Crucial Conversations QA

Discussing Employee Promotability

Dear Emily,

I am a human resources manager for a large government agency. I am frequently called upon to respond to employees who are unhappy that they were not selected for a promotion. The non-selected employees complain the selected employees are part of the “in crowd.” Often, simply by the tone of the employees’ complaint, I can imagine how they came across in the interview. Likewise, a review of the employees’ evaluation forms confirms that interpersonal communication and teamwork are not their strong suits. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly negative in their evaluations and there are individual instances of good work cited. Let’s assume there was not illegal discrimination and procedures were followed. How do I respond to these employees? I want to tell them the truth—i.e., you’re a good enough employee, but not worth promoting. It seems that this will either hurt them, anger them, or both. How can I prompt them toward a more realistic assessment of their promotability?

Seeking Realistic Expectations

Dear Seeking,

In good organizations, this kind of conversation happens regularly. An HR manager, like yourself, sits down with an employee and has a direct, candid, and respectful conversation about promotability and career trajectory. This is in fact a classic example of a crucial conversation. The stakes are high for these employees. Promotions and job changes have a huge impact on our engagement at work and our financial ability to create the lives we want for ourselves and our families. Next, there are differing opinions. The employees think they are promotable. You and the promoting managers do not. Finally, strong emotions come into play. You mention hurt and anger. My guess is that there is also fear, resentment, confusion, and disillusionment. And, as I said at first, in good organizations these types of crucial conversations happen regularly between employees and HR managers.

In the very best organizations, this crucial conversation about promotability and career trajectory also happens regularly. It just doesn’t happen between the employee and you, the HR manager. It happens between the employee and his or her manager. So let me suggest that rather than figuring out how to hold this conversation yourself, you spend some time figuring out how to coach these employees to have the conversation with their managers.

Hear Their Meaning

Coaching someone to have a crucial conversation is quite different from simply having a crucial conversation, but there are some similar elements. First, it is important that you give this person the time, space, and safety to share his or her meaning. People have an innate need to be heard, especially when they feel that a wrong has been committed. Before employees will be able to hear your counsel, they need to know that you have heard them. Even though you already know many of the details and it can be tempting to jump in and start working toward a solution, take time to stop and listen. You may hear something new, but that is not really the primary reason for listening. The reason you listen is, first and foremost, to demonstrate to others that you respect them, care about them, and want to help. Listening will do that better than any words you could say.

Focus On What They Really Want

More than likely, when these employees finish sharing the self-justifying details of the wrong committed against them, they will seek your validation. Isn’t this so unfair? Don’t you agree this is discriminatory? Do you know of any valid reason for me not to be promoted?

This is the crucial moment for you, the moment in which you need to transition from a crucial conversation to a coaching conversation. It is so tempting to jump right in with your meaning—sharing your perspective on their performance record, competencies needed for promotion, or on how the decision process unfolds. This is not necessarily a bad approach. As I said at the outset, this is the conversation that happens regularly in good organizations. But in the best organizations, HR managers recognize this crucial moment and choose to coach rather than converse.

Take a moment to focus on what employees really want. Yes, they are asking for validation. But my guess is what they really want is to understand and be empowered to move forward in their career. They want to achieve something they haven’t achieved before. Employees may be frustrated because they don’t know why they are stuck. In the absence of information, they’ve told themselves the worst possible story—the playing field is not level, the deck is stacked against them, and managers are playing favorites.

When employees ask for validation, this is your opportunity to help them start to explore what they really want. Begin by acknowledging their feelings: “I can imagine how frustrating and hurtful it is to not be promoted and not be sure why.” Then offer up a suggestion of what you think they really want and ask for confirmation: “It seems like what you really want is to understand this decision and to progress and grow in your career. Is that right?”

Nine times out of ten, your suggestion will be close but enough off the mark that they will disagree with it. That is okay. Follow up with a broader question about what they do really want. Ask “why questions” to dig deeper and help them explore their own motivations.

The Right Conversation with the Right Person

Once you are able to establish what the employees really want, you can transition to a discussion of what conversation will help them get there. The employees are looking for answers and your job is to help them understand who has those answers. A redirecting statement can be as simple as, “Hmm . . . I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer those questions. It seems like you would find more meaningful answers talking with your manager.”

Most employees will intuitively know that they should be speaking with their manager or other decision-maker about their concerns. So when you suggest this, be prepared for the “yeah, but,” to come right back—e.g., “Yeah, I know I should, but there is no way I could ever have that conversation. After all, she is the one that stabbed me in the back in the first place.”

I love that moment of “yeah, but,” because this is the moment when the teaching really begins. This is the moment when I can offer a solution: “I know it is a really difficult conversation to have, and I think I can share some ideas with you about how you can hold the conversation. We could even practice it together if you would like.” A tentative nod paired with a skeptical look is enough of a go-ahead for me. At this point, you can dig in and help this person learn the following skills: Master My Stories, State My Path, and Make It Safe for the other person. And that should be enough to get the employee started.

All the Best,


Emily Hoffman

Emily has consulted and trained with non profit, start-up ventures, and major national corporations such as Eli Lily and The Chicago Board of Trade. Additionally, Emily has taught finance courses at Brigham Young University and trained corporate clients in Crucial Conversations. read more

7 thoughts on “Discussing Employee Promotability”

  1. Nicely said Emily. How do I as a ‘helper’ get my own emotions and story under control so I don’t add to the problem. This approach helps us avoid the conflagration of two different sets of feelings. My strong emotions as an HR professional about how they might react and my ability to manage it are very different from the ‘strong emotions’ they are bringing to the discussion. If I can’t separate them and shift, it is likely that this individual will “make up a story” that my nervousness and emotions are about them and their situation rather than about me. This will, of course go a long way to confirming their existing story. It might even be worth mentioning your personal concerns to this individual as a way of modeling openness and vulnerability and enrolling their help in separating the two sets of feelings. Now that would be a nice full pool of shared meaning.

  2. The nature of a hierarchy is such that there are never sufficient promotions for everyone. The more you progress, the fewer positions are available. This can create a situation where in the light of increased narcissism among younger people (according to recent research) you may have more and more young people believing that they have been hard done by when they did not get their expected promotion. They belong to a generation where everyone is a winner, and everyone gets a participation medal.

    Personally, I don’t believe it is the job of an HR Manager (particularly in a large government office) to explain to an employee why s/he didn’t get a specific promotion unless the employee is filing a discrimination complaint (which is not the case in this situation). It may be the job of the HR Manager to coach the employee’s manager but I don’t agree that the HR person should be coaching individual employees.

  3. THANK YOU! This came at just the right moment for me and one of my employees. She’s having some difficulties with a supervisor in another department but each time I get a complaint and follow up on it, it appears that there was just a misunderstanding, or sometimes an alternative explanation that is more plausible, not any intentional action on the part of that supervisor. This approach should help me coach my employee on how to approach this person and how to create effective communication with him.

  4. In my experience, “favorites” actually DO often get a position or promotion over others who are as qualified or more qualified. It’s not just a perception, it’s a reality that a crucial conversation will not change.

  5. As a manager who faced many of these situations, I find this guidance spot on and very helpful. Thanks for the great leadership here.

  6. I agree with Phil, nicely said Emily.

    On the favorites side of the question, ….I think sometimes that perception of “favorites” getting promotions over others who may be as or more qualified comes down to what type of personality the hiring manager thinks would best fit in and work well with the team, rather than just showing favoritism. Is it possible that favorites get hired over more qualified people? Yes, but sometimes how someone works with others can override qualifications, …as well as someone more eager to learn and/or easier to train to the position, or….. there are a lot of decisions that go into the hiring process.

    1. I agree with Anthony and yet also feel compelled to add that we all also carry a number of unconscious biases about what kind of people we like, feel comfortable with, think look/act like leaders, etc. So there is a very real possibility that unconscious favoritism is sneaking into our judgment calls about personality and other qualifications decisions.

      Hopefully these decisions are discussed and include at least one person who is very different form ourselves.

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