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

Many of us know how tough it can be to miss out on a promotion—particularly when your colleagues are celebrating their own successes from a recent round of performance reviews. So when you manage a team or an individual for the first time, it can be tough to break the news that they didn’t get the promotion they may have been hoping for. These tips can help to soften the blow—and maintain a healthy relationship with your team members.

Don’t let it wait

While it can be much easier to simply put off the awkward conversation, it’s nearly always a better idea to get it over with sooner rather than later. If you delay for too long, your employee may start hearing news of other promotions—and wondering why he or she has been left out of the announcement. Even when you don’t have good news, keeping your employees in the loop can help to build trust and respect for you as a manager.

That said, don’t go in unprepared. Take some time to structure your thoughts and feedback, as it can be easy to get derailed particularly when someone reacts emotionally to the news.

Be transparent

The more information you can share about how promotions are given, the better, as more transparency into the process can help your employee to at least feel the decision was made in a structured way—and at the end of the day, people want to know that decisions which affect their careers are made fairly. 

If your company has a structured performance review process, you can offer transparency into the decision by highlighting areas of improvement and explaining what the expectation would be for someone who is ready for the promotion. 

Even if promotions aren’t necessarily based on performance reviews, it can be helpful to explain the organizational context that impacts how and when promotions are given. Even if it feels intuitive to you, it may be news to someone less involved in managing others.

Talk development

Many companies will base promotions on successful performance reviews, which makes it possible to soften the bad news of not getting a promotion by focusing on ways your employee can do better in the next round of reviews. Rather than giving a more general review, focus in on the specifics that explain why they weren’t ready for the promotion, and work together to come up with an improvement plan for this (or these) specific area(s).

If the promotion wasn’t announced alongside performance reviews, the conversation may be a good time to check in about specific skills or areas for improvement that you and your employee have already identified. But be careful not to turn the conversation into a negative feedback session, particularly if it’s feedback that he or she hasn’t heard before—that will only increase the sense of unfairness if they feel they were passed over because of a weakness that hadn’t previously been discussed. 

Follow up

It’s important to help your employee envision a path forward, and encourage them to get a promotion down the road rather than risk them becoming demotivated because of the news. 

If you’ve agreed to help him or her work on specific skills, be sure to follow-up on how it’s going: Consider scheduling regular check-ins to deliver feedback on how their work is being received, both by you as well as by others throughout the company. Even if you’re happy with the work being done, following up is important to helping your employee feel you’re invested in their success—and keeping them motivated to get the promotion the next time around.

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