I need to take back an employee’s promotion

A reader writes:

I’m a middle manager who was promoted without any warning a few years ago (didn’t really want the promotion but wasn’t given an option other than leaving). I have been in this position for several years now with little to no real training.

It seems I keep making mistakes with my subordinates, but this may be the worst one yet. My supervisor wants to promote one of the people who works for me. My employee had somehow overheard part of the conversation and instead of telling him I knew nothing, I discussed the plans as I knew them, although not in great detail. Now it appears he won’t be getting the promotion. Yep, hindsight is 20/20. Not only am I likely in hot water for talking about the promotion, but what do I tell him? Do I wait until I know for certain that he won’t be promoted or do I talk to him now?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. sunny-dee*

    I actually had a manager do this (not to me). One of my coworkers asked to replace someone who left a strategy role on our team. After a couple of weeks, Manager said yes, and she emailed her project team. One of the team members went to Manager and said, “that’s great, but how are we going to cover XYZ tasks?” And Manager said, “whoops, didn’t think of that.” And made her send out an email saying she was no longer leaving for the other project … FOUR HOURS after her initial announcement.

      1. sunny-dee*

        She tried to get a couple of internal transfers but got blocked because she hadn’t been in her role long enough. (She had only been there about three months when she tried for the promotion, which is way early, but whatever.) Last I heard, she’s counting down the clock to 10 months and putting out feelers for another transfer. :(

        1. Wheels*

          If she’s good enough why not go for and get a promotion? Just because it is only three months shouldn’t rule you out of jobs if you are the best candidate. It would be daft for hiring managers to exclude internal candidates and reduce the hiring pool arbitrarily (external candidates they can’t be sure of why they are applying after three months so would be right to be suspicious).

  2. Weekday Warrior*

    Re OP #1. I realize that this is an older letter and the person is unlikely to be reading this but for others in the same situation… some thoughts! You may not be cut out for management and you didn’t choose it but while you figure out whether you can move on there are definitely steps you can take to do a better job. Taking responsibility for improvement will benefit you and your employees. Some ideas:

    1. Start with the very good advice on many aspects of management from the Management Center (Alison and friends!)
    2. Buy and study Managing to Change the World.
    3. Create a management skills development plan with your supervisor.
    4. Create an informal development network with other managers in your company to share readings, discuss issues and solutions.
    4. Check out community college or online courses on supervising/managing.
    5. Etc!

    Whether or not you remain in management, management skills and perspectives will be valuable to you. In the end, we all manage at least ourselves and our own lives. :)

  3. Leatherwings*

    Regarding Letter 4: I think there’s been a huge step forward recently where people are recognizing that while proper grammar and spelling is important in many contexts, it can be annoying to constantly correct.

    There are a lot of different ways to speak and write, so correcting teensy grammar pet peeves like Me vs. Myself in documents that aren’t “official” will annoy more people than it will help. I’ve noticed a few typos in blogs or proposals before and those are things that need to be correct. But no so much in informal emails or a quick internal memo.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      Yes, and context is so much key here. I do a fair amount of editing on the job, and the standards for corrections are so, so different for official external publications vs. more casual public communication (like blog posts) vs. official internal communications vs. more off-the-cuff internal communications, and so on. And so the level of word choice nitpicking I do varies quite a lot, not because I don’t know the rules, but because there are just varying levels of formality.

      (We see something like this in the comments occasionally, where a LW will say “when he said X, it made me feel icky,” and someone will pop up in the comments saying ‘icky isn’t a very professional word, LW, perhaps it is you who has the problem with professionalism!’ But of course people writing letters to Alison are writing more colloquially than they probably would when discussing the issue with a boss, and failing to acknowledge that is tone-deaf and, to some extent, deliberately obtuse rather than helpful.)

    2. Abby*

      Agreed. Correcting small grammar mistakes (particularly ones that don’t confuse the meaning of the message) in internal communications is probably just going to rub people the wrong way. I’ve only gone so far as to correct spelling mistakes because they tend to be more obvious.

      1. Blurgle*

        The only time I’m super-picky is if the error is in something that’s meant for public (not pubic!) consumption.

        I once got a $150 cash bonus on the first day of a summer job during university for noticing a potentially embarrassing typo in a flyer everyone else in the office had already proofread and passed. The boss loved me from that moment on; my coworkers weren’t quite as impressed.

  4. Seal*

    In addition to Alison’s excellent advice, be prepared to deal with your employee’s disappointment over not getting the promotion. Reneging on a promotion is a huge deal; people quit over things like this.

    I had a supervisor who got promoted and promised me I would get promoted into his position once the dust settled; we discussed this regularly for the next two months. Imagine my surprise when a less-qualified colleague got his position instead. Turned out I was never even considered; to this day I can’t imagine why my supervisor thought it was OK to lead me on like that. Needless to say, I left that position shortly thereafter.

    1. Jerry Vandesic*

      I agree completely. The no-longer-promoted employee could very well start looking for a job immediately after the promotion is rescinded.

    2. BananaPants*

      I totally agree. If my boss reneged on a promotion, I’d start a job hunt the same day.

  5. AtrociousPink*

    #4: Veteran legal secretary here. Over the years, I’ve learned to just smile to myself and let the errors go. Lawyers don’t want grammar help from assistants, and I suspect other types of bosses are the same. My only concern is that I’ll unintentionally internalize some of the recurring gaffes I see, and they’ll start appearing in my own writing.

  6. really*

    #1 – While bad I don’t think this might be as bad as the LW thought. It was good they didn’t lie and say they didn’t know anything. It depends on how LW talked about the promotion. There’s a difference between saying you will…, when you…., and if you…. How you frame things is important no matter what your position is. But one thing not mentioned is that these kind of discussions should not be held where someone can over hear them to begin with.

  7. Chinook*

    I love your advice, as always. When I end up having to correct grammar in a document, I have learned to ask if their word choice reflects the industry standard (because sometimes they use words differently in different words). Luckily, I have only ever debated grammar and punctuation with two bosses, and both of them understood what I meant when I referred to the Oxford comma and Canadian spelling, so it was more an academic discussion than putting someone’s nose out of joint.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Yes, this–I see a lot of passive language, and it drives me crazy. I will correct it when I can, but often I have to leave it because correcting it would make the explanation unclear. I have to ask myself, what information is the reader trying to get from this? If it’s easier for them to read it the way it is, I have to let it go and just bleep right over it. It’s not necessarily wrong.

      The industry I work in is packed with jargon, and I’ve had to internalize that as well.

  8. Nervous Accountant*

    I must have been the stupidest English major ever, because I never knew “myself” was incorrect….

    1. Artemesia*

      Read the sentence with only yourself i.e. ‘He presented the awards to Charles, Beverly and myself’ now ‘He presented the award to myself’ — It clearly doesn’t work that way and should be ‘He presented the award to me.’ –it is how I check when in doubt about subject and object pronouns.

    2. Mephyle*

      It fell into use as an overcorrection: people are told not to use “me” as in “Me and Jane went to the store,” and because they don’t know why it’s wrong, they start avoiding “me” everywhere even when it is the right word. And they say, “The boss gave a present to Fergus and I.” (wrong) “Bob and myself will be the point persons on this step.” (wrong).
      The principle that Artemesia described above helps you out in all these cases. Leave out the other people and check how the sentence sounds with just you in it. You wouldn’t say any of the following:
      Me went to the store.
      The boss gave a present to I.
      Myself will be the point person on this step.

    3. New Bee*

      It’s because myself, himself, etc. are reflexive pronouns; like a mirror shows you yourself, reflexive pronouns indicate actions taken upon oneself. For example: I bathe myself, I dress myself, I trust myself, etc. And don’t feel stupid; pronouns aren’t taught very well in school! I learned when I picked up a second language (Spanish).

  9. Reb*

    I manage a team of tech writers. I correct the guts out of external documents. I totally ignore errors in internal documents, unless they affect the meaning. It’s a question of focusing on what actually matters, and the grammar of internal documents isn’t even on my radar.

  10. AK*

    Has everyone here signed up for an account on Inc. in order to read these articles? It feels essentially like a pay-wall because even though it’s free, I have to go through the trouble of setting up an account (and likely signing on to a whole lot of new, unwanted emails) just so I can read these posts. Is there a way for these articles to be accessible without creating an account? Or perhaps they can become available on this site after some period of time of exclusive access at Inc has passed? Is anyone else frustrated that they have to create an account to read these posts?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, it’s how they’re able to support the site; it’s what they ask you for in exchange for giving you free content. This is an ongoing struggle with content creators — we’re all trying to figure how to continue making content accessible without bankrupting ourselves. I’m very sympathetic to that! It’s also how I get paid by them, so I’m extra sympathetic to them :)

      That said, I’d bet you could use a throwaway email address though if you don’t want emails.

    2. lucy*

      No, I haven’t signed up for an account. I’m not willing to do that just to get access to recycled content. It’s not worth the hassle. (Maybe if it was new content I might consider it, though I still think it’s unlikely I’d bother.)

    3. Lily Rowan*

      Often (although apparently not in this case) the original column is linked as one of the related posts, so you can also generally read it that way! If Inc. is too much trouble.

    4. myswtghst*

      Late to this discussion, but since no one has given this answer – I signed up for a free account and so far I’m actually glad I did. I get an email newsletter each day (usually in the afternoon) with summaries of / links to ~5 Inc. articles (no repeats), and that’s it. Looking at my account, I have the option to decide which newsletters / content I’m interested in, and so far, I’ve clicked through to at least 1-2 articles in most of the emails I’ve received, so it’s been beneficial for me.

    5. Anonymouse*

      You can read the articles without an account if you open them in a private window (right click on the link –> Open link in new private window).

  11. Chaordic One*

    #1. In my former workplace an employee (who probably did not do enough due diligence) applied for and accepted a position in her department under the mistaken belief that it was a promotion. Although it was a more demanding position, it paid the same rate as her former less-demanding position.

    Her supervisor, her supervisor’s supervisor, and her supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor all filled out requests to have the new position raised a pay level (since the workload had increased and the tasks had changed over time) but they were shot down by HR who said that other people in other departments were doing similar work and were paid at the same rate. (I don’t think they were, but I suppose it was possible.)

    Anyway, she developed a bad attitude AND became burned-out. She ended up being fired. Sometimes I think they were trying to get rid of her before they fired her.

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