Passed Over for Promotion—Now What?

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. September 30, 2021
Passed Over for Promotion—Now What?

​Promotions can be tricky to manage. They are exhilarating for the person who moves up, but potentially devastating for the person who is passed over. How can you best handle the fallout? What should you avoid doing?

Imagine these scenarios:

Scenario #1. Jane and Jim apply for a promotion in their department. Jane gets it.

Scenario #2. Jane and Jim apply for a promotion in their department. The position is given to an external candidate.

Scenario #3 (contributed by Pamela McGee, SHRM-CP, VP of Human Resources, The Father's Table). Jane and Jim apply for a promotion in their department. The position is given to a new hire who started at the company within last six months.

While these are all common occurrences, they are also breeding grounds for resentment, disengagement and turnover.

In my career, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. Typically, little more is said to the person passed over for the promotion other than "You didn't get it." The event only gets attention when the person subsequently performs poorly and faces disciplinary action, or during that person's exit interview.

Missing out on a promotion doesn't have to mean the employee will strike out or quit. Employers can and should manage this situation in a more effective way. Elsewhere I've written about the law of employee speculation: When employees don't know the facts, they will speculate about what the truth may be. And that speculation is invariably worse than reality.

Tell Employees Why They Were Passed Over

Employees passed over for promotion need to know: a) why, b) that they're still valued, and c) what they can do to improve their chances for future promotion.

"Whenever possible," said Colleen J. McManus, SHRM-SCP, senior HR executive with the state of Arizona, "I encourage hiring authorities to be specific about the qualifications, experience, and/or certification(s) of the selected candidate when promotions or new hires are announced. Often, this information helps less-qualified internal applicants understand why the selection decision was made."

McGee of the Father's Table, a dessert manufacturer in Sanford, Fla., said leaders should ensure their direct reports have been following an individual development plan or having ongoing performance management discussions "with appropriate guidance of their strengths and weaknesses. These types of interactions will provide them with an understanding why they were not prepared for this promotion; thus, they should not be surprised about the new hire with less than six months [experience] being promoted ahead of them."

When applicants are fairly evenly matched in terms of qualifications but one outperforms the other in the interview, the hiring decision-maker could address the selected candidate's strength in the interview process. McManus provided an example: "The announcement of Jane's hire could include something like 'Jane brought work samples to the interview that clearly demonstrated the scope of the larger-scale projects on which she has worked.' If Jim and other internal applicants didn't think to bring work samples or discuss larger-scale projects during their interviews, they might better understand how Jane emerged the stronger candidate."

To manage expectations and avoid disengagement around promotional processes, McManus often meets with the internal applicants she doesn't plan to further consider. "I explain that we received a very highly qualified applicant pool and let them know we are pursuing applicants whose qualifications are a better fit for us at the present time," she noted. "With that said, I tell them that I was excited to learn of their interest in career advancement, and I would still like to meet with them to learn more about their career aspirations within the organization and how I might better support them going forward." 

McManus said everyone to whom she's extended this invitation has accepted it and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be heard. Some have even asked if she would mentor them going forward. "Using this approach," she said, "I have managed their expectations, been transparent around the selection process and my intentions as the hiring authority, shown that I care about them and their careers, and demonstrated a commitment to support their continued growth and development within the organization."

Sometimes, it's helpful to be direct and honest with people you think won't ever be promoted for that type of position. If you know you're never going to hire Jane or Jim into that senior management role, talking with them about their interests and other options may ultimately be the kindest thing you can do. 

McManus once had an internal applicant for a senior HR leadership position on her team. "Michelle" was very knowledgeable, but often very abrasive. McManus regularly received complaints about her, for which Michelle received counseling, training and even some corrective action.

McManus told Michelle that while she had the potential to be successful in a senior HR position, her inconsistent communication skills and lack of professionalism held her back. McManus told Michelle that if she were appointed to a leadership role, these issues, if not addressed, might derail any possible success. Ultimately, Michelle decided to pursue another career in medical billing, which didn't require the level of finesse and diplomacy demanded in a senior HR leadership role. She stayed in contact with McManus and told her later the billing position was a much better fit for her. "I'm glad she came to that realization," McManus said, "for her and for HR."

Conclusion

Often the conversations we don't want to have are the most important to have. Explaining promotion decisions to disappointed candidates falls into this category. Beware the avoidance instinct. The sooner you engage the candidates and share reasons for the decision, the better.

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of Organization Development Network Oregon and was named by Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.

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