Helping Employees Step Up

By Kathryn Tyler Aug 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, August 2007Making internal promotions go smoothly is an important HR function—one that begins long before an opening becomes available.

Ed Santry and his team faced a choice: three solid candidates for one position.

Santry, vice president of HR in Pittsburgh for NiSource Inc., a natural gas and electricity company based in Merrillville, Ind., with about 8,000 employees, says one of the candidates, a NiSource employee, “did a good job in the interview but didn’t have the experience another candidate had.”

The position went to the more-experienced candidate from outside the company, but Santry’s job wasn’t over. He talked with the two candidates who hadn’t made the grade, including the promising internal candidate for whom the job would have been a promotion. “When I had the discussion,” Santry says, “I wanted it to be positive. I said, ‘Here are the things to work on over the next three years to improve your chances of getting one of these positions.’ ”

Meeting with internal candidates not selected for an opening that would be a promotion is “an important part of the process” of developing employees within an organization, says Santry. It can prevent wounded feelings and encourage unsuccessful candidates to stay.

Santry believes that HR’s responsibilities in handling employee promotions begin before a job is posted and continue past the job offer. In fact, whether a promotion succeeds over the long run can depend largely on how effectively HR contributes to the process of moving an employee up the career ladder.

HR must facilitate promotions within their organizations by providing employees with career coaching, helping managers develop clear selection criteria, establishing policies for posting—or not posting—available positions, composing and timing promotion announcements, and, like Santry, cushioning the blow for those not selected for promotion.

Even then, HR still has work to do—helping the newly promoted employee make a smooth transition to the new job, and helping nonselected candidates continue to strengthen their skills in expectation of future opportunities in your organization (not in your competitor’s).

Taking Stock

Sue Gebelein, executive vice president, client relationship management, for Personnel Decisions International, a Minneapolis-based HR consulting firm, suggests ways to handle the potentially tricky task of determining an employee’s interest in a promotion without promising a specific job: “In a career discussion, say, ‘What roles are you thinking about?’ And then, if it isn’t a couple of levels above [where the employee is now], you can say, ‘I wonder if you’ve ever considered a wider role?’ Introduce the concept. You don’t want to promise it.” HR’s purpose is only to be sure the employee is setting his or her aspirations high enough. “You don’t need to mention a particular role,” she explains.

“Inquiring with an employee whether he is interested in a position isn’t offering the position,” says attorney Craig Brooks, director in the labor practice group at Houston Harbaugh PC, a Pittsburgh law firm. But be sure you “never promise they are going to get something.”

Jennifer Berman, managing director at CBIZ Human Capital Services, an HR consultancy based in Cleveland, agrees: “If managers are regularly discussing opportunities to take on new challenges, this won’t be viewed as an offer but as an integral part of setting goals for performance.”

Moreover, Gebelein says, employees should know how they’re regarded so they can decide whether to go for a promotion when a job opens up. “An individual needs to have enough information about the perception of [his or her] performance or readiness for that role,” she says. “For example, if I think I’m ready for a sales management role, I apply for that. I learn I’m not seen as having some pretty critical competencies. That should not be the first time I hear this. Managers should be having career discussions with employees.”

Gebelein continues: “Sometimes leaders don’t talk with a person about a particular opening because they ‘know’ the person won’t be interested. Talk to them anyway. Managers will sometimes make assumptions about what people will and won’t do. Even if they don’t want the job, they want to know they were considered for the position.”

Be alert for the absence of a clear career path for a high-potential employee. “Promotional systems are vulnerable in the few roles where that’s the end of the line on that career path,” says Gebelein. “How do you help those employees bridge to something else [within the company]? Look at transferable skills and responsibilities. HR often has a broader view than a direct supervisor on how skill sets could be used.”

Define the Position

Whether or not internal candidates exist, HR needs to help managers determine the type of person they seek. At The Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Conn., “HR, in partnership with the manager, reviews the job description for the new position, which drives much of the discussion,” says Darryl McCormick, senior vice president of education and organization development for the 305-bed facility, which has 2,200 employees.

If the job description is out-of-date, HR and the manager should fix it before posting the job. This not only will be helpful in finding the right person for the job but also could ward off discrimination lawsuits.

“The key is having appropriate criteria with which to assess who should get a promotion,” Brooks says. “Identify in advance the important aspects of this job, both technical and personality traits.”

Establish Clear Policies

One of HR’s main roles in promotions is to establish workable policies and procedures. “Promotion policies help ensure equity in the process so employees understand expectations,” Berman says. “Organizations have discretion in setting these policies—the key is to stick to them once they’re in place. Failure to do that can—at worst—subject the organization to possible discrimination issues if individuals within a protected group believe that the company bypasses its processes to favor others, and—at the least—create negative morale issues among those perceived as ‘not favored.’ ”

Brooks underscores the point. “Have some reasonable basic rules,” he says, “but don’t have so many they become too encumbering for managers [and] you don’t follow your own procedures. This creates a huge problem. Good rules set a base line but allow for variations.”

To avoid discrimination lawsuits in promoting employees, Brooks says, you need to have a reasonable rationale for every action. “If an employee can poke enough holes in the explanation [of an employer’s actions], then it implies discrimination,” he says.

One highly visible policy centers on posting promotion opportunities—whether to do it internally and externally at the same time, when to do it, and when not to do it. Exceptions to such rules must have clear reasons. Missteps can result in disgruntled employees, lost productivity and even employment lawsuits.

“HR policies and practices need to be clear and consistent,” Gebelein advises. “Many organizations are not clear about what is posted and what is not. This creates enormous frustration and the perception of unfairness.”

In general, posting is a good idea, Brooks says. “You should post so you can show you’re not excluding anyone, having favorites or missing someone who might be really good at the job.”

At NiSource, Santry says, “our guideline is to post all manager and below positions. But there are exceptions, and it is important to be flexible. There are times when it doesn’t make sense to post.”

Following are some instances in which, experts say, HR might decide posting is not necessary:

  • If an employee has been working successfully as a temporary in the position for months and it would be unjust to put someone else in that slot, then it would make little sense to seek resumes from other candidates.

  • If only one person in the company has the technical skills or knowledge required to do the job—in effect, there would be no internal competition for it—it would not make sense to post it. “Everybody knows who will get that job,” Santry says. “So why go through the farce of posting” and interviewing multiple candidates? Sometimes employees dislike a decision to promote a person without posting the job that represents the promotion, he continues, “but they respect it. Employees don’t want the company playing games either.”
  • If an employee has successfully expanded a job’s impact, influence and responsibilities, a promotion without posting would be warranted. When “you have an incumbent in a position who has taken it on his own to upgrade the job and grow it into something more,” says Brooks, “it is fair, reasonable and appropriate to reward the person with higher pay and a different title. Congratulate the person and publicize it as an incentive to others.”
  • Spreading the News

    Once a decision has been made, announcing a promotion is an exercise in diplomacy and careful timing. Although the hiring manager should deliver the news, the HR professional needs to be involved in composing the message and timing its release, says Matthew J. Paese, vice president of executive solutions for Development Dimensions International, a training and selection organization in Pittsburgh. “Keep communications to a minimum,” he adds. “The fewer stages, the less leaking of information there will be.”

    First, make sure the selected individual will take the job. Only then should the manager inform those who were not selected.

    After the promotion has been accepted, Santry continues, “we get back to those who were interviewed and not selected. We don’t tell them who it is, just that they aren’t selected.” Don’t send an e-mail or a form letter, however. A visit or a personal phone call show respect for the other candidates.

    Be tactful in telling candidates that they were not selected. Try to avoid discouraging them—and perhaps causing them to head straight for your competition. Encourage them to continue to grow at your company and be ready when the next promotion opportunity comes along.

    Scott Eblin, a former HR executive and founder of The Eblin Group, a Herndon, Va., firm that provides executive coaching for newly promoted leaders, says that in communicating with those not selected for a particular job, “I always err on the side of ‘What is the dignified approach? Which approach leaves people with as much dignity as possible?’ If you can give somebody a heads-up on a promotion they thought they were a candidate for, that gives them time to gather themselves so they can be gracious” when the promotion is announced.

    At this point, HR needs to consider timing. Key people should be informed in advance, of course, but not so far ahead that word leaks out prior to the official announcement. One to three days’ notice is sufficient. And remind those key people to keep the information confidential until the official announcement. Says Santry: “If we’re going to do a promotion announcement on Friday, we will talk to key constituents on Thursday. The edict is: ‘No surprises.’ ”

    After the stage is set, “the bigger the splash, the better,” Berman says. “If the organization is trying to promote a culture of advancement and opportunity, it’s critically important these occurrences are well-publicized to encourage others.”

    The public announcement may be done in stages—the functional department first and the rest of the company afterward—or all at once.

    HR’s Overall Responsibility

    The HR professional is the navigator of the promotion process: helping employees design their career paths, clarifying managers’ expectations, drawing boundaries for posting and announcing, and charting new career courses for those who aren’t promoted.

    “Many HR people see promotion as their arena,” Gebelein says. “But decisions about talent are made by line leaders and function leaders. The job of HR is to help the leaders make better decisions.

    “HR needs to take the role of linking strategy and talent so the talent can become a strategic competitive advantage.”

    Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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