Promoting an Employee Without Upsetting the Team

Give that supervisor job to the best candidate, then take these steps to ensure everyone on your crew is happy with the outcome

Promoting an Employee Without Upsetting the Team

After I graduated college, I got an entry-level job at a manufacturing plant. I lifted and carried heavy things all day. Even though I had worked my way through school at another plant, I knew I had to overcome the “college boy” perception among my co-workers. I wanted to be seen as a good worker. And I wanted to belong.

Six months later, my supervisor called me into his office to tell me I was being promoted to forklift driver. “Thanks,” I said. “But isn’t Lester going to be upset?”

Lester had been a forklift driver for almost two years. He was the most experienced. He was the unofficial leader of the drivers on our shift. And he would definitely be disappointed that this college boy had gotten a job promotion over him.

“Maybe he will,” my supervisor said. “But that’s not your problem. You earned it. And never forget that you’re working for your career.”

He was, of course, right. The best candidate should always be promoted. But that doesn’t mean other people who want the job promotion — and even some who don’t — won’t be miffed. So how can you promote the right person without upsetting the rest of your team? 

1. Share your selection criteria ahead of time.

Maybe experience matters most (even though seniority is a terrible way to select the best candidate). Maybe possessing a specific set of skills is critical. Or maybe you’re looking for certain attributes like work ethic, attention to detail or emotional intelligence. Since you should already know what you’re looking for before you start the promotion process, make sure you communicate those details before any talks occur.

Post the requirements and qualifications. If your utility has relatively few employees, get everyone together for a short meeting to talk about the open role.

By making your promotion criteria common knowledge, you eliminate some of the “I bet she promoted him because they’re buddies” gossip. You give potential candidates the chance to better prepare for their interviews so they can be ready to share their relevant skills, experience and accomplishments. 

And you may find that people step forward who might not have considered themselves potential candidates — until they realized their skill sets match what you’re looking for.

2. Stick to your criteria during the promotion process.

While you can certainly discuss other subjects during your promotion interviews, make sure the bulk of the conversation focuses on how the candidate matches your selection criteria.

Getting a promotion can feel out of reach to many employees. That’s why promotion interviews should not feel like a career version of bait-and-switch. Never leave your candidate puzzled by a disconnect between what you say you’re looking for and what you focus on during the interview.

But just as important, good employees will later reflect on the conversation. They’ll realize where they may currently fall short. Not only will they start to work on those things, they’ll also better understand when they don’t get the promotion. And hey, it may even be a good opportunity to give your employee a raise or a bonus instead of just increased job responsibilities. While they still won’t like not getting promoted, they most likely will understand. But just in case they don’t . . .

3. Give every candidate feedback.

That includes details on how they can be a better candidate next time. While it might seem easy to compare the candidates not selected with the person who was selected, just don’t. Always compare the candidates not selected against the criteria.

And most importantly, don’t try to soften the blow. Be empathetic but direct. You can’t avoid leaving people disappointed, but you can ensure they understand what they need to do to be the best candidate next time. Saying, “You’re great. If you just keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll get there,” is a nice thing to say, but it’s also spectacularly unhelpful.

In short, make sure each person walks out the door knowing what they can do to get promoted next time. And, of course, they will also better understand why they weren’t selected for the role this time, which is especially true when you always . . .

4. Choose the person who wants the job, not the title.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid lingering anger or resentment among the rest of the team is to promote someone who does a great job. That means promoting the person who wants the job, not just the title.

Promote the person who cares nothing about authority and everything about responsibility. Do that, and in time your team will understand why you made the choice you did.

5. Help the person you select succeed.

Going from co-worker to boss is awkward. One day we worked together. The next you work for me, even if I’m younger than you. (No matter how many times I was in that position, it never got easier.)

It’s just as uncomfortable for the people who weren’t selected. They may feel resentment. And they may be less than eager to see the person succeed. That’s where you come in. First, don’t just communicate the decision to the people who vied for the role. Own your decision by communicating that decision to the rest of the team: enthusiastically, proudly and without reserve.

And then own your decision by helping the person you promoted succeed. Create a blueprint for success during those critical first few weeks. Don’t sit back and let them sink or swim. Help them swim. But do so privately. Avoid the temptation to tell your other employees to “give the person a chance.” The best way to be “given a chance” is to earn that chance through performance.

Help the person you promote earn the respect of the rest of your team. Not only will that eliminate lingering resentment, but it will also give that person the standing to guide and mentor other employees.

About the author: Jeff Haden is a contributing editor for and a LinkedIn Influencer. He is the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win


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