After I graduated college, I got an entry-level job at a manufacturing plant. I lifted and carried heavy things all day, and it was really hard.

Even though I had worked my way through school at another plant, I knew I had to overcome the “college boy” perception among my coworkers.

I wanted to be seen as a good worker. And I wanted to belong.

The job promotion I never wanted

Six months later, my supervisor called me into his office to tell me I was being promoted to forklift driver.

“Thanks,” I said. “But isn’t Lester going to be upset?” Lester had been a forklift driver for almost two years. He was the most experienced. He was the unofficial leader of the drivers on our shift.

And he would definitely be disappointed that this college boy had gotten a job promotion over him.

“Maybe he will,” my supervisor said. “But that’s not your problem. You earned it. And never forget that you’re working for your career.”

He was, of course, right. The best candidate should always be promoted. But that doesn’t mean other people who want the job promotion—and even some who don’t—won’t be pissed.

So how can you promote the right person without upsetting the rest of your team? Here’s how to develop an employee promotion strategy—and communicate that strategy—at your business.

1. Share your selection criteria ahead of time

Maybe experience matters most. (Even though seniority is a terrible way to select the best candidate.) Maybe possessing a specific set of skills is critical. Or maybe you’re looking for certain attributes like work ethic, attention to detail, or emotional intelligence.

Since you should already know what you’re looking for before you start the promotion process, make sure you communicate those details before any talks occur.

  • Post the requirements
  • Post the qualifications
  • If you run a business with relatively few employees, get everyone together for a short meeting to talk about the open role

By making your promotion criteria common knowledge, you eliminate some of the “I bet she promoted him because they’re buddies” gossip. You give potential candidates the chance to better prepare for their interviews so they can be ready to share their relevant skills, experience, and accomplishments.

And you may find that people step forward who might not have considered themselves potential candidates—until they realized their skill sets match what you’re looking for.

2. Stick to your criteria during the promotion process

While you can certainly discuss other subjects during your promotion interviews, make sure the bulk of the conversation focuses on how the candidate matches up to your selection criteria. That’s where the first step really comes in handy.

  • If you need someone who can hit sales numbers, focus on how well they’ve hit sales numbers
  • If you need a manager, talk about how well they’ve performed as a formal or informal leader
  • If you need a programmer, talk about how many apps they’ve developed, programs they’ve debugged, and databases they’ve installed

Getting a promotion can feel out of reach to many employees. That’s why promotion interviews should never feel like a career version of bait-and-switch. Never leave your candidate puzzled by a disconnect between what you said you’re looking for and what you focus on during the interview.

But just as importantly, good employees will later reflect on the conversation. They’ll realize where they may currently fall short.

Not only will they start to work on those things, they’ll also better understand when they don’t get the promotion. And hey, it may even be a good opportunity to give your employee a raise or a bonus, instead of just increased job responsibilities.

While they still won’t like not getting promoted, they most likely will understand.

But just in case they don’t…

3. Give every candidate feedback—including details on how they can be a better candidate next time

While it might seem easy to compare the candidates not selected with the person who was selected, just don’t.

Always compare the candidates not selected against the criteria.

And most importantly, don’t try to soften the blow. Be empathetic but direct. You can’t avoid leaving people disappointed, but you can ensure that they understand what they need to do to be the best candidate next time.

Saying, “You’re great. If you just keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll get there,” is a nice thing to say… but it’s also spectacularly unhelpful.

If you want to say something positive, model what was once said to me when I wasn’t chosen for a manager opening:  

“You’re doing a great job, and you’re definitely on track. But we need to see that you can effectively lead teams that function outside of your area of expertise. Here’s how we can give you that opportunity…”

In short, make sure each person walks out the door knowing what they can do to get promoted next time.

And of course, they will also better understand why they weren’t selected for the role this time.

Which is especially true when you always…

4. Choose the person who wants the job, not the title

Ultimately, the best way to avoid lingering anger or resentment among the rest of the team is to promote someone who does a great job. That means promoting the person who wants the job, not just the title.

So if you need a Director of Sales, promote the person driven to excel: To create better sales strategies, to find new prospects, to open new channels. And most importantly, the person who can help the people on their team sell more.

Promote the person who cares nothing about authority and everything about responsibility.

Do that, and in time your team will understand why you made the choice you did.

5. Most importantly, help the person you select succeed

Going from coworker to boss is awkward. One day we worked together. The next you work for me, even if I’m younger than you. (No matter how many times I was in that position, it never got easier.)

It’s just as uncomfortable for the people who weren’t selected. They may feel resentment. They may feel bitter. And they may be less than eager to see the person succeed.

That’s where you come in. First, don’t just communicate the decision to the people who vied for the role. Own your decision by communicating that decision to the rest of the team: Enthusiastically, proudly, and without reserve.

Your promotion announcement should be justified and celebratory.

And then own your decision by helping the person you promoted succeed. Create a blueprint for success during those critical first few weeks.

Don’t sit back and let them sink or swim. Help them swim.

But do so privately. Avoid the temptation to tell your other employees to “give the person a chance.” The best way to be “given a chance” is to earn that chance through performance.

Help the person you promote earn the respect of the rest of your team. Not only will that eliminate lingering resentment, but it will also give that person the standing to guide and mentor other employees.

That is the kind of employee you want to promote—and that’s the kind of culture you want to build.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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