How to Justify a Promotion for Your Employee

How to be a better manager

And How to Evaluate When It’s Time

Have you ever promoted someone? I recently went through the process of promoting an employee at my firm, and the experience raised a number of questions for me because I found there to be no formal process to issue a promotion. And if we as a managers struggle to know how to do it, surely our employees are left wondering ‘How do I get a promotion? What do I need to do?’ The experience got me thinking: how do you know when it is time to promote someone? How do you approach the topic in conversation with the employee? And how do you write a justification for promotion to give to your boss and HR?

RELATED DOWNLOAD: Sample Write Up to Promote an Employee

Before we get to the nuts and bolts of the process, let’s dissolve a few myths about promotions:

1. Promotions are Deserved, Not Earned

Just because you have an employee who has been around for 10 years doesn’t mean he or she should be promoted. Promotions are earned as a result of an employee’s hard work and their consistent performance over time. Promotions are driven solely on merit, nothing more. It is important for you to deliver this message to employees periodically. Doing so helps your employees understand that promotions are awarded following continued performance. Further, by explaining that promotions are not entitlements will help your employees associate that a level of effort is needed to move up in your organization.


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2. I Should Promote an Employee to Give Them More Pay

Promotions are not about compensation, but are instead about expectations and performance of an individual. Granted, when employees are promoted, they are given an adjustment in compensation because expectations and responsibilities are increased along with the job title.

If compensation is your concern (as it might be with cost of living adjustments, salary compression over the years, or simply trying to adjust a veteran employee to better align with market comparisons), there are other ways of going about this through your HR and Payroll departments regardless of if you work for a large multinational or small business.

3. I Should Promote Based on Potential, Not Ability

When it comes to promoting an employee, you need to promote on his or her demonstrated ability and not based on their potential to reach the next level. One of the biggest mistakes managers make is that they see promotions as a way to boost and engage high potential employees and to move them up quickly. But it is extremely important that you promote an employee only when he or she is able to fulfill the responsibilities of that role. As an example, if you promote an Associate Engineer to a Senior Engineer, the individual needs to be able to function and operate at the level of a Senior Engineer. They can’t just have the potential to become a Senior Engineer.

Further, promoting based on potential is doing the employee and the organization a disservice. If you move an employee up too quickly, he or she will lose the confidence of peers and colleagues when the employee can not deliver results in accordance with their position. Your high potential employees will naturally rise through your organization faster than others , but they still need to earn their stripes along the way.

RELATED: Dowload the sample Promotion Write Up For an Employee from our Tools and Templates Page

Evaluating an Employee for Promotion

Now that we’ve discussed some what promotions are not, let’s discuss what they are. Promotions are:

1. A vehicle for structuring and aligning your organization in term of responsibility and authority
2. A way of formally granting more responsibility and expecting higher performance
3. A means of boosting morale and moving employees to perform over time

We will explore each of these.

RELATED: Way to Boost Morale in the Workplace

Using Promotions to Align and Structure Your Organization

Compression of salary and roles is a common phenomenon in modern companies. Compression refers to the fact that over time, salaries tend to converge (with some notable outliers) because your tenured employees have been given raises over the years, while new employees simultaneously come in at higher and higher wages over time. Thus, if you’re not paying attention, you may find a 20 year veteran employee making slightly more but delivering far superior results than your fresh college graduates. The same principle applies to job titles. Should his happen, your organization can find itself full of countless Senior Analysts with widely varied experience and credentials.

Promotions serve as a vehicle to correct and adjust your organization (again, based on merit, not time) such that you have a clear ladder and hierarchy within your team. A hierarchy helps you manage your team more effectively because your higher positioned employees serve as natural coaches and mentors for junior employees. Further, by establishing a hierarchy, you are also creating a pipeline for employee development. If someone were to leave the company, for example, you can promote someone to fill their role, and backfill a lower level experienced position.

Using Promotions to Drive Higher Performance

Again, while employees should only be promoted as a result of their performance, offering a promotion to an employee as motivation to increase an employee’s performance is also effective. I usually reserve this approach for solid employees who are close to deserving and earning a promotion, and use offer of a promotion as a tool to increase performance and get them to the next level.


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So as an example, if you were in the software industry and talking to your Senior Developer and you felt they were close to deserving a promotion to a Lead Developer, you might want to use a promotion as a way of getting the employee to take on and accept more responsibility as they will be doing as a Lead Developer. After some period of time, (say 6 months to a year) of leading projects, you will have the justification and examples to warrant their promotion, as well as set new expectations for them going forward. Using this technique helps you openly raise expectations of your employees and obtain higher performance. Additionally, by promoting employees over time, you show other employees that there is a reward and the possibility of advancement that result from continued performance.

Promoting as a Way of Boosting Morale and Motivation

Unfortunately, as my recent experience taught me, many companies have no formal promotion system. Nor is there a process that is well-defined for assessing employees for a promotion. And since there are no formal triggers or means of assessing employees for promotion, many managers of people simply will not make the effort. Equally, the lack of a clear process makes it difficult for employees to understand what they need to do achieve in order to move up within the organization.

Despite such norms, clearly recognizing performance and promoting employees from time to time will make you a better manager. How? As employees grow and develop, earning a promotion as recognition serves as a great way to boost morale, not only for the employee who has been promoted, but for other employees to see that efforts are in fact noted and rewarded in your organization. This in turn will motivate your team to continue to perform over time. Thus, by taking an active interest in your employees and overcoming ambiguity associated with the promotion process can make a world of a difference in terms of your team’s performance.

RELATED: 7 Ways to Boost Morale in Your Organization

Writing a Recommendation for Promotion

Regardless of whether or not your company has a formal way to go about the promotion process, it is always advisable to write a letter that serves as your formal recommendation of promotion to HR and your own boss, and cites reasons why the employee is deserving of promotion.

Your recommendation letter should include specific examples why the employee deserves a promotion. It is especially important to highlight specific examples when he or she went above and beyond their current role. Listing out achievements helps signifies that the employee’s performance is indeed above their current job function.

RELATED: How to Write Employee Performance Reviews

In addition to achievements, I’d recommend you include recent performance ratings if your firm has such a system in place. This information helps show that the employee is not just a “recent” contributor, but instead has a history of satisfactory job performance and providing overall value to the business. It also can help justify a promotion because if an employee is continuously delivering solid results in their current job function, it supports that a promotion and increase in expectations is appropriate.

Finally, you should gather feedback from other leaders in the business about the employee. As employees move up within an organization, they will (and should) naturally build a larger network as they work with more and more people. Obtaining feedback from this network also bolsters you justification for promotion because it provides evidence of the employee’s reputation among other leaders in the business, as well demonstrates his or her versatility in being able to work within a large and complex organization.

A Checklist for Evaluating Employees for Promotion

Finally, here is a simple list of questions to ask yourself to help you assess an employee for promotion:

1. Does the employee show an enhanced ability to work within and navigate the organization?
2. Is the employee sought after by others for his or her knowledge or advice?
3. Have customers (internal or external to your organization) provided any specific feedback on the employee’s performance?
4. How has the employee advanced and grown in his or her skills over the past 24 months?
5. Has the employee taken on more challenging and complex assignments recently as compared to 2 years ago?
6. Has the employee demonstrated an increase in leadership skills?
7. Is the employee routinely going “above and beyond” as compared to his or her current peer group?
8. How do the employee’s activities and quality of work compare to the next higher position (the new peer group, if promoted)?

Got any tips for promoting employees? Leave a comment and share with others!

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