Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The hidden world of promotions

For whatever reasons, there are a few topics related to recruitment and assessment that just don't get the attention they deserve.  The competency levels of the HR community is one of them, but today I'd like to focus on another: promotions.

Despite the incredible importance the promotion process plays in organizations, it receives scant attention.  It impacts morale, teams, organizational leadership, motivation, engagement, creativity...the list goes on and on.  Yet most of the energy in our area seems to be focused on seeking out new talent.  So let's look at some factors related to promotions that reinforce why this topic deserves our attention.

When hiring for entry-level jobs, everyone in the organization has the same objective: get the best person (i.e., most qualified) on board--barring side factors like people wanting to hire family members.  Supervisors want the highest performer, as do most co-workers, who have no personal career stake in the selection.  I say most because there is the occasional employee who, for fear of being outshined, could conceivably want to hire a poorer performer to keep their reputation up.  But typically they aren't the decision makers.

Promotions, on the other hand, involve a whole host of other factors, which, again, I think deserve more attention:

1) Internal competition.  The sheer fact that individuals within the organization are competing for this position--often against teammates--changes things.  It means there may be harsh feelings within a team, and at the very least it means employees in different areas may get competitive.  Now competition isn't necessarily a bad thing--sometimes it helps people raise their performance to new levels.  But don't underestimate the long-term impact of this mostly silent phenomenon. 

2) Losers.  Because this is a competition, not everyone is going to get the position.  How will you deal with the aftermath of those not chosen remaining in your organization?  How do you communicate the decision and how do you turn the conversation into one focused on future opportunities?  What do you do about an employee who is denied promotions repeatedly?

3) Fallout.  The individuals that aren't selected have friends and connections.  You know that old shampoo commercial where the happy customer told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on?  Same here, except the message may not be positive.

4) Factors other than observable competencies.  Unfortunately we know that factors unrelated to strict job-related competencies enter into the assessment process.  Because promotions involve current employees, the potential for this happening is increased.  Sometimes this means someone's reputation (established through, say, gossip) hinders--or helps--their chances.  Other times it's more political, with selection choices being made to turn in favors (or for the promise of future ones).

5)  Past job performance.  Because these individuals already work for the organization, typically there is a trove of information about them in their current (and maybe past) roles.  This information is undoubtedly important, but how do you combine it with assessment scores?  Equally important, is performance in a previous role necessarily directly related to performance in a future one? A great secretary doth not necessarily a great analyst make (neither should he/she be dismissed).

6) Acting assignments.  During transition periods and before the recruitment is completed, employees are often asked to take on acting roles.  This provides employees with a valuable opportunity to gain experience at a level above their own.  But what happens when the person who is acting in the role doesn't get the job?  On the flip side, is there an assumption that the person on the acting assignment will automatically get the job?

7) New roles.  Often individuals promote from a staff position to a position supervising their former team.  This can be uncomfortable for everyone involved, and if the supervisor doesn't make adjustments to his/her relationships, it will make it difficult to administer discipline, etc.

8) The domino effect.   Filling positions with internal talent almost always results in another vacancy.  How easy or difficult will it be to fill that position?  Is it fair to deny an opportunity to someone based on how valuable they are in their current role?

So what are the implications of all this?

1) Post-selection communication is key.  Think upfront about how you will communicate the choice, the decision factors, and opportunities moving forward.  Don't underestimate the grapevine that exists in the organization and how your every move will be interpreted and communicated.  And be honest with those that don't get the job about what they need to improve upon to be more competitive.

2) All high potentials should have career opportunities.  The promotion process should not be the only opportunity to have this discussion, it should be a regular topic.

3) Reward people for stepping in when needed for acting assignments (assuming they do a good job).  Some temporary assignments offer much in the way of responsibilities but not so much in the way of additional compensation.  However, that person gains valuable experience and gives decision makers a chance to observe what they might be like in that position.  This should be given consideration, otherwise you won't see very many hands go up the next time you ask for volunteers.

4) If you're promoting to a first-line supervisory position, provide these individuals with significant support.  In some ways individuals promoting into supervisory roles need more support than those just joining the organization.  The challenges are more complex, as are the relationships.  Technical skill no longer cuts it and the abilities to coach, motivate, and hold people accountable become key.  These aren't skills most people are born with, so make sure you get them started right.

5) Have a holistic assessment strategy.  I'm likely preaching to the choir, but know ahead of time how you will combine scores on different assessments and how you will factor in knowledge of current job performance.  Do not make the mistake of ignoring what you know about the person, but think critically about transferability of skills.

I'm sure I just skimmed the top of this iceberg, but my goal here is to encourage discussion of this important topic.  Any manager that has been faced with a promotion decision knows (or should know) how complicated they are.  Your employees--and your organization--will benefit from some deep thinking about the issue.