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Communicating Bad News: How to Tell an Employee They Didn’t Get the Promotion

By: Regina Dyerly

Your company is growing, it has a great promotional opportunity that you plan to fill internally, and you have two great candidates. What a great problem to have! Except one of those great candidates, a valued employee, will need to be told that they did not receive the promotion. A promotion they most likely wholeheartedly believe they deserve. Now what? The way you deliver this message is one of the most important aspects of your hiring process and can have a big impact on how your employees view your organization. Below is some practical advice to tackle this very uncomfortable situation.

Have A Consistent and Structured Internal Application and Selection Process

It’s a good idea to have a consistent internal application process. If you do not have one, it’s not too late to start and it's also okay and even recommended, to tweak it over time. First, start with writing a thorough job description. If you have someone currently in the position, don’t forget to ask their opinion or to put together bullets of critical duties. Create an interview guide that is used for all candidates and an interview panel that meets with all candidates. This ensures all candidates are assessed with an equal playing field.

Do Not Delay the Conversation

It’s human nature to procrastinate doing undesirable things and having tough conversations, but this conversation will not get easier with time. Your employee is most likely anxious for information and making them wait is unkind. On the other hand, it is also unfair to the person who was awarded the position. Get the meeting scheduled, give yourself enough time to answer all their questions, and have the meeting in as private of a location as possible. Be prepared for the conversation with talking points to help you stay on track.

Be Transparent

When communicating to the employee why they did not get the position, be as specific as possible about how the decision was made.

When you are vague and do not provide valid reasons why another candidate was selected, there can be a perception of discrimination, which may lead to a formal complaint. Keep in mind that while it’s important to give constructive feedback about a potential lack of qualifications or experience for a promotion, it’s also vital to provide the employee with positive feedback.

Be Empathic

As in most situations, it is helpful to look at a situation from the other person's point of view. Finding out they didn’t make the cut for a new position within your organization can be upsetting for candidates and they will likely feel disappointed. It is important to provide positive feedback during your face-to-face conversation. Focus on what they do well now, and how important they are to the department and company.

Do Not Overpromise

While it may feel like it is a nice gesture or will make the conversation easier by making statements like “You will get the next promotion” or “I know a new position is opening up in a few months that you would be perfect for” this is not a good path to take. Unless you are 100% certain this candidate will get these positions that do not currently exist, do not mention them. Unfulfilled promises will only erode trust and can result in employee turnover.

Do Not Gush Over the Other Candidate

During your conversation, do not talk too much about the person who got the promotion. The employee may ask who received the promotion, so if you must mention the promoted employee, avoid talking about their credentials or suitability for the role. Mention who got the promotion and move back to focusing on the questioning employee. This is their time and spending it discussing another employee will just stir up negative feelings.

Do Not Discuss Development Opportunities

Don’t turn this conversation into a performance review. While it is necessary to give specific feedback about the reasoning behind the decision, you will want to avoid giving the person negative feedback about shortcomings or deficiencies, especially if it is information they have not heard before.

Schedule A Follow-Up Meeting

Schedule a follow-up meeting to take place a few days later, after the employee has had time to process. Block out the time during the initial meeting and let the employee know the follow-up meeting will be covering actionable items. The agenda should be focused on improving their chances in the next round or helping them gain the experience they were lacking. This will ensure they know you are invested in their success and want them to be a part of the team, it’s a win-win.

There’s no doubt, delivering bad news can be daunting and uncomfortable. If done thoughtfully and the proper steps are taken, it can become an opportunity for the employee to grow and a path to build trust.


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