HR Headaches Series: How to (Gracefully) Deny a Promotion Request

In this week’s HR Headaches post, we discuss ways to tell your employee they are not getting that promotion.

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Steps for denying a promotion productively and professionally — plus alternative ways to help your employee advance

In a perfect world, every manager would be able to reward their team with the promotion they deserve every year. Unfortunately, you may run into cases with your employees where offering a promotion is just not an option. This might be the case because it’s just not in the budget, or, your employee’s performance missed the mark in what is required for them to move up a level.

While sharing the news of a promotion can be exciting, the conversation can be delicate when we are not delivering good news. If you’re going to deny a promotion to an employee, here are a few tips to help you set the stage for a more productive conversation.

Set a proper time and space

Book a quiet and private meeting with them (virtual for now!) and try to schedule it at the end of the day so that they can take the evening to process.

Once a decision has been made on the status of an employees promotion, make sure to prioritize getting the news to them quickly so as to not make your employee wait. Chances are, they are already quite anxious to hear back and making them wait will signal a lack of care. Do your best not to postpone this meeting, even if other things come up.

Book a quiet and private meeting with them (virtual for now!) and try to schedule it at the end of the day so that they can take the evening to process.

What’s the most painful thing that you do during your HR day?

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Prepare for the worst case

While some people may take the news lightly, others will not. This is why it’s important to anticipate and prepare in the following ways:

Have a script ready. Be prepared for an employee expressing dissatisfaction, getting defensive, or potentially tearing up. When we say be prepared, we mean literally write out what you will say, and practice it (but don’t actually bring this script into the meeting)! This will make it easier to be firm and assertive in your delivery when an employee has an emotional response.

Be transparent: Whenever possible, be as transparent as possible and let the employee know exactly why they did not get the promotion. If it was due to budget, performance, or lack of opportunity within the team, let the employee know so that they have clarity of the situation.

Respond with empathy: Of course, these kinds of conversations are hard to deliver and hard to receive. Have empathy, and use phrases like:

  • “I know this is not what you expected”
  • “I’m sorry that I could not do more for the situation”
  • “Know that I value your work and contributions”

This may help soften the blow and show that you really care and that you understand that this is painful!

Don’t make any promises you can’t keep. While you may feel badly and want to please your employee (especially if they are awesome!), avoid making any promises that are not concrete.

For example, you might be inclined to say “unfortunately we could not do a promotion this quarter, but next quarter is looking good.” Unless you know for sure that you can make this happen, promising something that won’t come to fruiting will guarantee disappointment in your employee.

Find alternative ways to help them advance

While you may not be able to provide a promotion, you can still help your employee improve their performance and advance their career in the following ways:

Providing honest feedback. Feedback, when done constructively, can really help an employee identify blind spots and understand their strengths. Rather than giving brief feedback saying they are doing well in one area, and need improvement in another, give them specific feedback using the Situation-Behavior-Impact model. This will help them develop better insights into their own performance.

Stretch opportunities. While you may not be able to help your employee with a promotion, you can help them develop their skills through stretch opportunities. This will help also keep them engaged as they will be busy with new kinds of work.

Create a career plan. To help them feel like they are still on track with their career, help them create a career plan. This can include things like career goals, skills they want to develop, and finally training and development to help them get there. Check out this guide from Google to help you.

To help them feel like they are still on track with their career, help them create a career plan. This can include things like career goals, skills they want to develop, and finally training and development to help them get there.

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Accept the negative consequences

Unfortunately, there is always a chance that not being able to provide your high performers a promotion will cause them to disengage and jump ship. This is something to watch out for because if one of your employees starts demonstrating disengagement, it can poison the well and spread to your other employees.

People may feel burned in these moments, so be sure to spend extra time recognizing and rewarding your team in as many ways as possible. Create an intentional space to connect and show them you care.

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