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When Mel Gibson played an up-and-coming advertising executive in the 2000 movie “What Women Want,” he demonstrated what can happen when a promised promotion is given to someone else. Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, took his anger out on his new boss by stealing her ideas and presenting them as his own.
Sabotage is a very real risk when an employee is passed over for a promotion they believe has been promised. A more likely outcome, however, is that the employee will simply leave the company, taking their experience and knowledge with them.
But some employees end up staying, and they might even be asked to train the new hire.
That’s what happened to “Jane,” a West Coast university professor and department chair who requested anonymity for this story. Her dean reportedly told her more than once that she was in line for the associate dean position. She was even asked to help write the job description. But in the end the position was announced publicly and another candidate was selected.
The reason given rang false to Jane. “The dean blamed the committee for choosing someone else, claiming it was out of her hands,” she told SHRM Online, “even though she is the boss of everyone on the committee and the chair of the committee.”
Instead of leaving – or letting the new associate dean “fall on her face,” as colleagues suggested she do, Jane stayed and became the new employee’s unofficial supervisor. “For the entire first year she was there, she had me read every memo before she sent it out and asked me about every task she planned.”
Although Jane stayed with the university, she says her level of trust has diminished.
“The big mistake on the part of the dean was that she should have never told me she wanted me to have that job, even if she felt that way,” Jane says. That’s why she offers this advice to managers: “Never promise what you don't have the sole power to deliver.”
“Promotion guidelines are often fluid,” says Bill Baldwin, president, EMD Group, LLC and adjunct executive coach for DBM Northeast Region. The decision to promote might be based on a candidate's abilities, performance evaluations, contributions to the company and potential for growth, he says.
Baldwin says the promotion approval process can be “a rocky road” because an individual’s supervisor is usually not the final decision maker. The supervisor’s recommendation typically will be scrutinized by HR and other senior leaders, he says, to determine the financial and staffing impact of the decision.
Jane’s problems began when the dean advertised the associate dean position publicly instead of just granting her the promotion she thought she had been promised.
Whether to post a position for which a candidate has already been identified is one of the dilemmas HR professionals face.
“HR departments often post an ‘open’ position even though someone has already been named or at least identified for the role,” says Eryn Emerich, a partner of Bell Oaks Executive Search. “Employees participate in the somewhat lengthy process of applying/preparing/interviewing only to hear through the grapevine that it was an exercise in futility.”
Emerich acknowledges an HR department’s desire to be transparent and thus adhere to standard posting procedures, but she suggests tweaking the process to make it more palatable to internal applicants.
“Announce the open position internally first and go through a very intensive internal review and evaluation of ‘bench strength’ before opening the opportunity to outside applicants,” she says. “It sends a message that the company’s first priority is current staff, and it may go a long way toward soothing bruised egos later.”
However, if the company decides to hire from the outside because it does not believe that it has the bench strength, it is important to allow opportunities for the team to become comfortable with this reality, Emerich says. “Include them in the interview process to acquaint them with the candidates—but make it clear they are not decision makers,” she suggests.
Before an organization even gets to the posting process, however, managers should be able to answer two questions, says Diane Tuccito, SPHR, CCP, GRP, director of HR Solutions for Kinetix, a human capital management firm in Atlanta:
“The most common mistake that is made by managers promoting individuals is the reliance on past performance only,” Tuccito says. Just because a person excels at what they are currently doing does not mean they are qualified for another role at a higher level, she says, especially if it requires the use of very different competencies.
In addition, organizations fail to consider the long-term impact of promotions.
“Often companies find themselves top-heavy because they promote associates based on their hard work and value to the organization and not necessarily because the company needs more of these higher level positions,” Tuccito told SHRM Online. “To prevent this, the company needs a talent strategy that is aligned with the business strategy and goals.”
Tuccito says the talent strategy should include a workforce plan that identifies the number of employees needed for each role and level within the organization and the competencies, skills, knowledge, scope of responsibility, authority and accountability for each. The workforce plan, once created, should be adjusted monthly along with the business forecast, she says.
“Companies need to have a process that evaluates competencies and potential in order to ensure the success of their promotion process,” Tuccito says.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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