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.

Neglect

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?

Bias

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.

Silence

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.

Selflessness

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.

Contradiction

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…

The Two-Way Burning Bridge

Don’t burn your bridges.

Ever been given this advice?  Provided this advice to someone else?   Burnt a bridge or had someone burn the bridge connecting them to you?

Usually we associate this phrase with a volatile action from an employee before or after they leave an employer.  Burning bridges though can be a two-way street, with the more damaging approach often coming not from employees, but rather from managers towards their employees. 

This is particularly the case with employee resignations, where receiving such news can be a genuine test of a manager’s composure.  Some will pass this test, responding in a manner that takes into account the best interests of all parties; whereas others will fail by resorting to a variety of bridge-busting tactics.  These tactics can range from one end of the scale in the form of refusing to ‘accept’ the resignation or ceasing to talk to the employee – through to the more vindictive responses of removing entitlements; or gathering multiple other managers to essentially bully the individual into reversing their decision.

The most extreme response I witnessed though came from a manager who responded to an employee resignation by repeatedly, and aggressively threatening the individual with what was unjustified legal action.  What made the response so baffling was that for months the manager had openly discussed their desire to terminate the individual – so the employee resigning should have been a win-win outcome.  But instead, and ignoring the employee’s considerable contributions to the organization, and their textbook professional resignation, the manager’s ego rendered him unable to accept that any employee had control over the circumstances in which they left the company.

This manager made the mistake of taking the resignation personally rather than professionally.  When this occurs, a manager’s response can become similar to the emotional situation of being dumped by a partner in a personal relationship.  Outbursts will be used such as ‘why are you leaving me?’ ‘You won’t find anything better out there!’  ‘I am the one who developed you!’  It always leaves me bemused when I hear of managers saying this last line.  If you have developed your employee, well, congratulations, it means you were doing your job.  Nothing more.

Bridge

So instead of acting with petulance when an employee resigns, there are a number of steps managers can take to respond in a more constructive, and relationship-conserving manner.

  1. Walk Away – Before you explode at your employee and say things that you shouldn’t say, go for a walk. As managers we regularly tell our employees to walk away before they respond overly emotionally to a difficult situation; yet in the moment of having an employee resign, we ironically often neglect to follow our own advice.  So do whatever you need to do to maintain your composure; consider things from the employee’s perspective; and then give your response – it could save you from reacting in a way that verbally bombs that bridge.
  2. Be Realistic – Were you really expecting your employee to work with you until the end of time, or until you yourself were ready to leave the company?  Your people will likely have different priorities to you, and different options to you; and these priorities and options will lead them to opportunities that whilst for you will sometimes be bewildering, for them will be something that they simply need to do.

I encountered this several years ago when a tremendously talented and mature young chef (Katie) walked into my office with a box of tissues (never a good sign). We had identified Katie as a rising star, and so as she sat there informing me of her resignation, I could feel my stomach dropping at the realization that we were losing a fantastic professional with the priceless ability to make her colleagues walk taller when she was on shift.

Katie explained to me that there were two reasons for her choosing to depart.  Firstly, when she looked at the excessive working hours of the senior chefs, and the lack of a life that they had, she knew that she did not want that for herself. Secondly, she wanted to travel – seriously travel.  Not for a week-long tourist trip to Bali or Thailand, but to drop everything and explore Europe for months, perhaps years.  There was no point in trying to convince her to stay.  The same characteristics that had made her such a wonderful employee, had ensured that she had thoroughly considered what she wanted her future to look like.  All I could do was feel sorry for myself and the company, but at the same time be impressed that she had worked out what she wanted.

Katie was resigning so that she could chase her real ambitions, and I had to be realistic enough to know that nothing we offered her could compete with her own priorities and desires.

  1. Be Appreciative – When receiving a resignation from particularly the employees we want to keep, managers will sometimes protest the decision based on all the training, development, and perhaps even promotions that have been provided to the individual. Such talk gives the impression that the company has given everything to the employee, who in return has not given enough to square the ledger.

Instead of this one-way view, consider the great work that they have done; the extra hours and workload they accepted; the flexibility they demonstrated; and the sacrifices they made for the team.

Then, graciously acknowledge the employee’s efforts both one-on-one, and in front of the entire team so to provide your department with a positive message that communicates that whilst you are not happy that the individual is leaving, you nonetheless appreciate their significant contributions.

  1. Be Honest – When an employee resigns, managers can often resort to making desperate commitments in an attempt to convince them to stay. They will tell the employee that if they stay they will soon be promoted to a desired position; or that they have a development plan ready for them.  In my experience such commitments are too rarely followed through with, and it can crush an employee when they realize that they gave up an opportunity elsewhere because of a dishonest and/or desperate manager.

If you do want your employee to stay, go about it with honesty by telling them what you can actually bring to life; not with unrealistic commitments that will inevitably create future problems, and provide the employee with justifiably negative sentiments towards the company.

  1. Ask Questions – Rather than freaking out when an employee resigns, a more tactful approach is to ask questions that guide the individual to contemplate whether they are prepared for the consequences of their decision. If they are going to another employer ask them about the development prospects there; or if they are resigning without another job ask how they plan on supporting themselves.  Basically ask questions not to attack their decision, but to support them in considering all angles.  Through these questions the employee may actually work out for themselves that leaving is not the right thing to do; or alternatively it can also prove to them, and yourself, that their decision to resign is the correct one.

If the individual is one who I want to stay, then along with asking such questions I will tell them that this is my preference, and that we are a better team with them in it – it is important for their own sense of value that they hear this.  However if the employee has been a nightmare to work with, then better to ask no such questions, just take the resignation letter and hold a private celebration in your head.

  1. Stay Classy – It works for Ron Burgundy, and it works when dealing with resignations.  If you can stay classy even when your employee is handing over their resignation, it allows you to listen to the employee’s perspective; influences you to respond with understanding and reason; and gives you control over any negative emotions that would otherwise hinder your ability to provide constructive guidance.

By handling a potentially difficult resignation with class, you create a positive final impression that can have long-term benefits for your organization.  For if the departing employee goes to work even for a competitor, they will almost certainly develop their skills and knowledge to the point that should they ever come back to your company, they will be of even more value than when they left you.  So that final impression that you created during their resignation, coupled with a positive overall experience with your company, can be enough to make them return in the future.

Of course there will be ill-considered resignations that make several of these suggested steps less relevant.  But in most cases, when your employee resigns it is something that is right for them, and is a decision that they have been considering for weeks, and sometimes months.  Yes, it would be preferred if they were not leaving, and it would certainly make life easier for your team.  However, is their departure going to break your department?  Do you really rely so heavily on this one person?  Or in a round-about way, is it an opportunity to find a great new addition to your team, provide new responsibilities to other team members, and drive your department forward once again?

So be the manager that demonstrates commitment to employees from their first day, all the way through to their final day.  This consistency in attitude can be the difference between having an individual being an ambassador for your company even when they are no longer working for you, and having someone who openly sways potential employees from joining your company.  It can also be the difference between having a wonderful ex-employee returning to your company when the time is right; and having that same individual who because of your bridge-burning reactions, never again sets foot in your organization.