Treat staff turned down for promotion with indifference and you can risk leaving them feeling vulnerable and unmotivated, as if their career options are irreversibly closing in on them.
Too few companies, says HR services consultants, take sufficient steps to repair fragile egos and the derailed career expectations of unsuccessful applicants.
“Companies that don’t successfully manage this process not only risk losing key talent,” says consultant Jan Alley, “They may also send negative signals to other staff.”
Alley believes unsuccessful applicants should always weigh up their promotion chances in advance, and if they missed out, find out why.
But she says staff shouldn’t have unrealistic promotion expectations if sound HR management practices – including regular performance reviews – are firmly adhered to.
“People are a lot more mature at handling their emotions within a corporate environment these days. Instead of wearing disappointment on their sleeve, they’re likely to close down in a much more subtle way, and the performance impact can be significant.”
To avoid that happening, Air New Zealand, like most large employers, runs de-briefings with staff who have applied for and missed out on internal promotion. The airline’s senior vice-president HR, Carolyn Tremain, says follow-up is critical where promotion into senior positions is capped due to flat management structures.
“With jobs at the senior ranks only coming up every two to three years, being turned down for promotion can send a strong message to staff about their real value to the organisation,” says Tremain.
“That’s why it’s important to deal with the anger and disappointment often associated with that experience through ongoing training and mentoring.”
From Tremain’s experience, management is more likely to promote a person displaying an x-factor, like leadership or strong people skills, when they are having difficulty distinguishing between technical competencies. In fact, she says, in most senior roles, leadership skills are the clincher for getting the final job.
So with the behavioural stuff deciding so many senior promotions these days, she says executives who miss out can find themselves at a crossroads: Do they take being overlooked on the chin, or seek the promotion they’re after elsewhere? She says it’s not unusual in these situations for the airline to offer counselling, in conjunction with ongoing mentoring, to take the employee on a journey of self-discovery.
The decision whether to go or stay can become more sensitive when senior people dip out on promotion over personality or behavioural characteristics, says Tremain. “In many cases, we’ll try to offset the disappointment by changing the scope or context of an executive’s job brief. External training, together with lateral promotion, often through cross-company projects are also a useful way boost an executive’s skills in new areas.”
But Glen Petersen, the HR director of dairy giant Fonterra, says there will invariably be times where it’s prudent for an executive who makes an unsuccessful bid for the top job to leave. For example, when the entire company fell in behind Geoff Dixon as the new king at Qantas following the exit of former CEO James Strong, it made sense for the other CEO aspirant, joint deputy Gary Toomey, to make a hasty exit.
Where appropriate, Fonterra offers professional counselling to help executives work through possible career paths after promotion hopes are dashed. Petersen says what the company needs to find out – and quickly – is simple: What if anything, would make a significant impact within an existing role to compensate for lack of promotion?
“It’s important not to leave the executive at a status quo after the event. The company must find ways to enrich their existing role,” he says.
Companies that invest sufficient time in succession planning, argues Petersen, should be able to promote frustrated executives into more suitable roles as they open up. If they can’t, he says, management shouldn’t be surprised if executives fast-track themselves out of the company.
But instead of leaving in disgust, Sydney-based psychologist David Brown believes being passed up for internal promotion or even being demoted can be a good time for re-appraisal. “I don’t think there’s ever a point in walking out with indignation written in your step – being overlooked can be a good wake-up call,” says Brown. “Most of us are in no position to go around issuing threats. It might be the right time to leave anyway. Some kind of debriefing is a good way to find out what areas you need to work on.”
Hard as it might be to swallow at the time, he says “taking your lumps” by accepting demotion can also pay off. He cites an interesting example: When a senior manager’s job was made redundant following restructuring, the company offered the executive a position he’d previously held on the factory floor.
“Others who had been made similar offers were offended, and told the company to go jump. This man didn’t. He accepted the demotion with good grace, and did a good job as a supervisor again,” says Brown.
Some 18 months later, a new management position became available. He was the logical choice – and had proved his character.
As the choice of who to promote is often regarded as unfair and often highly political, Brown, like Alley, says employers can placate a lot of potential animosity by volunteering honest feedback on performance. He says it’s important to explain why a promotion went elsewhere, especially if it went to someone outside the firm.
“As long as employers provide feedback and the opportunity to develop, staff are usually more willing to accept that they’re still valuable to the organisation,” says Paul Walsh group HR manager with Sky City.
Once the competence review process is in place at Sky City, he says, staff will have no illusions about their short-comings before applying for promotion.