How to Tell an Employee That They’re Not Ready for a Promotion

How to Tell an Employee That They’re Not Ready for a Promotion

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As a business owner or supervisor, you have hard decisions to make, especially during these pandemic days: 

  • How do you adjust your budget?
  • Do you have to make reductions in force?
  • Do you spend more or less on marketing?
  • Are you keeping your employees engaged?
  • Are you meeting your industry’s compliance standards? 

Another tough one is how to tell an employee that they’re not ready for a promotion. Just like any difficult conversation, there is a tactful and professional way to handle this that could result in a teachable moment. 

Don’t Put it Off

It’s natural to procrastinate something that’s uncomfortable, but we know that the longer we wait to carry it out, the bigger it gets. Breaking the news to an employee that they’ve been passed over for a promotion needs to be addressed sooner than later. Prepare, rehearse what you’ll say, and don’t wait any longer, because you risk having the news leak, which will create more problems. 

Honesty is the Best Policy

The day of the dreaded meeting has arrived. Once you’ve dropped the difficult news, be completely upfront. Explain how your decision was made and the deciding factors. Provide organizational context so that the process feels fair to the employee. 

Allow for a Dialogue

It’s a best practice to make your employees feel like they’ve been heard. As such, they will undoubtedly have questions about why they weren’t promoted, as well as offering examples of achievements that support their request. Be prepared to answer specific questions and provide developmental feedback that lays out a potential path to the promotion they want. 

Show Empathy

Practicing empathy has been a running theme in our blog posts, and being the bearer of disappointing news certainly calls for it.  Joseph Weintraub, a professor at Babson College and the coauthor of The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business, has some sage advice:

“As the manager, you need to think about how to retain your employee — both within the organization and psychologically,” he said in an interview with Harvard Business Review. He also advised messaging like this:

“We only considered qualified, competent candidates. We only have one position open, and someone else got it. I want to thank you for applying and going through the process. I also want you to know that you are a valued and important part of this organization.” 

Check Back In

It’s important to note that if an employee is seeking a promotion that they are likely demonstrating their investment in the organization. While you’ve determined that they’re not ready now, they might be one step closer. We strongly advise following up with them to see how they’re feeling after processing the meeting and to proactively guide them toward that promotion. 

A major caveat is to ensure you’re not overpromising. It’s human nature to want to soften the blow of rejection, but saying that next time they’ll receive the promotion is misleading and could put both of you in bad positions. Imagine saying that, and your employee doesn’t make the necessary strides. You’ll wind up in another meeting delivering the same news. Not good. As long as you show up in the right way, you’ll create the best situation possible out of a challenging time. 

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