For empathetic managers and people ops professionals, breaking the news that an internal candidate didn’t get a promotion can be particularly challenging. And to try and make it easier, they may default to being vague, glossing over issues, or sidestepping the conversation altogether.
But avoiding difficult conversations creates resentment and leaves team members confused and uninformed. It won’t help them improve in the short term or be promoted in the future. And when employees themselves report that receiving managerial feedback significantly increases trust in their employers,* it’s clear that honest communication is central to supporting and retaining top talent.
Telling an employee they didn’t get the promotion they wanted is challenging, but a transparent and well-prepared conversation will help them build a promising path toward future opportunities. This article discusses best-practice tips and suggestions to consider before, during, and after your discussion.
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How to tell an employee they didn’t get a promotion: do’s & don’ts
Giving an employee bad news about a promotion is one of the challenges managers face. But if you approach the situation with empathy, openness to dialogue, and concrete goals in mind, you can turn a hard situation into a constructive conversation.
So let’s look at some managerial do’s and don’ts when telling an employee they didn’t get the new position they applied for.
Do #1: Prepare your team member for the conversation
Getting the hang of giving feedback is about much more than learning what to say during conversations with employees. You should also understand how to prepare yourself and your team members for sensitive discussions.
Before talking to your report about a missed promotion, make sure they’re mentally prepared to discuss why they didn’t get the job. For instance, you could send them an email or private message asking them if they’re available for a 1:1 meeting. This is your opportunity to gently break the disappointing news and give them a heads-up about the conversation.
Here’s an example of how you could structure your email or message to the candidate:
I need to let you know that, unfortunately, you weren’t selected for the promotion. It was a difficult choice, and I’d like to set up a meeting with you to discuss the reasons behind our decision. I’d also like to talk about what made you a strong candidate and discuss development opportunities.
Let me know when you’d be available to talk.”
Do #2: Approach the discussion with empathy
Even though you’ve given your team member time to prepare for the conversation, a caring, empathetic manager should check in at the start of the meeting to make sure their employee is okay with discussing why they didn’t get the desired promotion.
In a situation like this, where the unsuccessful applicant may feel discouraged, telling them that you intend to be straightforward while leaving room for their input will give them a sense of ownership over the meeting’s outcome.
“You have to remember that they’re a person and have things going on in their life that you’re not privy to. You don’t want to tell them everything they did wrong. There needs to be a balance. If you’re going to give them reasons they didn’t get the job, you should also mention two examples of their strengths or where they’ve been performing well.”
— Daivat Dholakia, VP of Operations at Essenvia
Do #3: Use “I” statements when giving your feedback
Studies have shown that “I” statements are better for communicating your perspective because they don’t provoke as much anger or defensiveness in the receiver. Try using phrases like “I observed,” “I noticed,” or “I felt” in sensitive conversations — avoid “you” statements.
For example, instead of saying, “In this role, you need to be good at receiving feedback, but you often get defensive and frustrated when you receive feedback from others,” say, “On a few occasions, I’ve observed you using confrontational language receiving feedback from others.”
Don’t #1: Don’t use the “compliment sandwich”
If giving tough feedback makes you anxious, you may be tempted to rely on the “compliment sandwich” (or “feedback sandwich”); this means using a compliment, a criticism, and another compliment to structure your conversation. But employees often sense this kind of feedback as disingenuous, and it’s not helpful to their growth.
Instead, you should:
- Describe the situation in objective terms. For example, the employee didn’t receive the promotion because they’ve been struggling with time management and meeting deadlines.
- Offer your perspective. This is the moment to share your observations using “I” statements.
- Ask the employee how they feel about the situation and your observations, and enquire if they think you’ve made a fair assessment of the circumstances.
- Work together to create action steps for improvement and future development.
Don’t #2: Don’t turn the conversation into a performance review
Focus your discussion on why the employee wasn’t promoted — don’t use it to address unrelated shortcomings in their current position.
If your team member wants to know how to enhance their performance, tell them what prevented them from getting the promotion, and offer to set up another meeting to discuss how they can improve in their current role.
Don’t #3: Don’t lecture your report
While you don’t want to drag the conversation out, it’s important to create a safe space for your team member to offer their perspective, provide input, and ask questions.
And instead of speaking nonstop when presenting your reasoning (which can come across as a lecture), incorporate questions throughout the conversation. For example:
- Does that make sense?
- Is there anything you’d like me to clarify?
- That’s why we made that decision. I’m open to your feedback about it.
- That probably wasn’t easy to hear. How are you feeling about what I’ve just said?
- Do you have questions or thoughts about what I’ve just shared?
- Are there ways we could improve the internal promotion process moving forward?
How to tell your employee they didn’t get promoted: 7 best practices
Now that you know what to prioritize and avoid when delivering difficult promotion news to employees, let’s explore best practices to follow when it’s time for your discussion.
1. Follow your promotion policy
Ideally, your company should have a comprehensive promotion policy to help managers make fair, unbiased promotion decisions. That way, you can walk your candidate through your policy to explain the step-by-step process you followed to evaluate internal applicants and settle on your chosen candidate.
You can also use your policy’s promotion criteria to show your report why they may not yet meet the requirements for career progression. Your promotion policy may outline criteria like:
- Strong recommendations from colleagues and leadership
- Above-average performance in the last three review cycles
- Meeting at least 80% of the skills required for the role
- Excellent communication skills
- Demonstrating strong personal motivation for the promotion
When you can point to a concrete set of standards that helped you make your decision, your candidate will feel better knowing unconscious bias didn’t influence your choice.
2. Speak to the employee in private
A common faux pas is announcing a promotion at a team or all-hands meeting before giving other candidates (if that was the case) the hard news they didn’t get the job. This is an upsetting way for your team members to find out about your decision, and it can also make your staff feel there’s a culture of secrecy in your workplace.
A team meeting isn’t the right place to tell a candidate they didn’t get the position they wanted. A more considerate practice is arranging a private one-on-one meeting to prepare them — especially if a public announcement about another hire will follow.
3. Have the conversation as early as possible
Show respect for candidates who didn’t get a promotion, inform them immediately, and arrange a discussion as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you risk them learning the news from coworkers, who may not have access to the same context or background information as you.
When a promotion refers to an open role, you should also try to let them know they didn’t get the job before hiring someone else. This way, you can focus your conversation on the employee who wasn’t promoted, avoiding unproductive comparisons.
4. Prepare your talking points
To ensure your conversation goes well, create a written outline and flesh out the points you want to cover. There are a few reasons why writing out your talking points in advance is best:
- You may feel nervous during the discussion, and it’ll be easier to think objectively before your meeting than during it.
- It ensures you won’t linger on one point for too long or overcomplicate the talk with unnecessary details or speculative remarks.
- You can ask your colleagues or manager to review your ideas and give you feedback before your meeting.
5. Be transparent & clear
A team lead who cares about transparency knows they should inform an internal applicant they didn’t get the promotion they wanted as soon as possible. But what do transparency and clarity look like during this kind of conversation?
First, you shouldn’t rely on broad-brush language like, “Leadership was concerned you might not be able to handle the new responsibilities,” or, “Some managers had doubts about your motivation and engagement.” Your report will probably feel stressed and anxious during the discussion, so they may not be able to process or internalize this kind of language in a constructive way.
Instead, point to specific instances where your report didn’t meet the standards required for the promotion. For example:
- This position requires someone who has good prioritization skills and meets deadlines consistently, and I’ve noticed that you’ve missed several deadlines in the last two quarters.
- As a manager, you need to set a good example by being on time, and I’ve noticed you arriving late or missing meetings on several occasions in the past year.
- This role requires strong communication skills. Some of your peers have pointed out that you occasionally miscommunicate in a way that affects your down-line team members’ ability to do their work.
6. Talk about future action steps
One of the primary goals of your conversation should be coming up with a set of steps your report could take to become a more competitive candidate for their next promotion opportunity. And while you shouldn’t make false promises, you can offer them meaningful guidance on what they can do to improve.
If you’ve already identified instances where your report didn’t meet the requirements for promotion, use these to create a set of action steps they can work on for the coming months. For example:
- Let’s work together to help you prioritize your tasks.
- Please aim to be on time for meetings.
- Let’s find educational opportunities to help you become a better communicator.
7. Follow up after the conversation
Sending a quick follow-up message after your discussion allows you to document your conversation about the unsuccessful promotion with your report. It also serves as a personal development roadmap they can follow in the months ahead.
It’s best to follow up with your team member by sending them an email or message the same day you meet with them. Briefly outline the main points you discussed and list the action steps you agreed on together. You can also set up a meeting within the next few months to see how the employee progresses.
Tips to help your employees get promoted
When you dedicate time to help your employees prepare for advancement opportunities, you contribute to a healthy work culture and guide team members in creating career paths that align with their skill sets — leading to higher retention rates and productivity.
With that in mind, here are a few quick tips to support your reports in getting promoted:
- Arrange meetings to discuss their career goals — You can talk about job aspirations during performance reviews or set up standalone career development talks. Both provide opportunities to have open conversations with your team members. Be honest about when you think they’ll be ready for a lateral move or managerial position. Your report should come out of that meeting with a vision for their career path.
- Go over career progression frameworks in meetings — It’s always helpful to remind employees what skills they need to develop in their current role before they’re ready to move up. The great thing about a progression framework (like Leapsome’s) is that you get a side-by-side view of the core competencies required for employees at every level. As a result, team members can plan which soft skills to work on.
- Work with team members to create one objective and three to five key results (OKRs) focused on getting promoted — Now that your report knows what role they want to grow into, you can collaborate and create dedicated OKRs to that end.
Objective | Get promoted to senior product manager
- Key result 1 | Conduct a product management workshop with 80% participation
- Key result 2 | Create a product knowledge resource with insights from ten coworkers
- Key result 3 | Complete a manager training course
Make fair, consistent promotion decisions with Leapsome
As a team lead, you want to avoid disappointing your reports. But when you commit to handling difficult conversations with care, respect, and transparency, your team members will be more likely to succeed in the long term.
However, you shouldn’t have to figure out the best way to do this alone. If your organization’s leadership is committed to fostering a better working environment, they need to set up promotion processes that lead to more data-driven, unbiased promotion decisions.
That’s where Leapsome adds value. Our new promotion management tool lets you create automated workflows and easily collaborate with key decision-makers for a promotion process that’s consistent, data-backed, and employee-centric.
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