credit: Marc Rafanel Lopez on Unsplash


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