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Promotion Denied: How to Break the News

An employee is eager for a promotion, but they’re too green for the job. How do you cushion the blow – or do you?

Telling an employee that they don’t have what it takes to get a promotion is never easy for any manager, but honesty is the best policy when it comes to breaking the news.

Professor Ron Burke of York University’s School of Human Resources Management says it takes courage to be candid, but it’s a critical part of helping employees develop in the long run. In too many cases, managers fail to provide honest feedback, Burke says, creating false perceptions among employees about their abilities and performance levels.

Do it face-to-face

Ideally, managers should break the news to an employee face-to-face, not through human resources staff or form letters, says Barbara Hughes, a human resources manager and career coach in Vancouver. Managers shouldn’t be afraid to express their discomfort about the situation by saying they wish they had different news.

Tell employees they are appreciated and valued in their current roles in the organization, Hughes says, and that the company doesn’t want to lose them. Then offer the employee constructive feedback on what skills need improvement and what opportunities exist in the company to develop them, if any.

If one door closes, another may open

An employee who fails to make the cut might eventually end up finding a better fit within the company or at another organization.

Gerald Eiers is vice president and general manager of International Water Guard, a Canadian aerospace company. He was promoted to his current management position, which includes handling human resources, after several years with his company. “I would never tell somebody that they’re not management material,” says Eiers, who warns that a harsh judgment of an individual could limit their potential.

“I would tell them that we do not have an opening for them,” he explains. The individual may choose to leave the organization at that point, Eiers says, but ultimately, the company cannot give an employee a role simply because he or she wants it.