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When Do You Promote An Employee?

Dr. Lee Kang Yam
Chief Learning Curator | Flame Centre

In a recent performance management training, a participant asked, “I have a staff who has demonstrated good performance, should I promote him?”

My take on promotion is this: 1. Promotion is not a reward. 2. Promotion is a recognition of the staff’s ability to perform at the next level. 3. Promote (staff) to success.

Let me explain my thinking.

Firstly, never use promotion as a form of reward.

Never promise staff that they will be promoted if they do good work. The staff may be capable at the current level, but that does not mean that he/she is suitable for the next level job. Frequently, a high performer has accumulated experience and skills to excel at the job at the current level; however, at the next job level, the role may require more complex skills and interactions with other stakeholders; the higher role may also involve supervisory responsibility. When the high performer is not sufficiently prepared for the higher job role, he/she may fail or be unhappy in that role.

In some companies, there are specific promotion criteria, moderation of grades and the availability of positions at the next level that determines eventual promotion.

Some of these promotion criteria can be: 1. Consistent performance for the past few years 2. Ability to demonstrate the competencies and perform at the next level 3. Any competency gaps or career derailers at the current level

Companies can adopt a criterion-based promotion policy for their overall talent management strategy.

Promising promotion based on good performance alone not only sets up the staff for disappointment and may also set up the staff to fail.

Secondly, promotion should be positioned as a recognition of the staff’s ability to perform the job role at the next level.

When supervisors promote a staff, they believe they can successfully assume a higher job role. If a staff is promoted and does poorly, it reflects badly on the judgment of his/her superior.

Instead, supervisors should do their best to ensure the staff is tested, prepared and supported before promotion.

Thirdly, supervisors should promote staff to success.

Before promoting any staff, supervisors should assess the ability of the staff to perform effectively at the next level. Supervisors should give themselves a longer runway to test the staff for higher responsibility and capability by assigning stretch targets or assignments. While the staff may be good at performing at his/her current job scope, observe the staff’s ability to manage more complex situations and people.

Determine the strengths and competencies needed at the next level and assess for competency gaps. Coach, provide feedback and develop the staff to ensure the staff stands the highest chance of success at the next level.

In addition, supervisors should also conduct a ‘promotion conversation’ to understand the needs and wants of their staff to determine the career aspirations of the staff.

  • Ask questions about what staff wants from their career.

  • Help them understand the responsibilities, dynamics and competencies needed for a higher job role.

  • Seek feedback from the team on how they see the staff.

  • Provide a 360 feedback to the staff for him/her to understand their blindspots and career derailers.

Only when supervisors are convinced that the staff is ready for the next level, then they should recommend for promotion.


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