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Executive Corner – It’s Not Just Business

Michael Clegg | 07/26/2023

We all know that not everyone who applies for the job ends up getting the job.

You know it, and your employees know it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sting a little.

Business is business, right?

Well, it’s not just business in an environment where psychological safety and employee well-being are valued.

You saw it coming when the spot opened, but now it’s time to break the news to the runners-up. Not only do you have to tell them they were denied, but you have to do it in such a way keep your employees engaged and motivated.

For some, getting passed up for a promotion may make them feel like they’ve hit a dead end with the organization. 

That being said, it is important to keep a certain standard of professionalism when it comes to breaking the news. Handling such situations with sensitivity and respect is crucial to maintaining a positive work environment and preserving relationships within the organization.

Here are some effective strategies to help you get through it while maintaining a psychologically safe environment.

Set Clear Expectations from the Beginning:

Transparency and clear communication are key when it comes to promotions. From the outset, ensure that employees understand the selection process and the criteria against which they will be evaluated. By setting clear expectations, you establish a foundation of fairness, enabling candidates to better gauge their chances of success.

  • Clearly define the skills, qualifications, and competencies required for the promotion to ensure that all candidates understand the expectations and can assess their own suitability.
  • Explain the assessment methods that will be used during the selection process, including interviews, performance evaluations, or specific projects. By being transparent, candidates can focus their efforts accordingly.
  • Set clear timelines for the promotion process, including application deadlines, interview dates, and the announcement of the final decision. This prevents ambiguity and allows candidates to plan accordingly.
  • Don’t get their hopes up! Choose your words carefully when praising your employees and DO NOT encourage them to apply for a promotion if you aren’t guaranteeing them the role. I’ve seen this too often lately. You think you’re just being encouraging and promoting growth in your organization, but your employees hear it differently—they hear a promise that you can’t keep.

Provide Constructive Feedback:

When turning down an internal candidate, it’s essential to offer constructive feedback that highlights areas for improvement. Schedule a meeting to discuss the decision in person, allowing the candidate to ask questions and seek clarification. Emphasize their strengths and acknowledge their efforts while addressing any specific areas where they fell short. Remember, the goal is to help them grow and develop professionally.

  • Use concrete examples to illustrate both strengths and areas for improvement. Avoid generalizations and provide specific instances where the candidate excelled or fell short.
  • Provide suggestions for professional development initiatives that can help the candidate enhance their skills. This might include training programs, workshops, or mentoring relationships.
  • Encourage the candidate to view your feedback as an opportunity for growth rather than a personal setback. Foster a positive and supportive environment that promotes continuous improvement.

Be Specific and Objective:

Avoid vague or general statements when providing feedback. Instead, focus on specific examples and objective criteria that were considered during the selection process. By doing so, you ensure that the candidate understands the rationale behind the decision and can reflect upon their performance with clarity. Offer specific examples of how other candidates may have excelled in certain areas, highlighting the factors that contributed to their selection.

  • Support your decision by citing specific instances or projects where other candidates excelled. Make sure you clearly communicate with your runners-up so they understand the evaluation process was fair and impartial.
  • Remind the candidate of the predetermined selection criteria, emphasizing how these were applied consistently throughout the process. This helps them understand the rationale behind the decision.
  • Discuss how the successful candidate demonstrated specific competencies that were critical for the role. Frame the decision in terms of alignment with organizational needs and objectives.

Encourage Continued Growth:

While declining a promotion, encourage the candidate to continue pursuing growth opportunities within the organization. Suggest specific areas where they can focus their efforts to enhance their skills, knowledge, or experience. Provide guidance on additional training programs, workshops, or mentorship opportunities that can help them strengthen their candidacy for future promotions. Reinforce the notion that their current setback should not discourage their long-term career aspirations.

  • Highlight specific areas where the candidate can improve their skills or knowledge to enhance their candidacy for future opportunities.
  • Suggest training programs, workshops, or certifications that align with their professional goals. If you don’t have any, maybe it’s time you create your own training sessions.
  • Connect the candidate with a mentor or coworker who can provide guidance, support, and insights to help them navigate their career progression within the organization.
  • Most importantly, commit to being their coach, not just their boss. Set some of your own time aside to keep them on track with their own professional goals.

Maintain Confidentiality:

Respect the privacy and confidentiality of the decision-making process. Ensure that sensitive information regarding the selection process or the performance of other candidates remains confidential. By doing so, you foster trust and confidence in the organization’s promotion procedures.

  • Ensure all involved parties understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality and the potential consequences of breaching it.
  • Store and transmit sensitive promotion-related information securely, such as interview notes or performance evaluations, to maintain trust and integrity.
  • Avoid discussing specific details of the selection process with individuals who are not directly involved. This builds confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the process.

Offer Alternative Support:

Sometimes, an internal candidate may be disappointed by the decision. In such cases, offer support to help them navigate their emotions and regain their motivation. Suggest opportunities for professional development or lateral moves within the organization that align with their career goals. Demonstrating your commitment to their growth can go a long way in maintaining their engagement and loyalty.

  • Identify opportunities for the candidate to gain valuable experience and develop new skills through lateral moves within the organization.
  • Inform the candidate about mentoring initiatives, coaching programs, or internal projects where they can enhance their skill set and expand their network.
  • Encourage open communication and create an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable discussing their career aspirations and seeking guidance.

Turning down an internal candidate for a promotion is undoubtedly a challenging task. However, by approaching the situation with empathy, clarity, and professionalism, you can minimize potential negative impacts and preserve the individual’s confidence and commitment to the organization. In the process, encouraging clear communication and employee growth and development fosters a psychologically safe environment.

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