What Happens When You Promote and It Doesn’t Work?

What do you do when you promote someone in your organization and it just doesn’t work out?

I’m not talking about someone who simply struggles a bit to adjust to a new position, but rather, someone who gets promoted only to then show everyone that they are absolutely not the right person for the job

The New York TimesYou’re the Boss blog recently tackled this question, and it is a good one because it’s a common situation that lots of managers struggle with.

3 options when a promotion goes bad

A reader of You’re the Boss put it this way:

What do you do when someone is high-performing happy in one area of the company and wants to do more, wants to learn more, and wants more responsibility, but then struggles in the new role? The way I see it, I have three options:

  1. If we keep them in that new spot, we have suddenly shifted from a high performance HR into a phony happy HR place.
  2. If we fire them, we send out a message contrary to “work hard and you’ll be rewarded.”
  3. If we return them to their original position, we risk turning a formerly high-performance happy employee into an unhappy employee.

Which option would you suggest?”

This is a great question, and the reader was sharp enough to quickly come to the three basic options available when this kind of situation presents itself.

Is moving them back to their old job best?

Here’s the answer the blog came back with, from one of the small business owners who authors You’re the Boss:

My response was that choosing option No. 1 would turn the employee into a loser. And option No. 2 would turn the company into a loser. I think option No. 3 is the best choice — but don’t forget this hard-knocks reality: I don’t know of a lot of examples in the real world of fast growth where going back ends well.

I would suggest giving the employee an opportunity to go back and perform and be high-performance happy again. But don’t try to overmanage the situation. No big announcements to the company, no welcome back parties to the old job, and let the person keep the raise that came with the new position. Explain that the success of the move is entirely up to the employee. If the person goes back and mopes and complains, you’ll work out an exit package. Treat the person like a leader — not like a loser who needs pity. The chief executive sets the message: We need winners in every role.”

What I find interesting about this answer is that it is right on the money in its very pragmatic, common sense advice, but absolutely misses the boat when it comes to what I have observed in the workplace.

As much as Option No. 3 IS the best choice, my experience is that most organizations don’t do that, instead going with option No. 2 (get rid of the person), or sticking with option No. 1 that eventually turns into No. 2 (keep the promoted person in the new spot until they succeed, or, fail enough times to make you revert to option No. 2).

What I’ve seen organizations do

I’ve rarely seen organizations choose to return someone who is not working out in their new position to their original  job. Some of that is pragmatic — the former job has someone else in it now and you don’t want to punish them —  but more often, it is not done because it makes everyone — the returning employee, the manager, and the organization — feel like a failure. And, no one does very well when they feel like that.

A few years ago, I worked at a media company that owned a lot of newspapers, and top editors were always getting promoted and moved here and there. Invariably, some of these promoted editors stumbled in their new role as they tried to adjust. When this happened, the company was pretty decisive (some might say brutal) in getting rid of the stumbling editor.

I groused about this one time to a guy I respected who had been a top editor with this company for years before leaving for greener pastures.

Why, I wondered, was the organization so cavalier with people’s careers? Why did people who had succeeded for many years in all sorts of different positions get canned when they had one little stumble?  Didn’t they still have value? Didn’t the organization have a lot invested in them? And, why didn’t long-time successful performers, at least, get three strikes?

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Are we even less tolerant in today’s workplace?

His answer sticks with me to this day.

“John,” he said, “There’s no such thing as three strikes. People here today don’t get even one strike. There used to be a time when top management took care  of people who had been long-time successful performers, and they found them something if someone who was promoted struggled, but that time is gone. Now, you get one chance and only one chance. If you don’t succeed, and succeed quickly, you get dumped and they find someone else instead.

This was tough to hear, but it made me wonder: what kind of company summarily tosses people with a long and successful track record just because they have a little stumble?

I wish I had an answer to that but I don’t. And to reinforce my confusion, this company has gotten even more arbitrary and capricious with its people in the years since I left.

But, maybe there is hope put there. Maybe this advice in The Times’ You’re the Boss blog just shows how far we’ve come and how much better organizations are in managing their talent and recognizing that yes, the path isn’t always going up and that people aren’t always perfect.

I hope that’s the case, but I fear it’s not, because everything I see and hear from today’s talent managers tells me that, if anything, we are even less tolerant of people who get promoted and struggle than we were when I groused about it so many years ago.

Right or wrong, that’s one of the trends I see in today’s workplace. Here’s hoping you see it differently. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “What Happens When You Promote and It Doesn’t Work?

  1. Regarding UPS dropping coverage of spouses — this is only for spouses who can get coverage from another source. This should be the rule everywhere. There are lots of spouses that look at the coverage their own company offers against the coverage their wife/husband’s company offers and pick the best coverage to sign up for. This means that one company pays no benefits for an active employee and the other company pays for benefits it shouldn’t have to.

    Shame on the company for allowing that in the first place. Companies overseas are more vigilant. They check upfront all spouses of employees that request coverage. (I’m not talking about mandatory benefits — I’m talking about supplemental benefits that companies are free to offer).

    The trend just makes sense. Companies are all about saving money where they can. Why would any company pay for spousal benefits if that spouse works elsewhere and could have coverage there?

    If this trend can be “blamed” on ACA more power to it. Companies have brought this “carte blanche” spousal benefits issue on themselves.

  2. Not every top performer is meant for management, so the unsuccessful promotion issue is a big one. Another workaround I’ve seen used is creating a lateral move instead of moving the person back to a previous position. If the employee was looking for a new challenge, but this wasn’t the right role, there is likely another opportunity for a top performer to stretch their skills. Especially in a company that is growing extremely quickly, as noted in the original question.

  3. Hi John. As usual I enjoy your weekly wrap– even if I don’t get to it until the week following!

    About the promotion thing. I’ve seen this A LOT, with companies responding in a number of ways, like: (1) Do nothing–in which case the promoted employee becomes one of those chronic low performers Tim wrote about today. (2) Create a brand new position above the nonperforming employee, who is now the NEW manager’s headache. (3) As mentioned, place the employee back in his old position. I’m on board with #3 as the best of the not-so-great options, but I’m not in agreement about maintaining the salary. In two cases I’ve seen, doing this resulted in the demoted employee making significantly more than his manager, and while the manager always tries to be realistic and grown up about the situation, eventually it begins to grate, especially if the demoted individual is now doing a sucky job.

    As for the “hubris” article, I wrote an entire post on that issue earlier this month, http://crystalspraggins.blogspot.com/2013/08/what-do-worst-leaders-have-in-common.html, as this is a pet peeve of mine.

    And finally, I first got wind of the “nonspousal coverage” thing back in 2006, when a coworker (whose husband worked for Amoroso Rolls) instituted the policy. And Jacque, you know I love you (well now you know), but employees choosing the best packages for their wallets is what they should do–we shouldn’t expect anything less. Not all plans are created equal, and they certainly don’t all cost the same. So, I’m not mad at any employee who has coverage and chooses his spouse’s. Hell, that’s one of the benefits of being married! That said, the way I managed this issue at my last job was offering employees financial incentive to drop spousal coverage (provided the spouse had coverage elsewhere) or drop coverage altogether if they were covered under a spouse’s plan. I just wanted employees to review both plans and make an informed choice. Our problem was that employees weren’t even thinking about it.

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