It’s no fun to tell employees that they’ve been passed over for a promotion — especially if you value them and their work. What’s the best way to deliver the bad news? What can you say to make sure they don’t lose interest in their jobs or hold grudges against you or the decision makers? Should you offer something else in place of the promotion?
What the Experts Say
News of this kind is “hard to hear, and it’s hard to deliver,” says Joseph Weintraub, a professor at Babson College and the coauthor of The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business. Because the topic is so unpleasant, it’s a “conversation that many managers have a tendency to want to avoid.” And for good reason, says Heidi Grant, author of No One Understands You and What to Do About It and 9 Things Successful People Do Differently. “You’re giving highly emotional feedback, and you worry the other person will feel anxious, dejected, and frustrated. You might also have a very real concern that what you have to say could end up demotivating your employee.” But the interaction can yield positive outcomes if you do it the right way. Here are some tips to help you.
Prepare but don’t procrastinate
First things first, “don’t wing it,” Grant says. Before you talk to your employee, “plan out what you want to say and how you want to say it.” She suggests writing down your thoughts on paper and rehearsing them out loud. “When you’re doling out [negative] feedback, you’re in fight-or-flight mode — you want to get it over with,” she says. “Your brain isn’t working optimally; you become awkward and less attuned to the emotions of others.” Practicing what you plan to say “will help you feel more confident.” But don’t wait too long before delivering the news, Weintraub says. “You don’t want an employee to find out they didn’t get the promotion via someone else’s Facebook announcement,” he says. “If word leaks out, it’s tough to recover. You blow the trust and respect” in the relationship.
When it comes to “explaining how the decision was made,” more information is always better, Grant says. “We assume that other people understand our thoughts and intentions, but that is almost universally untrue,” she adds. You need to describe “the organizational context” and the “factors that went into the hiring decision.” If nothing more, “it creates a sense of procedural justice” so that your employee knows that the process was fair. Of course, this explanation is easier to provide if you’ve been “up front” about what people should expect from the start,” Weintraub says, including how interviews and evaluations will work and how long it might take for a decision to be made.
Getting passed over stings personally and professionally, so as the manager, you need to think about “how to retain your employee — both within the organization and psychologically,” Weintraub says. Be mindful of your report’s self-esteem. He suggests saying something like, “We only considered qualified, competent candidates. We only have one position open, and someone else got it. I want to thank you for applying and going through the process. I also want you to know that you are a valued and important part of this organization.” It’s important to validate the person so that paranoia doesn’t creep in. You don’t want the person wondering, “Is there something they’re trying to tell me?” Grant recommends providing “specific and behavior-based” positive feedback. “Avoid platitudes,” she adds. “People like to know what they’re doing right.”
Talk about development separately
Your employee’s first question is likely to be “Why didn’t I get the job?” “It’s a fair question,” Weintraub says, “and you need to be prepared to respond.” But don’t let the conversation turn into a performance review. “It’s not the time for a development conversation,” he says. “You want to avoid giving the person negative feedback about shortcomings or deficiencies — particularly feedback they’ve never heard before.” If the employee pushes for a response, you might gently indicate that a certain “experience, discipline, or skill set,” was found lacking, then say, “I’d love to continue this conversation further, so let’s set up a time to talk about how best to get you the experience you need,” and be sure to follow through, so it’s clear you’re not blowing the person off.
One of the greatest dangers of delivering this kind of news is softening it with promises you might not be able to keep, Weintraub says. “In your desire to minimize your own discomfort, you might say something like, ‘Next time you’ll get the job.’” But you don’t know what the future holds, and if you promise the next promotion, and it doesn’t pan out, “that will really leave [the employee] disgruntled.” Grant concurs: “It’s human to want to make it up to the person, but you must resist that impulse.” She suggests saying something along the lines of, “I have a lot of confidence that you can get the next promotion if you do…”
Even if your employee responds calmly to the news, “bear in mind that that’s not necessarily their real reaction,” Weintraub says. “Oftentimes when you get bad news — particularly if it’s unexpected — you’re not able to process it in the moment,” he says. “You are in a state of shock or surprise. It may only be later that this person tells a friend or significant other that they didn’t get the job and feel upset.” So, it’s important to continue checking in with an employee who’s been passed over, emphasizing the person’s value and “giving developmental feedback, help, and guidance,” Grant says. “Talk about ways for this person to grow and keep the “focus on the future.”
Allow the person to talk:
Let the employee also express his opinions, suggestions and remarks if any. Even if its criticism, allow it. This is an emotional moment for him and he might talk a little more. Listen compassionately.
Be ready for all types of questions:
The employee will have many questions and he even might be expecting the answers to be in his favour. Listen to his questions attentively and answer them honestly and don’t skip any questions. If you need time to answer any of the questions posed to you, tell them so and get back to them when you have the answer.
Give the process a little time:
At the end of the day, the realisation that they were not up to the mark for the promotion is going to be tough. No matter what you say or offer, the disappointment is going to stay for some time. Don’t think the process is over once you told them. Be patient and let the person overcome the phase. Just be there when you are needed.
Principles to Remember
- Show compassion. Be mindful and respectful of your employee’s self-esteem.
- Praise and validate your employee.
- Discuss your employee’s growth and development plan in a separate meeting.
- Deliver the news in a timely fashion.
- Wing it. Plan what you will say and how you will say it.
- Promise your employee the next promotion. Chances are you can’t offer that assurance.