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When Promotions Cause People To Resign

Posted by on 26/11/2018


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How often do promotions fuel attrition?

In theory, promotions should be a career highlight. A joyous occasion which is celebrated. A real achievement, the next stage of your career!

In practice, I see more and more companies getting this so so wrong, to the extent when none of the above is a reality. I am seeing more examples of when promotion leads to bitterness and ultimately, the person exploring their options and eventually leaving their employer.

How can something so positive turn so sour? Below are a few key areas where I believe employers are failing.


I find most issues and gripes from candidates stem from the poor communication they receive. In particular, in terms of quality, frequency and clarity. For those who value promotion more than anything, they really wish to know where they stand and what is needed for them to achieve their goal.

At LHi Group we have set criteria for all levels across the hierarchy which sets out what is required to gain promotion to the next stage. I feel this is a very positive employee engagement tool and it surprises me when organisations do not have a similar structure.

That said, such criteria is largely useless unless you have regular intervals in which both parties review and feedback against criteria and behaviours (ours is monthly by the way!) These meetings often uncover development areas, growth opportunities and potential root causes of frustration. If handled positively and professionally they lead to a more focused, up-skilled and motivated workforce. Time seriously well spent.

I know of many businesses who operate 6 month reviews and even 12 month appraisals with very little or nothing in-between, which I find hugely surprising. So much can happen and change, both professionally and personally, within such lengthy time periods for employees and if you are not looking out for your staff and have a formal platform for feedback (I don’t consider perching on the side of desks and asking “how you getting on?” as a formal platform) then, how is it possible for you to manage those people effectively? How can they know what you expect from them and what they need and expect from you?

All of this can create the dreaded “nasty surprise” when it comes to promotions. I would say that nobody should be surprised at the outcome of a promotion meeting. If an employee is surprised at either a positive OR a negative outcome, it’s a clear sign that communication has failed.


Very often companies will not communicate what employees can reasonably expect at the next stage of their career in terms of salary. A classic case of failing to manage expectations can lead to an insurmountable gap to bridge at promotion time. When levels of performance warrant promotion, the employee bounces in to the promotion meeting expecting a significant amount more than what they actually end up achieving. Cue deflation, disappointment, bitterness and feeling undervalued. You can never quite recover from this low in my opinion, employees will always feel the shine has been taken off the event and their moment.

However much you agree with it or not, remuneration remains, and always will be, a significant metric and benchmark used by employees to see just how much their employer values them. Therefore, getting this aspect right is critical. Some organisations feel the title and the opportunity substitutes the need for suitable financial reward. A tactic which leads invariably to resignation especially when talent is in such demand.

The road to get there

I heard one throwaway comment from a recently promoted Director; “it is easier to get the job as an external candidate than it is internal”. Various internal interviews, time delays and a final presentation - all in the name of getting the job they felt they were already undertaking. To make matters worse, the pay rise offered was derisory. No wonder that person was meeting us to discuss their options.

In more corporate set-ups, those who promote only a certain number of people irrespective of the performance of the individuals can be very frustrating and demoralising. The same applies to people being promoted only at certain points of the year leading them to believe it has simply being delayed or creating that overdue feeling when plenty of offers exist out there for that person to have that right now. It all feeds in to negativity and leads to the employee wondering whether their loyalty is misguided and whether they actually work in a truly meritocratic environment - a word often used by organisations to describe their culture.

In summary...

The issues and challenges for businesses when it comes to promotions have always existed because of the subjective nature, the emotion and vested interest in the outcome from an employee perspective. Getting it right for every single person is a challenge to say the least and arguably impossible.

There are two broad reasons why I have chosen to highlight this:

1) Advancement / promotion is generally in the top 2 priorities of almost every candidate we engage with.

2) Retaining staff is one of the greatest challenges in most technical markets. Compounded further when recruitment of talent is equally as challenging. This is an important area and a powerful tool for both areas.

I haven’t mentioned in this article about how negative promotions can impact the team around an individual. Having little structure, rhyme ,reason or justification can destabilise teams quickly aside from just the person it directly affects. But that’s another article, for another day.

Communication seems to be at the root of most problems. Maybe people are just too busy to make time for it. Maybe others don’t want to have those challenging conversations and put it off. Maybe some business just don't care.

One thing is for certain, it’s a key battleground in the war for talent and getting it right will give those firms a much higher chance of victory.