Difficult Conversations About Not Getting Promoted

Shawnee Love   •   December 6, 2019

Growing people from within and helping them climb their desired career ladder or enhance their level of mastery is a fundamental mandate of every people leader.  For a manager to be successful at helping grow employees, that manager needs to ensure employees are aware of the growth opportunities.  The manager must also encourage their people to take education, initiative and to raise their hands when they think they are ready for the next step.

Thus, when an employee does apply for an internal promotion, the manager will want to demonstrate the sincerity of the growth goal by rewarding the hardworking employee with the opportunity.  However, if the employee lacks a fundamental capability of the job which isn’t possible to learn in a reasonable time period, the manager is in a difficult spot:

  • Promote in alignment with the value of growing staff, and risk the employee failing (and other possibly serious consequences to the business), or
  • Do not promote and risk the employee feeling the manager lied (by not following through on the “promise” of supporting growth) and becoming disengaged.

Telling an employee they didn’t get the promotion without having the employee feel rejected or that the manager breached a promise is a difficult conversation. The difficulty is compounded because you have to address the capability gaps which the employee likely isn’t aware of or underestimates.

In these cases, we encourage you to approach the conversation compassionately and with your facts straight as follows:

  • Begin with the purpose of the job and the key competencies or expectations of the role.
  • Identify where you think the employee aligns and doesn’t align.  Be prepared to provide examples of performance which cause you to come to each conclusion.
  • Clearly explain what would need to change for the employee to be given this job in the future.
  • Discuss what the employee could do to be ready next time this type of opportunity arises.  If the necessary upgrades are things the manager can assist the employee with (e.g., with training, mentorship, exposure to projects or clients, etc.) plan out how the employee can get there and what help s/he will receive from the manager.

It’s really hard to hear you aren’t good enough, so give the employee time to process, be encouraging and open to having a few discussions.  We are here to help if you encounter a specific issue you want a script for.