The Seven Deadly Sins…of Promoting Employees

How many times have you looked at a manager within your own organization and wondered ‘how the hell did they did they get into that position?’

Notwithstanding that ownership for performance lies primarily with the individual themselves, the answer to this question can frequently be found in the original decision made to promote the employee.   It is during this decision-making process that human resources and senior managers making the final selection are susceptible to the seven deadly sins – not the traditional sins mind you, but a special set of sins, reserved purely for promotions.

Referring to an error in judgement when promoting an employee as a ‘sin’ may sound deadly-sinslike an extreme proposition.  However, the person that is today selected to be promoted may stay in a leadership position for years, even decades; they may be transferred around the world; be moved into increasingly more senior positions; and effect not only the direction of the business, but also the careers of hundreds of employees. Consequently, the importance of that single promotion choice requires decision makers to be a combination of objective and visionary – and free of the following sins.


Performance; individual character; and suitability for the available position.

When a manager chooses to promote an employee despite of significant deficiencies in any, or all of these three categories, they risk neglecting their responsibilities, their team, and their organization.

As an example, I have an ex-colleague who whilst a good person, his performance as a junior manager would be a 4 out of 10, maybe a 5.  This rating is due to the constant personal drama that he brings to the workplace; an inability to develop team members; and a low level of displayed dedication and enjoyment in his actual work.

He is also about to be promoted to a manager position.

With such a negligent decision, nobody wins.  Not the staff, who will have to follow the directions of a lowly skilled manager; not the organization who have given greater responsibilities to the wrong person; and not the soon-to-be promoted individual who will likely lose a key motivation to make required professional improvements.  After all, if they are rewarded with career advancement despite of average performances and minimal managerial suitability, where will their intrinsic motivation to become a better manager come from?


A managers’ biases are one of the most common causes of employees being promoted into positions that they are ill-equipped for.  Consciously or subconsciously, many managers will have their decisions influenced by biases including their personal views towards an employee; skin colour; gender; religion; caste; and nationality.

These biases become particularly evident in locations such as Dubai, where the high percentage of expatriates leads to there being a greater range of demographic differences.  In such locations there is a greater temptation for some managers to form, and protect their cliques.  Often referred to as ‘mafias,’ these cliques can be Egyptian, Australian, Indian, Caucasian – almost anything.  But whatever the demographic, for those outside of these cliques it can make the chances of being promoted dispiritingly low – particularly beyond supervisory/junior management positions.

Now just because a promoted individual has demographic similarities to the decision makers, it does not automatically make them the wrong choice.  I would much prefer the employee best suited for the position be promoted, rather than chasing demographic balance for the sake of having balance.  Nevertheless, managers and entire management teams do need to be conscious of the demographic mix within their leadership groups; be aware of their own individual and collective biases; and to guard closely against having these biases negatively influence the decisions that they take.


Joining the list of promotional sins is when managers have either doubts or support for an employee being considered for promotion, but choose to say nothing.

UnknownThis silence can be caused by many factors, including apathy and intimidation.  But regardless of the reason, to sit back and say nothing when promotions are being discussed is a managerial failure.   By keeping silent whilst an individual is promoted to a position that they are ill-equipped to succeed in, a manager is essentially complicit in a decision that places employees and the business at heightened risk of future negative consequences.

Of course, just providing an opinion does not guarantee that a better decision will be taken, and can also lead to some uncomfortable discussions between managers.  But progressive management groups do not shy away from such discomforts, knowing that open discussions are necessary to create an environment of transparency and accountability for the decisions that are taken.


That’s right, selfless, and not selfish.  This sin is committed when managers fail to consider how the decision will impact their own workload.   They will think about both the business and the team, but do not consider if the candidate is actually going to be of suitable support for themselves.

Before promoting someone within their own team, a manager can avoid this sin by considering each candidate with questions such as:

  • Do they have the capacity to take some of my existing workload off my shoulders?’
  • Will their performance allow me to focus on bigger responsibilities?
  • Will they be independent enough to notrequire excessive attention? Or will I need to constantly manage the way that they manage themselves, the employees, and the business?

By not asking and answering such questions, a manager can unwittingly sacrifice themselves by promoting someone who rather than adding to their support structure, instead adds to their workload.  The promoted employee gains the new job title and increased entitlements, and the manager is left with increased headaches – with no extra benefits.

Longevity Lover

Seeing an employee receive a promotion after many years of service can be a terrific outcome – loyalty of course is usually a positive trait.  But longevity on its own is a sinful reason to promote an employee because if the individual is not suitable for the role, not only do they now have greater responsibility and influence, but their very longevity can result in the organization being stuck with an underperforming manager for years…and years.

This is not to disparage length of service, however having experience does not automatically translate into high levels of performance.  Indeed, on occasions this gained experience is actually the result of an employee wallowing in their own comfort zone for an extended period of time.  When an employee is promoted despite being in such a zone, instead of getting a motivated leader capable of driving their Department forward, businesses may well be stuck with a complacent manager whose best performances were delivered long ago.

The hidden impact of promoting employees based on longevity, is that it can put the thought into employee’s heads that rather than performance and suitability, the key to moving up is just to hang around long enough.  When this mentality develops, an organization can be faced with an increasing number of employees who stay in their position not because they are loyal and high-performing individuals, but because they believe they will eventually be rewarded with promotion.

Tunnel Vision

This sin refers to when managers underestimate, or entirely overlook the potential for the quieter members of their team to gain career progression.

In every business there are a number of employees who are skilled at gaining constant attention from human resources and senior managers.  Sometimes it is because they have a natural charm about them; sometimes it is because they are outstanding performers; and sometimes it is because, well, they bring the boss a coffee each day, and the boss kind of likes that.

But regardless of the reasons for their higher profile, they are not the only employees in the team who should be considered for promotion.  Yes, these employees are likely to express their career ambitions more readily (sometimes a little too readily), but often the best choice is the less obvious employee – the one who makes no fuss, asks for no attention, and just gets on with getting the job done.

So be the manager that has 360 vision of their team, and notice the capabilities of all your employees – the obvious ones, and the quieter, perhaps more humble individuals.


This final sin is where the stated values of a business are contradicted by the promotion of an individual whose behaviours repeatedly go against these same principles.  An example of this would be if honesty is a value of an organization, and an employee proceeds to receive a promotion despite consistently acting in a way that goes against the said value.

For human resources and senior managers, the process of deciding who to promote should include a component of holding each candidate up to the mirror of their company’s values.  If the individual does not reflect these values in their current role, but is nonetheless moved into a more senior position, then the decision makers have essentially undermined the desired pillars of their business.

Additionally, as with some of the previous sins, the act of contradiction sets a dangerously low bar for other employees to follow.  If people can progress within an organization despite working against the values, why would other employees not follow their example?

By avoiding the seven deadly sins when deciding which employees they promote to managerial positions, leaders can position themselves to significantly benefit their company.  But commit any one of them, and they risk burdening their organization with a manager whose responsibilities and influence far outweigh their capabilities.  If this unsuitable manager proceeds to stay with the organization for a long period of time, or worse, continue to rise up the company ladder, it can be enough to send the original decision maker to purgatory…


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