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Making ‘promotion from within’ successful

I’m the human resources manager of a medium-sized corporation. I just started with the company this week. During the onboarding process and review of current policies, I noticed one important factor that is missing that I hoped to fill as part of my initial goals. I’m referring to the company’s lack of a “promotion from within” policy. When I asked my boss about it, he told me that management should be flexible with promotions. He told me it’s the main reason why I was hired in the first place. Can you help me change his mind? — Lady Luck.

Women at a college dorm were discussing how to turn down a proposed date with someone they don’t like. Many confessed to being at a loss for words when facing that situation. One of them came up with a list of 10 handy excuses, which she shared with the group.

It worked pretty well until one girl got nervous and said to her prospective date: “I’d like to go out with you, Tom. But I can’t because of number seven.”

Your boss can’t simply hide behind excuses. He must be specific on why management prefers to be “flexible about promotion,” and whether it is aware of the possible adverse implications for employee morale. If there is no concrete policy on promotion, then how can management motivate people to do their best in the absence of prospects for growing in the organization?

“Flexible about promotion” is a no-win situation for both employees and management. Any promotion made without a clear policy is a recipe for low employee morale, low productivity, and high turnover, among other things. It can have serious repercussions.

Therefore, there’s no other option but to come out with a formal policy to help minimize, if not eliminate, problems and ensure fairness in the promotion process. Here are some important requirements to help you in drafting an objective policy that may convince your management to abandon its flexibility mindset:

One, establish a comprehensive succession plan. This lies at the heart of any “promotion from within” policy. This is a key element of business continuity planning, which lays out the courses of action for emergency situations, whether manmade or natural. Without a succession plan, your organization will be like a ship without a compass on a turbulent ocean.

Two, recognize the value of meritocracy over seniority. If you have to consider only one factor, it should be consistent, above-average work performance over the preceding three years at least. This must be validated by tangible accomplishments as reflected in performance ratings, commendations, and various awards inside and outside of the organization. Seniority may only be used as a last resort to break any tie between two candidates for promotion, which is unlikely to happen.

Three, create a systematic coaching program featuring bosses. Make this a key performance indicator for all managers. If workers have not learned anything and must rely heavily on their boss’s decisions, then that boss has failed as a coach. This also means that the boss can’t be promoted himself because there’s no one who can perform his job. It is as simple as that.

Four, establish a procedure for dynamic inter or intra-department transfers. Even at the risk of losing hardworking employees to other departments, managers must give way for the good of the organization overall. Transfers must be done every three years as a matter of routine. If the managers are confident about their coaching skills, then they should not worry about training other workers.

Five, expose all employees to challenging assignments. This is related to number four, and establishes the principle that transfers are not be limited to other departments or other postings within the department, but may include secondment to affiliates, subcontractors, and major clients. The objective is to teach all qualified personnel to become multi-skilled and be well-versed in the many facets of the company’s business.

Last, validate all these things through an annual morale survey, otherwise known as an employee satisfaction survey or organizational climate survey. Management should be able to understand whether it is doing a good job. It is also useful to hire an external consultant to lend objectivity and professionalism to the process.

Even if you have done all of the above, you can’t simply promote people on the basis of excellent work performance. It’s no guarantee that the newly-promoted can handle the new duties. For example, some people may work well even under pressure or in managing the most difficult tasks on their own, but beyond that, they may be completely different dealing with workers or teams.

If there is an opportunity to promote some people to supervisory positions, they still could be the wrong person for the job. If that happens, the best thing to do is to promote people to staff functions that do not perform line tasks. This means assigning them to an advisory or support capacity like research, working with the general public or government agencies, or other related assignments.

If promoting some people is not practical, you can hire external candidates as a matter of exception rather than as a general rule. After all, it’s laborious, expensive, and demotivating for those who feel they’re qualified and yet not appointed to the job. Any indication from you that veteran workers are considered lacking in capacity to assume higher responsibility means you can’t expect much from the holdover workers, and also run the risk of them displaying animosity to the newcomers.


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