Making 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).
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: