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Practical guide: how to deny an employee a promotion


If you’ve ever been in a position where you had to deny an employee promotion, then you know how uncomfortable the situation can be.

It’s a hard conversation, but there are ways to ease the awkwardness. In fact, the experience may prove to be an opportunity for improved communication and coaching.

With sensitivity on your part – and the creation of a company culture where promotions aren’t the only form of advancement, you might make the circumstances much better.

1. First, ensure you’ve followed the selection process properly.

Your current employees should apply for a job promotion formally and go through interviews just like outside applicants. And the way you evaluate internal and external candidates should be largely identical, ensuring the position goes to the best-qualified person.

Remember: if your employees feel they have been fairly considered for promotions, it will be much easier for you to break the news that you’ve chosen someone else.

Plus, going through the interview process helps internal applicants understand your expectations and the job responsibilities, shifting their focus away from tenure or other reasons why employees may believe they deserve to step up the ladder.

2. Resist the tendency to put off or rush the conversation.

It’s human nature to want to delay an emotionally tough meeting – or to move through one as fast as possible.

But having this type of conversation with an employee either too late or too quickly may be detrimental for several reasons:

  • Employees may quit if they come away feeling disrespected.
  • Employees may become disengaged or poor team players.
  • It may damage team morale, as other employees who also have aspirations of being promoted may be watching how you handle things.

That’s why it’s important to plan a face-to-face meeting with the employee as soon as soon as is reasonably possible. Ideally, as a courtesy, this person will hear from you before news of who’s been hired for the promotion hits the rumor mill.

3. Prepare your talking points in advance.

With any delicate conversation, it’s best to come to the meeting with your talking points ready to share. This helps you communicate effectively and enables you to listen more attentively, too.

Put your thoughts on paper in advance and consider practicing the conversation with one of your own peers or with someone in HR. Role playing with a trusted colleague may help you anticipate and prepare for any pushback.

For example, your employee may insist that he or she is ready for new responsibilities even without previous experience. Do you know how you would respond?

Practicing your reactions (including awareness of your body language) to potentially challenging moments will help you have a better conversation – and, hopefully, a better relationship – with your employee moving forward.

4. Try to see the situation from your employee’s perspective.

When it’s time for your one-on-one meeting with the employee, show as much empathy as possible, taking time to acknowledge his or her disappointment.

Highlight what the employee’s current contributions mean to your team and thank him or her for stepping up to apply. Acknowledge that it took courage to seek the promotion.

Then, be open and honest about why you didn’t select the employee for the job. Give concrete examples to help reduce the emotional response.

For example, is there another career track or advancement opportunity that might make a better goal based on the employee’s skills and experience?

Above all, work toward helping your employees leave this type of conversation feeling confident about their strengths and abilities and secure in their role within your organization.

5. Save development planning for a later conversation.

Your employee may ask you how he or she can be better prepared for future advancement opportunities.

While it’s a good idea to express your willingness to work with the employee, it’s best to schedule a separate meeting to work out the details of a development plan.

This allows the employee time to process being turned down for the promotion while also giving you time to identify available opportunities and the best way forward for the employee.

6. Inform the incoming employee of the situation.

Be sure to let your incoming employee know that there were internal candidates for the position without using their names. This insight helps your new hire show sensitivity to the situation and can improve the team dynamics.

You can also create knowledge sharing opportunities during onboarding to help both new and old employees see the unique strengths each team member brings to the organization.

7. Provide advancement opportunities for all of your employees.

The situation can be difficult, but, again, don’t overlook the opportunity to keep employees engaged.

Continue to personally invest in employees who lacked the skills required for a previous promotion, giving them stretch opportunities.

This helps these individuals stay positive about their potential career growth with your company.

This philosophy is also a critical element in creating a culture where promotions are not the only, nor even the most rewarding form, of advancement.

As a manager, you should aim to provide many ways for your employees to feel engaged in and excited about their work.

You can develop and motivate your staff by:

  • Delegating some of your responsibilities
  • Allowing them to shadow other people
  • Letting them work with a different team
  • Giving them a special project
  • Getting their input in challenging situations
  • Providing training and self-improvement opportunities

But instead of simply giving these tasks out as assignments, plant seeds that help employees to identify their own growth opportunities.

For example, if an employee has shared he or she is uncomfortable when speaking in front of a group, invite this individual to come up with some ways that might help address that fear.

Incorporating a self-discovery or professional development component (e.g., a class, conference or other learning opportunity) may help make these talent-development efforts more meaningful and effective.

Granted, creating relevant growth opportunities requires you to put forth additional creativity and flexibility as a manager.

But there can be a serious payoff for that effort in the form of more versatile employees who are able to contribute more – with or without a formal promotion.

Learn how to keep the peace in your organization with the implementation of clear workplace policies and procedures. Download our free e-book: A practical guide to managing difficult employees.