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You promoted the wrong employee – now what?


You thought an employee was so great at their job you promoted them into a more prominent role – perhaps even into the ranks of management. But after a while, you have a sinking feeling that you promoted the wrong employee.

What do you do now?

How do you handle this situation for the benefit of your business, without alienating an employee who could still be valuable in a different role?

When you suspect that the employee just isn’t the right fit

For starters, how do you come to the conclusion that you did indeed promote the wrong employee? Indicators will most likely show up within key areas of performance.

The two major components of managerial performance are:

  • Relationships
  • Results

Relationships are how managers deal with other people in their orbit, especially their direct reports. If you promoted the wrong employee, you’ll probably start to hear from others – namely, the people who report directly to that individual – with concerns. These concerns often focus on:

  • Communication style
  • Leadership style
  • Interpersonal problems within the team that are either:
    • Caused by the manager
    • Aren’t being addressed effectively by the manager
  • Behavior that runs counter to the organization’s culture or the standards for the position

As for results, you may start to notice these problems:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Obvious lack of knowledge or skills in a certain area (or many areas)
  • Team performance targets aren’t met
  • Individual performance targets for the role aren’t met
  • Other ways in which the employee is underperforming

Results-oriented problems will likely be noticed quickly up the organizational chain of command, while relationship issues can take longer to surface.

When the issue may not be the employee

Before taking any action with the employee, consider whether their failure to meet expectations is because they’re actually not the best fit for the specific role or there’s a different issue at play in the workplace or promotion process.

For example:

  • Is the work environment or culture creating challenges?
  • Have you given the employee the proper training, resources and support to succeed in their role? Or have you “doomed them from the start?” (Remember, people can get promoted based on their performance as an individual contributor, but management skills and competencies are different – new managers need to be adequately prepared. Don’t assume an employee will be able to step into a new role and perform to standards automatically.)
  • Did you miss something in completing due diligence on the employee?
  • Does the employee understand your expectations clearly? Furthermore, are your expectations, and your timeline for meeting them, reasonable?

Answering these questions will require some honesty and personal evaluation on your part.

If you know an issue is there, this isn’t the end of the road. You can still turn the situation around and set the employee up for success with additional support. This process may vary depending on the circumstances of the role, but in general you should:

  • Engage the employee in conversation to make sure they understand your expectations. Discuss the gap between your expectations and what’s being delivered, and get their take on why this gap exists.
  • Ask the employee what else they need to be effective, such as training in a hard skill or other resources.
  • If many employees serve in the same role (or similar roles), ask their peers about their own promotion experiences to understand if there are any broader, organization-wide issues that impede performance.

Coaching vs. role transition

If the issue at hand isn’t the result of a broader organization-wide issue, you have a critical decision to make about how to proceed:

  • Do you take immediate action to remove the employee from the role to which they were promoted?
  • Or do you try to coach the employee and invest further resources in training and education?

The answer lies in whether the employee is coachable or not.

Hard skills can almost always be addressed through training. But for an employee to be coachable, they must possess certain qualities and characteristics:

Consider how long you estimate it may reasonably take to get the employee up to standards. After all, time is money for any business. Be honest in your analysis of the return on investment for additional training and coaching. Sometimes, it may make more sense and just be easier to simply move the employee into a different role.

It can be hard for any business leader to admit defeat and “give up” on someone who they originally thought held such promise. No one wants to admit they made a mistake in promoting someone.

But don’t fall into the traps of:

  • Clinging to an employee who’s not right for a role. If your instincts tell you that the employee isn’t going to work in that position, act accordingly. The risks of hanging on to the wrong person can be severe, which we’ll discuss below.
  • Covering for an employee or lying to them about their performance because you feel bad for them. That only hurts them in the long run, so be open, honest and direct in performance assessments.

If you decide it’s worth it to coach the employee, don’t take on the responsibility of coaching them all on your own. In fact, you may not be the best person to guide this individual on every skill in which they need to improve – perhaps you even share the same skill deficit.

As you outline a plan to improve the employee’s performance, consider pairing the employee with not just a single mentor, but instead multiple mentors who can address different skills. Having a network of mentors has the added benefit of giving the employee exposure to diverse styles and perspectives.

Business risks of promoting the wrong employee

If it becomes clear that an employee will not work out in a certain role no matter what, it’s imperative that you move them into a position for which they’re better suited as soon as possible. Otherwise, the risks to your business may include:

  • Negative impacts to the employee’s team, including lower morale, productivity and damaged trust
  • Loss of clients, especially if they’re in a client-facing role
  • Exposure to legal liabilities
  • Time and financial resources lost for a role that you then must spend more time and money on to recruit, replace and train
  • Safety issues (in some cases, depending on the job)

Plan of action for moving the employee into a new role

By the time you get to this stage, you should have already engaged with the employee to identify and address performance deficits and evaluate whether additional training can help. The employee should not be caught completely off guard by anything that comes next.

1. Demonstrate compassion, and work to preserve the employee’s morale

Although coming to the decision that you promoted the wrong employee can be painful, understand that it’s likely an even more painful process for that employee. They may feel like they weren’t up to par and “not good enough.” Their feelings of self-esteem and confidence may take a hit.

The last thing you want is for this process to feel punitive to the employee.

Reinforce to the employee the tasks and skills at which they excel and that you see value in. After all, you noticed such great qualities in them originally that you promoted them. What was it in them that made you think they were the right person for a promotion?

Collaborate with the employee to find another position that better suits them. Ask the employee what their interests and goals are. What type of position do they think would be a better fit? Ultimately, this could be a lateral move within the organization, or it could be a demotion.

Remember, not every employee wants to be a manager – and this employee may have discovered this about themselves through this experience.

2. Work through the logistics

Decide how quickly this change will take effect.

You could have the employee continue to work in their current role until you find a replacement, but that could send the wrong message after you’ve informed them that they’re not the right fit. Best practice is to move the employee into a new role as soon as possible and then address the open position.

As you transition this employee into their new role, consider who will take on their current tasks and assignments. Will you do it? Will you divide these responsibilities up among their team? Or will you appoint another person to serve in this role on an interim basis?

For their replacement, will you hire externally or source internally?

This is also a good time to reflect on how the experience will better prepare you for the next person who comes into the role. What lessons did you learn from this process? What steps will you take to ensure the next hire is a good role fit?

3. Communicate with impacted parties

You will need to let the employee’s team, as well as any other colleagues with whom they worked closely, know of the change in roles because it affects them.

Provide a basic explanation for the role change. With a complete lack of information, people will fill the vacuum with their own ideas – and those are usually the worst possible scenarios. This can be highly disruptive to the workplace and a major blow to productivity.

However, don’t let the announcement become awkward or embarrassing for the employee. How can you do this?

  • Keep the information that you provide straightforward. You could say something like:

Employee X is going to pursue new opportunities within the organization, so she will be transitioning into a new role as of this week. Here’s who will be taking over her responsibilities going forward or until we hire a replacement.”

  • Still, be somewhat vague and high level. It’s unnecessary to wade into the details of who initiated the role change. If the employee wants to share anything more specific with their colleagues or team members, that’s their personal decision.
  • Show enthusiasm for the employee by highlighting the positive attributes they brought to the role and the workplace.

It’s a good idea for this meeting to take place in person – or over video for remote work environments – so that employees can hear your tone and see your body language.

If your organization has a culture that prioritizes giving employees the opportunity to shine, and therefore moves them into new roles as it make sense, then other people shouldn’t question the decision or engage in gossip.

Summing it all up

If you’re concerned that you promoted the wrong employee into a certain role, first confirm whether that employee’s perceived failing is because of them alone or because of another workplace factor that you can better control.

  • If the culprit is likely a workplace factor, remedy the situation and offer additional support to the employee in the form of training, mentorship, education or other resources.
  • If the employee just isn’t the right fit, decide whether it’s worth it to invest time and money into coaching, or simply transition the employee into a new role for which they’re better suited.

If you decide to move the employee into a new role, think through the logistics and how to communicate to impacted parties, while maintaining compassion for the employee. Involve them throughout the process of identifying a new role where appropriate.

Although it can be tough to acknowledge a mistake in promoting an employee, it’s often for the best to move the employee into a new role – both for your business and for the individual. And who knows? That employee just might find their perfect fit in the new role and become a highly valuable asset.

For more information on drawing out your employees’ true potential, download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.