Enterprise Software

Don't guarantee a promotion before the fact

An employee wants a guarantee that he'll be promoted before he commits to another round of training. Our HR specialist explains why a manager should never make such guarantees.
Question
Advancement, at least in IT, should be a function of experience on the job and learning new skills. I have an employee who learned a whole host of new skills during an intensive formal and OJT exercise in 2001. He earned a promotion from a quasi-technical/semi-admin position and now has several years of experience in his job doing second-level software support. It's time for him to learn some new skills to qualify for a promotion from journeyman to senior level. He's told his supervisor that he doesn't want to commit to another round of training unless he's promoted now or guaranteed the promotion at the end.

From a managerial standpoint, there's not much chance that his supervisor is going to issue such a guarantee; and, as the division head, there's no way I would approve such an arrangement under normal circumstances. The employee is, however, somewhat above the norm, having always exceeded expectations on his performance appraisals and having generated many letters of commendation from our internal clients: I might be tempted to let the supervisor make some sort of qualified guarantee. From an HR perspective, what are our ethical and legal responsibilities and what qualifiers to the "guarantee" would be acceptable?

Answer
You have a situation in which your employee may not have realized why he was promoted initially. He seems to have forgotten the real secrets to success and equates promotions with entitlements. You have to laugh at the hubris of his approach.

If I understand the situation correctly, you're willing to foot the bill to train him so he can earn a promotion so you can pay him more money. And he's playing hard to get. What has changed since 2001? At that time, he completed the training and was rewarded with a promotion. Why should he expect things to be different this time? He may be talented as a journeyman tech support person, but he's lacking in wisdom.

I question his loyalty to the organization, but also wonder if other factors are involved. Is your star employee unhappy about something? He may be earning praise from your clients but doesn't like the work. Maybe he doesn't want to earn a promotion in this group. Have you asked him if he would prefer a transfer?

Another explanation is immaturity. Often, when staff people receive an initial promotion in a seemingly effortless way, they don't understand that it doesn't always happen that way.

The solution may be as simple as explaining how the real world works--that companies reward effort, talent, and skills. Companies don't offer advance rewards, and then hope the talent, effort, and skills will improve. Baseball teams don't offer fat new contracts to players batting .200 in the hopes that will give them incentive to take more batting practice.

The legal issues
As far as the legal issues go, I'm not an employment lawyer, but I'm fairly confident I can predict the reaction I would receive from my corporate legal department if I started handing out guaranteed promotions.

The concern legal will have is that you'll set a precedent. If you promise a promotion to this guy for completing the training, others will expect the same. This will not be a secret. You should expect that every employee in the company will know about this promise. The promise may come back to bite you, or it may not. The corporate legal team specializes in the situations where it does come back to bite you. The worst-case scenario will be that some marginal employee will complete the training, not get promoted, get fired, and sue the company. Do you really want to be standing in front of a judge explaining how this special promotion promise seemed like a good idea at the time?

Ethical and business issues
Here are several questions to ask yourself:
  • Can you be absolutely sure you'll have the opening available when his training has been completed?
  • What would you do if he completed the training, but his performance was no longer the best in the group? Would you promote him anyway, even though he wasn't the most deserving? What message would this send to the rest of the team?
  • What if his loyalty really is a problem? How will it look if you hand out a premature promotion, and he resigns a short time later? Can your career survive that egg on your face?

You'll be much better off if you handle this by career counseling rather than premature promotions. Keep dangling the carrot in front of him, but insist on making him--and other employees--earn these highly sought-after promotions.

Take him aside and explain that promotions don't work by guarantees. Tell him that you rate his performance highly compared to that of his peers. Explain how his performance is beginning to position him for future success and promotion. Then help him understand how not "volunteering" for training will mean someone else who does volunteer could be positioned for promotion ahead of him. Do this yourself, not through a subordinate. Getting this high-level attention will send a much stronger message to your employee. Most likely, that is all that will be necessary. If he still insists on a guarantee, I advise you to decline, for all the reasons I've given. The implicit threat is that he will quit if he doesn't receive the guarantee. In the long run, you and the company may be better off without him in that case, because he'll probably raise the stakes even higher the next time.
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