how can I develop employees who can’t be promoted?

A reader asks: 

I work at a relatively small organization (40-50 employees) that recently expanded from having two levels of management (executive director and department managers) to adding a third level of project managers.  Our project managers were all internal hires, but some of our employees who have more years with the organization were not promoted because they were not the right fit for these positions. The positions involved more people/project managing, and though these employees are very good at their jobs, they had never shown any interest nor strengths in more traditional management skills and thus those areas had not been developed with them.

At this point, I have a few employees looking for “their promotions” because they feel they have been with the organization a long time and want to see opportunities for movement for themselves. We are not that big of an organization — there is only so much vertical movement that can occur and keep it healthy and well structured.  Frankly, I am dealing with problems from two directions.  From the staff, I am trying to figure out how to develop employees and maintain their job satisfaction when there are few opportunities for upward movement. But I also want to make sure they are developing in a way that they are ready to move up when and if opportunities arise as the organization continues to grow.  From above, I have pressure to retain employees at all costs, even if that would mean promoting them into some random position I would have to create.

I personally don’t have a problem with employees deciding they need to move on to meet their professional goals.  While I don’t want to lose them, I can completely understand that someone might need to make that decision.  I just (a) don’t want to end up having to destroy my department because of forced restructuring in order to retain employees and (b) don’t want people to move on because I wasn’t doing my job in trying to develop them as best I could within their current positions.

You can read my answer to this letter over at the FastTrack blog by Intuit Quickbase today.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Zahra

    Yep, find a direction where they could grow and at the same time, if they do want to position themselves for people/project managing, give them the occasion to try it out (unless they’ve recently or semi-recently tried it and proved that it was not a good fit). I’m a big believer in personal growth and maturity in and out of the workplace and in second chances when you see the person has “matured” enough to warrant it. You could also tell them that volunteer experience in the skills they want to develop are a possibility that could translate to work opportunities (as long as someone is aware of their accomplishments).

  2. COT

    Great advice, Alison. One of the strengths of small organizations is that there is a lot of room for growth within a role, even if there aren’t many promotion opportunities. My nonprofit (about 40 staff) always has needs that aren’t being met yet–special projects, areas of expertise, etc. That’s offered me and others opportunities to grow without being promoted. Ask people what needs they see and what skills they want to develop, and then try to plug them in to opportunities. It may not retain people forever when they are genuinely ready for promotions that you can’t offer, but it will help.

    You can also help by making it easy for employees to be open with you (without consequences) when they are ready to move up or move out. That way you won’t lose people that you could have promoted had you only known they were looking for more, and you’ll ease the transition when people do leave because you’ll get longer notice periods. That’s what my boss has done for me: she’s always said that I should tell her when I feel the need to move on. Now that I’m at that place, I’ve been keeping her in the loop about my job search process and she’s been open about the opportunities they can/can’t offer me internally.

  3. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog

    The way I see it, people can grow in two directions: people/project management and expertise. Can you work on publicly acknowledging their growth in subject-matter expertise? Can you give them a raise and tack “senior” in front of their title?

    1. KayDay

      I was going to also suggest making people “senior ___” if that works in the context of this company’s org structure (it won’t work everywhere). While it might not be a full promotion, it is a way to recognize that an employee has taken on more responsibility/independence/extra projects/decision-making in that role.

      1. Matthew Soffen

        I’m not a fan of this. There are too many situations where “title inflation” doesn’t help. I’ve seen to many “green” developers/etc. brought into my company AS a senior level (because they need to pay to get the ‘skills’ they need). Then these “seniors” show that they don’t even know simple things that a developer should know (Software Unit Testing, etc.)

        So unless the company defines “exactly” what a Senior is, What a “Lead” is,etc. you’ll still have problems “Why is soandso a Senior ? I’ve been here longer.” or “Why did you hire in suchandsuch as a Lead ? I have more experience and I’m NOT a lead yet…”

        1. Mike C.

          That’s not a problem with titles, that’s a problem with inconsistent hiring and promotion practices.

    2. Lisa

      This was also going to be my suggestion – add Senior or Specialist to their title with an accompanying pay raise. That in conjunction with being transparent about what the Project Manager’s/any other newly created management position’s job would entail – much more removed from (insert area of specialty in the Chocolate Teapot-making process) and instead more interfacing with the department heads (read – more meetings probably), cost analysis, profit projections, and the like.

      I think once people find out what a promotion entails, often they self-select out because they realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

  4. Jen in RO

    In my (admittedly limited) experience, lots of people just want the promotion for the raise it comes with. Make sure you give them good raises and I’m sure a lot of your employees would be happy.

    (Then again, I’m one of those few people who would hate moving into management, so for me work happiness = interesting projects and increasing salary.)

    1. Jamie

      The problem with this is that all positions have a value apex where additional raises (outside of cost of living) don’t make financial sense. A company that is upside down in payroll will have issues very quickly.

      Most people have to either move upward, accept additional responsibility, or in another way add more value than they are currently adding to warrant a raise. For those who are happy where they are and don’t want the additional responsibilities that needs to come with an understanding that they will hit their pay ceiling at some point.

      Just the way we all will hit a pay ceiling at some point, even those who are actively seeking upward mobility via promotions, because at some point we’re at the apex of what the position adds to the company and we need to decide whether it’s acceptable or if we move on to a larger organization.

      1. Yup

        On the flip side, I left a former job because I wanted to take on more responsibility (without a raise!) but the organization couldn’t see “advancement” as anything other than “promotion to a supervisory management position,” which would result in a pay grade change and therefore a raise. The conversations went like this for 2 years:

        Me: I’d like to stretch myself and take my analysis work to the next level. I’ve drafted some ideas about ways I could do this in my current role. If I successfully completed these kinds of projects, could I attend X conference and be eligible for a title change from Worker Bee to Senior Worker Bee in 9 to 12 months?
        Boss: We don’t have any new or current management positions open.
        Me: I understand. I’m not seeking a promotion or a pay raise. I’m trying to challenge myself and keep up my career forward momentum.
        Boss: We’re not authorized to pay you more in your current role. And there aren’t any other positions that it would make sense for you to manage.
        Me: Right, I get that and I’m perfectly happy not being manager. I’m asking whether there’s any room for me to do more in my current role, at the same pay, with an eventual small bump in title, if earned?
        Boss: We already have enough managers. And you’re at the top of your pay range.
        Me: Thanks for talking with me. :: quits for new job ::

        1. Jamie

          That’s just crappy management on the part of your managers if they can’t separate development from a title. That hurts you and the company – it sucks.

        2. AnotherAlison

          Feel your pain. I had an experience that started off the same. My direct boss & I had a nice draft of what my revised role would look like and I was excited about it. However, there wasn’t any way to automate or bring someone new on to take on the stuff that could be handled by a 2-3 year experience person. I was frustrated because I didn’t get to work on Big New Exciting Projects because I’d spend all my time working on things like “move this data point one quarter in the bar chart.” (Obviously, moving one data point isn’t time consuming, but when I was supposed to be able to focus on higher value projects that involved diggin in deep, I would be interrupted to work on lower value stuff.)

          You know how this story will end. . .

    2. The IT Manager

      What Jamie said. “Good raises” should probably come with increased responsibility and output and not just years of experience. Becuase if you need a mid-level teapot maker and hire for one, it shouldn’t take to long for his salary to reach the top of the market value for mid-level teapot makers. After that all he should expect is small raises to keep up with inflation. Even if 20 years later he’s 20 years more experienced, if he’s only doing mid-level teapot maker work that’s what he should be paid for.

      1. Scott M

        Unfortunately, I think that often the top range of salaries include the assumption that such an employee is training for a promotion. So when someone reaches the top of the salary range, but doesn’t move up, they are considered overpaid.

        But yes, I absolutely agree that increases, above cost-of-living, should be based upon additional responsibility or additional skills.

    3. Jen in RO

      I didn’t express myself clearly enough, sorry (it made sense in my head!). By “interesting projects” I meant more responsibility and promotions to “senior” or “expert”, as opposed to “manager”. From OP’s letter I got that the people were not suited for promotion to management, but maybe they are suited for a title bump with more responsibilities.

      And the salary thing was just a small personal frustration – our company appreciates us sooo much that the raise my coworkers got with a title bump was the same as the usual cost of living raise. (I don’t know how things are in other industries/countries, but in mine it’s expected to get about double the raise when you get promoted.)

  5. likesdesifem

    Not to sound rude/offensive, but people need to get with the times and accept that tenure is not deemed primary in promotion decisions. In the 1970s or 1980s this may have worked, but today it’s largely about who adds value to an unit, department or organisation, irrespective of when s/he starts.

    It may be best to just be honest, and say that room for advancement is limited. this is certainly better than lying to them, or soft-soaping/obfuscating the issue at hand. Also suggest to them that a key to getting ahead is being noticed and offering high performance, and not so much based on how long a person has been in a role.

    1. Tiff

      Exactly this.

      I was in a panel to interview for a facility manager, and there were several good candidates. Unfortunately, the 2 internal candidates really relied on the “well, I’ve been here forever and it’s my time” justification. Neither got the job.

      I’ve even seen an internal candidate who had a strong track record miss out on a promotion because she failed to document or even mention accomplishments. She’s a great worker, but she was lazy in preparing for the interview and lost out. Even though the interview panel knew about her work we’re not allowed to consider it if she doesn’t mention it.

      1. Josh S

        “Even though the interview panel knew about her work we’re not allowed to consider it if she doesn’t mention it.”

        That’s kind of a silly rule. If someone had a crappy work ethic and you knew it, but they never mentioned it, are you ‘not allowed’ to consider that knowledge either? Wouldn’t it be a good thing for one of the people on the ‘panel’ to prompt her by saying, “What are some of your accomplishments in your current role?” to draw out the information that you know is there?

        If you have a good performer who you know is a good performer, why wouldn’t you let that knowledge weigh in your decision? Because known quantities are really good things when it comes to all the uncertainty that’s inherent in hiring decisions.

        1. Jamie

          Yes – especially since some people might think information that is common knowledge about her work is a given and might not think they needed to bring it up.

          I can’t imagine having to explain to my boss that I enjoy working with and have an affinity for computers…I’d feel like Captain Obvious.

          1. tmm

            Sometimes silly rules are due to union agreement conditions so sadly you cannot ignore the rules.

    2. Jessa

      Oh yes. Especially do not lie. Do not let people think there are opportunities that are just not there. And never will be. You end up with angry, disappointed, and quitting personnel.

  6. BCW

    I think the best thing to do is to be honest, but if you really think they deserve it, tell them you’d be happy to be a reference if they do decide to move on. If they are good employees, just not management material in your organization, then be willing to tell someone that.

  7. PEBCAK

    One opportunity I really enjoy in my career is attending professional conferences as a speaker on different topics. In the tech space, often like 90% of the talks that are submitted are by consulting firms, and they LOVE to have people actually in the companies themselves submit case studies and that type of thing. For some employees, encouraging them to submit to this stuff (and finding the budget for them to travel to these things) can be rewarding for them.

  8. Mike C.

    I just don’t understand what’s so difficult about having a title system as follows:

    Job Title 1
    Job Title n-1
    Job Title n

    You reward increasing skills, experience and accomplishments with higher pay, a progressive title and more responsibility. Not only does it serve as a reward for a job well done, it gives more junior employees a path to look down and realize, “hey, my hard work and dedication will pay off down the road, so I can stick around here and do good work”.

    it’s not easy to get off the ground, but once it’s going it feels like a great way to ensure that employees feel like they’re being treated fairly.

    1. likesdesifem

      Maybe, but in small organisations there is only so much work to actually accomplish. And higher compensation requires a higher organisational budget, and that is not feasible if the organisation has profitability or cash flow issues. Moreover, a job has to be valid, in that the demand for the job exists and that it will add value. Few if any organisations for example have two CEOs, and for obvious reasons (I know Blackberry did, but they only have one now).

      1. Mike C.

        If we’re talking small organizations, then if these employees are good and are empowered, they can find ways to trim costs or increase value.

        I don’t care if we’re just talking about mundane gruntwork, someone who has been doing it for a while will do it safer, faster, closer to spec and find ways to make the process more efficient than someone with no experience. All of those things create value, and once that value is created it’s not so difficult to afford that raise.

        Most folks like these would jump at the chance to solve a difficult problem or make things more efficient in ways that would bring incredible value to the companies they work for, but are never given the chance or the motivation. They’re only ever told, “you’re here to do X for $Y/hour and that’s all it will ever be, the end.”

        Maybe right now that budget doesn’t exist or that value isn’t being created, but when employees are supported and allowed to develop, great things can happen.

      2. Lora

        “in small organisations there is so much work to actually accomplish.”
        FTFY.

        In small organizations there are A BAZILLION MILLION things that need done, or could be done, or should really be done but everyone is just too slammed to get to them just yet. I have not ever been in or even heard of a small organization that could not use more effort or creativity in some particular aspect, and what you do to develop people in that sense is cross-train.

        I’m a bioengineer type of person, and in small companies I have managed to dabble in regulatory, statistical quality analysis, environmental engineering, tech services, EH&S, project management and manage entire discovery programs, things I never would have been allowed to touch in a big company. They were all things that needed done and nobody was doing, and added immediate value to the organization in terms of compliance (not getting shut down by regulatory agencies), minimizing waste, customer retention, employee retention, and intellectual property valuation of the company. I also learned that some things I thought I would hate (statistical quality by design, platform design) were really interesting to me and some things that I thought would be fulfilling because of their immediate impact on people (EH&S) actually bored me to tears.

        It will also help you to create a non-management career track for people who are fantastic technically but maybe less excellent when it comes to dealing with managerial things like HR forms and personality problems.

        1. darsenfeld

          If a firm has few employees, a comparatively small revenue base, and not so many customers/clients, there only can be so much work that can be done or is available.

          Whilst it’s always be good to be on the ball and seeing how business processes can be improved, the scope of business process will obviously be higher in a large organisation.

  9. Meg Murry

    If I were an employee at this company, I think my concern would be lack of transparency. OP mentions that internal people “were promoted” to the new positions. But was the creation of the new positions publicized, and were employees allowed to apply for the new positions? Or was it just announced “John, Sue and Mary are now Project Managers, everyone congratulate them!”. Just because Dave didn’t say to you “I really like Project Management” doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think he could be good at it, and may feel snubbed or overlooked for not even being offered the chance to make his case for the new position.
    If there isn’t already a performance appraisal cycle and discussion of career goals, that is where the OP needs to start. OP should schedule a meeting with each employee to discuss career and skills development, and like others have mentioned – give them opportunities for growth, like attending conferences, taking classes, etc.
    I also recommend the option for adding “Senior” to titles for those that deserve it. Another option is to allow employees to develop specialties – so while all employees at the lowest level may be “Worker Bees”, maybe Person X will specialize in making graphics, logos, posters and t-shirts for for events, while Person Y specializes doing written communication – websites, pamphlets and advertising copy. Their day to day tasks might be 80%-90% the same, but spending 10-20% of their time on a specialty might differentiate them from just entry level “Worker Bees”.

    1. Elise

      I work at a place that does these behind-the-scenes promotions and assignments to special projects. It’s very disheartening to those who aren’t in the circle to not even know why something wasn’t offered to them, or how to get these kinds of offers in the future.

  10. Adding Senior.. .

    While others have mentioned adding senior to a job title (“Senior Teapot Maker”), I have seen a problem with this.

    I work with people who were promoted to Senior 8 years ago. Let’s say they had 7 years experience at the time. Now, John who was hired 7 years ago now has 7 years of experience, but the Senior person now has 15. . .and is still here, doesn’t want roles in other departments and doesn’t have a spot in the hierarchy to move into.

    While you can make a case for having Teapot Maker 1-5, and that would be a way around this, our structure is more like teapot making associate, teapot maker, senior teapot maker, brick wall. The analysts who are as qualified as the senior analyst was when she got her “Senior” title aren’t getting that title. They should get it. She should be the one who is stuck, not them, but the mudhole has moved downstream. I’ve seen this in at least 3 different functional departments. Is it just us?

  11. Chinook

    As someone who wouldn’t want to be a manager, could you also make it apparent that you value those who aren’t promoted and that you are promoting people to be good managers and not because they are good workers? I don’t know how to better say it, but there needs to be a way to reward hard work and dedication than with promotions

  12. Sniper

    I’m just trying to figure out why a third layer of management was created. It doesn’t seem like the organization is growing (otherwise, there might be more positions opening up in the near future for those that weren’t ‘promoted’).

    To me, it just seems as though the executive director was tired of dealing with the minions, so s/he created these ‘project manager’ positions so as to put another layer of management between him/her and where the actual work was being done.

    1. Jamie

      I begged for a project manager position to be created – and was thrilled when they finally did. Because without one sales didn’t consistently know who to go to as their eyes and ears on site and they had to call in favors and find people who weren’t busy…and project managers filled this gap.

      I can see where this could easily make sense in a lot of companies.

      I have never been a Project Manager (although I’m managed projects) but I will say I’ve worked with tons of them and only one wasn’t awesome. I am just predisposed to really liking people in that job – it’s so important and done well it’s a magical thing to see them keep all the balls in the air. A great PM makes it look easy.

  13. T

    We have a similar set up in our company. One retention/recognition strategy we implemented is tracking how many years each employee has worked out our company and then publicly recognizing their “years of service.”

    1. Scott M

      Touchy-feely things like this can backfire if they aren’t paired with real, actual, recognition (money, additional assignments and responsibility, additional training, or even just plain good management).
      You don’t really know how bad it can be, until you see the manager fumbling for something to say about the employee at the recognition ceremony, because they have no idea what this long-time employee does.

      1. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog

        Perhaps the years of service award might work for people who care about longevity? It wouldn’t work for me – I’m looking for more money and more responsibility. And it sounds that’s what the OP’s team is also looking for.

      2. T

        Oh, this is paired with real, actual recognition like you listed — the culture at this company is that people do often work their whole careers here, so it’s nice to also commemorate that loyalty (the bonuses don’t hurt either)

        1. Jamie

          This. They do the same here and there are tons of people who’ve been here 20-30+ years.

          When someone is maxed out salary-wise you can still reward them with bonuses when warranted. This way it’s not a permanent inflation of labor costs (most companies slate bonuses to come out of a different bucket) and it doesn’t increase bill/production costs which drive COGS. And much easier to control because in leaner years bonuses will be leaner across the board – if you do it with raises you may have to layoff people you otherwise wouldn’t if your payroll wasn’t underwater.

    2. Jen in RO

      Blizzard (the gaming company) has a really cool “years of service” policy. I don’t remember it exactly, but at 5-10-15 years you get an item – a ring, a sword, a shield (all related to their games, of course – I think the sword my friend got was Frostmourne). Most of their employees are gamers and these were awesome souvenirs. (You can google for some pics.)

  14. Jesicka309

    I need to forward this page to my manager. I’m similarly stuck, with no desire to manage the dimwits they’ve hired as my coworkers, along with only 2 team leader roles covered by 8 staff, and no room within the role to develop my skills. The best they’ve come up with is covering a couple of minor tasks when people are on leave, and even then, once that person leaves the company, my unofficial covering role disappears.
    OP, if you can come up with new skills/tasks for your employees to do, make the tasks consistent, important and wrote it into their job description. There’s nothing worse than being told “we’ve finally found a way to utilize your skills better! You’re doing the mailroom once a month when Wakeen is on leave! How exciting for you!”

  15. OP

    First some answers to a few questions that I’ve seen posted…

    The Project Manager positions were posted, the entire staff was aware of the shift in structure and anyone who was eligible was free to apply. In fact – it didn’t shake out the way I had initially anticipated because of the application/interview process, but I am very happy with the results.

    The organization had grown significantly in the past year/eighteen months. My role had expanded from about six direct reports to fourteen, and I was really spread too thin and not giving my staff the feedback and support they needed and deserved – hence the restructuring. We are likely expanding some more…whether it will be enough to support additional “promotion” positions is unknown yet.

    My team is FABULOUS at what they do. I truly am incredibly lucky to have them.

    My organization is affiliated with a larger entity – think “wholly owned subsidiary” or almost like being affiliated with the government. It brings with it some advantages…but it also brings with it some real challenges. Most relevant to this are promotions, position titles, and, oh yes…raises.

    I’m limited to a relatively narrow “catalog” of position titles. In theory you can create new ones. But time travel is also theoretically possible. I’ve also never been able to actually “promote” someone. The preferred method of doing things is to post the new position and have the existing candidate apply as the identified candidate – not that there are really very many appropriate position titles for me to actually “promote” people to. And raises… Oh, raises – we see them some years. Since we aren’t really able to promote people raises there have never been an option (the policy from far, far, far above my director is raises only come if people can produce a alternative job offer in writing – really bad I know). In some years I’m given a narrow range of potential salary raises. That said – I inherited a staff that is grossly underpaid for the market rate and also has parity problems. So, there’s always a balancing act between trying to get people up to market with the raises I’m able to give and to have some sort of merit based system.

    So, all that said – I’m definitely trying to figure out ways to develop staff professionally and provide them opportunities for increased responsibilities. The truly challenging part is trying to think outside of the box to see if there is some sort of way to give “internal” titles, one time bonuses, or whatever to pair the development with the compensation! Any creative ways people have found to do that would be much appreciated.

    1. Anon. Scientist

      One thing that may help is to allow your folks to have a particular specialization. If you have a bunch of direct reports who are at the same level, if you formalize each person’s role and put them in charge of a particular aspect of the job, then they become a manager of their own sphere of influence. For example, my department has the “manager of equipment” and the “hazardous material coordinator” in addition to folks who have specific technical roles.

      Something else that really helps is identifying your direct reports’ strengths, continuing to develop them (is there an applicable certification they could work toward?) and going out and marketing them internally and externally.

    2. Zahra

      Yeah, if I was your report and was disappointed I didn’t get the promotion, I’d definitely approach you with a “I really would like to take on a role similar to the one that was posted recently. Can you tell me what I should do to position myself better should the opportunity arise again?” I actually did that at my first “serious” job and got a clear answer from my manager. She had her faults (she did seem closer to some employees than others), but she was ready to mentor the employees that wanted to grow (be they her friends or not).

  16. Abraham

    @ Yup,

    The situation scenario, you painted is exactly what I am facing and I am considering-change that-I have made up my mind to quit as I am actively searching as we speak.

    My manager and director as a matter of fact told me that they did not know the reason why I was not eligbile for promotion. Information I had already had at my finger tips after extensive engagements with the HR business partner for my directorate.

    Allow me to borrow some of your phrases utilized and insert some infamous phrases from my organization.

    HR Business Partner: In order for you get a promotion, your role must transition from Assistant Manager to Manger.

    HR Business Partner: You have reached the peak of the role so I will advise you seek growth in another directorate.

    My direct line Manager: We don’t have any new or current management positions open.

    Director: I do not know the reasons why you were not eligibile for promotion. I’d speak with the HR Business Partner.

    Me: I have spoken with the HR BP, can I tell you what she told me?

    Director: We’re not authorized to pay you more in your current role. And there aren’t any other positions that it would make sense for you to manage. Also, staff exist is low and nobody wants to leave. Go back and speak to your line manager.

    Boss: We already have enough managers. And you’re at the top of your pay range.
    Me: Thanks for talking with me. :: abouts to quits for new job ::

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