Q&A: How do you prepare for a conversation when someone isn’t ready for a promotion?

Lora Patterson, HR Advisor at Zenefits
May 4, 2021

How should you prepare for a conversation sharing that someone has been passed over for a promotion? On this episode of POPS!, Zenefits HR Advisor Lora Patterson shares tips on handling a tricky conversation with an employee who isn’t ready for a promotion with intentionality, transparency, and empathy.  In this Q&A, you’ll hear:  [00:35-01:21] Tips […]

How should you prepare for a conversation sharing that someone has been passed over for a promotion?

On this episode of POPS!, Zenefits HR Advisor Lora Patterson shares tips on handling a tricky conversation with an employee who isn’t ready for a promotion with intentionality, transparency, and empathy. 

In this Q&A, you’ll hear: 

  • [00:35-01:21] Tips for setting the stage for a productive promotions conversation
  • [01:02-02:03] Pick a time and place to share the news with the other applicants 
  • [02:06-03:27] Be as transparent—and empathetic—as you can
  • [03:28-04:08 ] Don’t make promises you can’t keep
  • [04:08-05:22 ] Go over alternative ways you can help them in their career
  • [05:23-06:18] Create a career path
  • [06:19-06:52] How to prevent someone from leaving when they don’t get a promotion

After you listen:

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POPS Star Bio

Lora Patterson gets small business. In fact, she grew up helping out at her family’s two small businesses: cleaning cars at their auto dealership and working on the farm, which her parents saw as a good source of exercise and stress relief. Today, her role at Zenefits is also about helping small businesses strike a balance between building a foundation for People Operations and ensure regulatory compliance to fielding an array of questions about emerging—and often urgent—issues. When she’s not at work, Lora is a bibliophile with a gorgeous color-coded wall of books to prove it. She’s also an ardent traveler.


Lora: Handling a tricky conversation when someone is not ready for a promotion. 

Didi: Welcome to POP’s, the show that shows you how to shift from human resources paperwork to people operations for the new world of work. How? By answering one question at a time.

Today, to help us answer your question. Here’s Laura Patterson, HR Advisor at Zenefits. 

Lora: Working in HR, or even as a manager, you want to see your employees grow and thrive at your company. That being said, you can’t always guarantee that everyone will get that opportunity to move up to their desired role. This could be due to budget restraints, or even their own performance, but either way, the question becomes how do you handle breaking the news to your employee that they didn’t get that promotion.

So today, I want to share a few tips to help you set the stage for a more productive conversation. The first thing you’re going to want to do when you pick who will get promoted is picking a time and place to let the other applicants know. Do your best not to postpone this meeting as your applicants will be anxious to hear back about the news.

We’ve all been in that position where you’ve applied for something that you’re really excited about and then there’s a delay in hearing back. I would suggest booking a quiet and private meeting. Once the meeting is set, I would suggest preparing for it, and I would suggest preparing for the worst case scenario.

And one way you can do this is having a script ready. So, you’re going to want to be prepared for an employee to express dissatisfaction. They might be defensive and, you know, they could potentially tear up. This is why writing out a script beforehand can help you with your delivery with an employee who may have an emotional response.

Now, I’m not saying bring a script to the meeting and sit there and read through it, but instead practice out what you want to say. So you feel comfortable and confident no matter what happens in that meeting. Now another thing to think about in that meeting is be as transparent as you possibly can. Let the employee know why they didn’t get that position.

Was it due to a budget restraint? Was it due to performance? Maybe there’s, you know, a lack of opportunities right now, and this position was filled by somebody else. But once there’s another position, they’re going to be able to apply and possibly get that. No matter what it is, I would be clear because you want them to feel like they understand what happened with the situation and they know what they need to do moving forward. Something else to consider is you’re going to want to respond with empathy. Not only is this a difficult conversation for you to have and facilitate, but this is a really hard thing for someone to hear.

If they’ve wanted this position for a long time and put a lot of effort into this, it’s going to be very hard for them to hear that somebody else was more qualified than they were. So in the meeting, I would try to use phrases to let them know, you know, “I know this isn’t what you expected.” Maybe “I’m sorry, I couldn’t have done more for the situation.”

And I also think it’s important to have a phrase that lets them know that you value their work and their contributions to the team and this decision doesn’t reflect negatively on them. Now, these types of phrases can help soften that blow and let them know that, you know, you still value them, you still want them to move up, and you’re still here for them.

Now, a part of this conversation is, do not make promises you can’t keep. I know we all go into that mode of “I’m so sorry this happened, but don’t worry. I’m going to fix it.” I would tell yourself to, to restrain that bit. Don’t tell them something that you cannot guarantee. If you can’t guarantee that they’re going to be promoted in the next month or the next quarter, then don’t tell them that. Making that type of a promise and then not being able to deliver, that’s going to not only affect the employee’s trust in you, but in the company overall. You know, they’re going to end up feeling like they’re being strung along and they’re not appreciated. Now, what can you actually do? That’s what I would focus on. What do you have power over and how can you really help out this employee? – which introduces me to the next tip. Go over alternative ways you can help them with their career. I would give them very honest feedback and help them identify those blind spots and understand their strengths. So this is the time to be as specific as possible, really discuss exactly what they’re doing well and what needs to be improved on. Let’s say your employee really wants to be a manager, but they’ve never been a team lead.

They’ve never supervised anybody and they’re really lacking in that skillset. So this is the time to say, you know what? You have to have some more training behind it. Maybe the company offers a management course that they can participate in. Going over that kind of blind spot or lack of skillset is going to then allow you to go over the solution.

It’s also a way of you letting them know you haven’t disqualified them from ever getting that role, but instead you’re letting them know that now is the time to take a step back and prepare. If this is still the objective, if that promotion is still something they want, then these are the steps they’re going to need to take.

Now, the next thing I would go over is create a career path. I wouldn’t necessarily just create one career path. I think a lot of times employees can get tunnel vision on certain things where they think, you know, I like my team or my department, and this is where I want to stay and I want to move up.

Now that may be a viable option. You could go over ways that you can make that happen, but I would also discuss other departments, other opportunities. I would help them expand their views so they can see that there are many opportunities within this company where they can grow and you can help them do that, whether it’s, you know, introducing them to other teams or getting them in on other team meetings.

These are small ways for you to show them that there are other things for them to consider at this time and they shouldn’t feel so boxed in or even hopeless when a promotion may be taken away. Now, the last thing to know is you’re always going to have employees that decide to leave because they weren’t promoted.

One thing you can do to help prevent that is really spend some extra time with those employees and recognize the effort they’re putting into your team. Show them how they really are contributing to the overall goals and that you do appreciate the work that they put in. Now, while you cannot make everyone happy, especially in these promotion scenarios, these tips can help your employees still feel valued and motivated. 

Didi: Do you have a question for our experts?

You can always email me at [email protected] or head on over to  zenefits.com/pops-podcast for more insights on content for this show and our others. Thanks for listening.


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