my employees are afraid to be promoted in case their coworkers resent them

A reader writes:

I manage a public library. I have recently been tackling some personal issues among the staff and I’m not sure how to proceed.

A lot has changed about the way we provide service in libraries, and recently two employees have really stepped up to the plate. I plan to promote them to either supervisory or full-time positions and I’m thrilled for them and us. But the two people who I am promoting are terrified of what their coworkers will think when they find out about the promotions. There’s a lot of competitiveness on the staff right now and more than a bit of “Why her and not me?” type stuff. I try to deal with it when I hear about it but most often, I don’t hear about it directly. Other staff members tell me but don’t want me to bring it up to the offender. I feel like I need to honor that to some degree, but I also don’t want people to be freaked out every time we reward them for hard work!

I’m not quite sure how to move forward. I would like people to be happy for their coworkers because they have worked very hard and earned these promotions. But right now, I have two people who are worried about even announcing the promotions because they don’t want to be ostracized. Any advice?

I answer this question 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.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Hogsmeade AirBNB*

    I read here once (can’t remember where) that it’s important to remember that people aren’t doing these things AT you. Any employee being promoted wouldn’t be doing it AT their coworkers.

    1. Xenia*

      Sounds like something that comes up on Captain Awkward a lot, and I agree. They’re not being competent ‘at’ someone.

  2. Black Horse Dancing*

    OP, you absolutely need to explain why X was chosen if you don’t want festering resentment and if your employees ask “how do I get this”, be sure to explain what they need to do to get promoted and what you can and will do to help them and then don’t forget that. Nothing drains a person more than working their tail off, doing more than what is needed for a promotion, and the manager never promoting them.

    1. Smithy*

      I think in addition to that – if this library (or any type of employer) has particularly limited resources for regular promotions/raises – then I also think it’s important to clarify those limitations.

      Let’s say that everyone is a Hot Beverage Specialist, but the county/state has prioritized investment in Coffee, while Tea and Hot Cocoa are remaining stable. If someone wants to continue their career in either Tea or Hot Cocoa, here are ways that the boss can help their professional growth – but that the same kind of financial recognition may be more dependent on a more senior person in the department leaving vs. exceptional work being recognized.

      I work for nonprofits, and I often think that managers really struggle in how that message is delivered. Often organizations will decide that their investment in X work only requires a staff member at a fixed salary levels – and for lots of work this is mentality gets reinforced by project grants. Then even if people closer to the work recognize the value and specialization someone has brought over time – there simply isn’t the budget or organizational will to give someone a promotion in their current line of work. Maybe it’s as simple as encouraging someone to expand their skills in a growth area (i.e. Coffee). But still, being honest about those funding realities makes these conversations more direct about the overall industry.

  3. animaniactoo*

    My first instinct is to be very clear when you promote them why you are promoting them:

    Jane has done excellent work on X project and has gone above and beyond in managing Y during Z’s absence. I am please to announce that based on this work, she has earned* a promotion to “Head FlifferFluffer in Charge of Corralling FlafferFliffers”.

    Reassure the promoted employees that you will have their backs and then follow through on that. “Yes, Jane DOES get to tell you that. This what being “Head FF in Charge of Corralling FFs” means. I understand that she used to be your direct level co-worker but now she is a level above. If you’re not happy with the work you’re currently doing, we can talk about what you’d like to do and how to get there.”

    *This earned terminology is very important. It sends a whole different message from “has been given” or will now be” – it’s explicitly clear that this is a merit based promotion and that merit has just been outlined in the first part of the statement. It should head off a lot of “why her and not me” UNLESS you have employees who are upset because they have work that isn’t been recognized which should be recognized. If that is happening, that is something to address separately.

    You can also use the terminology “has been selected to fill the currently vacant role” if multiple people would be “earning” a promotion, but the ability to promote is limited by a lack of vacant spots. But you still want to emphasize the work that they have done as part of why they have been selected – how does that work match the role in particular that they are being selected to take on.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I am wary of “earned” unless it is directly tied to something in the new position.

      Being excellent at a particular job doesn’t mean you’ll be good at the next level up. The “earning” suggests to me that someone showed they could work independently, or assist peers, or exceed expectations, or whatever, that has a connection to the new position, particularly if there’s new management or strategic responsibility.

      If you are great at your job precisely within its own parameters then you’ve earned a bonus or a raise. You might even have earned a pivot into a specialism, or to drop your “junior” label.

      I am a terrible cynic, and maybe I’ve seen too many people promoted into positions they were entirely unsuited to, on the basis of good performance in a different and lower position. I could also be totally misunderstanding what particular library jobs might exist that are senior without being supervisory.

      In any case, my advice such as it is would be to focus on the future relevance of the “earning” rather than framing it as a retrospective reward.

  4. PT*

    Sometimes you get the “why her and not me” attitude when you’re in a workplace where there are more people deserving of promotions than their are ever going to be available promotions. There just isn’t much of a path for advancement, and when the only opportunity in two years opens up, the twenty people who got passed over are naturally going to be frustrated that they missed out.

    It’s not so much a problem with the person who got promoted, or the manager who promoted them, but the fact that it’s a dead end workplace for most people.

    1. Sara without an H*

      This is frequently a problem within libraries, where the organizational structures are typically flat. It’s hard to provide a career path for people.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        (Library employee here, although in a private, not public one) bingo. Competition for full-time library jobs is absolutely cutthroat and a lot of people get an MLIS and then spend years languishing in part-time positions, positions for which they are overskilled, or, worst of all, volunteering while doing something else entirely. Pretty much the whole reason I haven’t gone back for an MLIS is that I don’t think it’s worth the student debt.

        1. Yellow Rose*

          I’ve worked in a dysfunctional library. Having an MLIS is absolutely over-rated to the work; a motivated 4chan user could perform any function, and without the drama level in the average, dysfunctional union mentality library. An AA or BA in Business Management would suffice as a director.

      2. KRM*

        It happens in biotech too–your small company might need 10 senior/principal scientists, but only 2 directors. You *might* be able to sustain 1-2 more directors if you’re growing, and so can promote into new positions, but the reality is that, even if you’re amazing, there may not be that position to move into. Many scientists leave for other companies to move up, and companies have to support that for personal employee growth (to their credit, most of them do).

        1. AcademiaNut*

          The difference with libraries is that moving jobs to move up can be just as hard as staying and hoping for a promotion – competition is fierce, there’s relatively little (if any) growth, and a constant stream of new graduates desperate for work. Not to mention that if you live in the right area there are lots of biotech companies, but libraries tend to be widely dispersed, so a new job can mean a significant move.

  5. Gina Linetti*

    It seems like every time someone posts about working at a library, the situation is… not good.

    1. Msnotmrs*

      Libraries are very competitive job environments, so this doesn’t surprise me at all. There are not enough jobs and many places require an MLS for even entry-level librarian jobs, so you see people at the lower levels (clerk, page, etc.) with bachelors or masters degrees, hoping to work their way up internally.

      That said, I love being a librarian and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

      1. Sara without an H*

        The non-negotiable MLS requirement started as a way to ensure librarians’ “professional” status, improve salaries, gain respect, etc. It hasn’t solved most of those issues, and is probably behind the appalling lack of diversity within the field. If I could wave a wand and make the American Library Association come to its senses, I’d make the entry-level degree a bachelor’s, with master’s programs tailored for people who wanted to acquire a specialization or to move into administration.

        1. Msnotmrs*

          100% agree. I see the sense of the masters for admin and any job that involves long-term, big-picture planning, but for things like circ, reference, and children’s programming? Nahh

          1. PlainJane*

            Do you know how much work goes into children’s programming? It’s a good half of my job in a normal year. (Obviously, this year not so much.) Summer reading every year alone is logistically insane.

            1. New Jack Karyn*

              It is a lot of work–and dedication, understanding of your target audience & community, and probably a lot of other things–but does it require a master’s degree?

            2. Msnotmrs*

              I understand, yes, as it was my previous specialty. It required training, but not a master’s degree. A bachelor’s in early childhood, English lit, or specific on-the-job training would have been enough.

              1. PlainJane*

                I may have gotten my wires crossed on it; I was thinking about the PT/FT question elsewhere. Yeah, I took storytelling and children’s lit on my MLS, but I mostly depend on high school drama club. ;p But my issue with the masters is mostly that if they required it from me, and I have to pay for it, then I feel pretty cheated when someone else doesn’t, which is stupid, I know, but if the masters becomes unrequired, they can say, “Hey, sorry, babe, but you’re not getting paid enough to pay your loans, either.” Maybe if they repeal the requirement, they should pay off the loans everyone took to meet it.

        2. River*

          I worked at a few libraries over the years. While I never got my MLS, I worked enough positions and got promoted on various occasions to know that I could do the job of someone with an MLS. Throughout some of those years, I met some librarians that would stick their nose up at you if you did not have an MLS which is such a petty and childish and old world thing to do.
          Libraries aren’t the gold standard of living wages. In all the libraries I’ve worked, you need to have been there a good number of years before you really start making a decent living wage. It’s unfortunate but that’s just the way our world is. I love libraries, don’t get me wrong, they aren’t the place to be to make bank unless you’re ready for a long-term commitment.

      2. Paris Geller*

        Yup. I’ve worked/volunteered in good libraries & bad libraries, but some things are pretty consistent even at the good libraries. Like some people have mentioned, there’s just not enough jobs for everyone that has a degree or skills, so even the healthiest library environment I’ve been in has a bit of competitiveness. There’s also a lot of job creep.

    2. The Real Persephone Mongoose*

      One of my first jobs as a teen was working at a library. When I first started, I thought that being Head Librarian was my career choice. Took a year of working there to realize that the situation is….not good. I did not pursue a degree in Library Science.

    3. Sara without an H*

      Libraries struggle with a number of issues. They are generally embedded in a parent organization which may not “get” the library’s mission and sees it as a money pit. Add on a slew of tenure/promotion requirements, unions, budget issues, and unsympathetic boards, and you get a situation where library directors have very limited control over how their organizations function.

    4. BRR*

      In addition to hefty budget constraints and being a very competitive field which is going to create a unique environment (which many industries are their own unique environments), I think it somewhat boils down to people naming the field when they write in vs lw from other fields.

      This also doesn’t strike me as a huge problem or an uncommon problem. Competitive employees with limited opportunities for growth sounds like most places I’ve worked.

    5. Georgia*

      Yeah, libraries have long been bad places to work. Forty plus years ago I wanted to be a librarian, had jobs in libraries, and even started on my MLS. Professional jobs were so scarce that one professor actively discouraged us . Anyway, life intervened and I left the program. A few years later I got a job as a circ supervisor in a busy public library and had thoughts of resuming my masters. Although I was giving 110%, it was never good enough. The library director had an attitude that no one should deviate one iota from SOP, creative solutions to unexpected problems were always wrong, and heaven help anyone who did not think like her and her minion, aka my boss. Although I was there a year, I never made it off “probation”. I got chewed out for all sorts of things, including petty stuff like not noticing the custodian I supervised missing a shelf when he dusted, and a person I supervised undermined my authority. The librarians did a great job and seemed to go above and beyond but got penalized on reviews if not 100% perfect; one once left her review meeting in tears. They “allowed” me to resign and I soon found the best job I ever had. Shorty thereafter , one of the librarians sued the system over a work issue. This shed a lot of light on the director and her management style and she was fired .

    6. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      well by definition people talk about work problems here, those who think all is hunky dory at work don’t write in.

  6. Not playing your game anymore*

    It’s an interesting career path that’s for sure. I love the work. Most of it. But yeah. When I started mumble years ago in a busy public library it was physically grueling. 8 hours a day on your feet shoving books back and forth lifting,bending stretching. All the downsides of customer service work with a good sized helping of “I pay your salary”

    Now I’m in a much quieter academic library. I love digging into questions, finding the one true green book, not unlike this green book. Finding the picture of the president on the steps with his arms crossed…

    But there isn’t much room for advancement and our support staff are all going to have to scramble to keep up with the changes coming.

    I’m glad I had the chance to spend my career doing this, but I don’t think I’d suggest anyone else do so.

    1. TM*

      I would not encourage anyone to go into libraries right now, that’s for sure. COVID has only exacerbated many existing problems. I’m not sorry that I chose to be a librarian, but I’m actively trying to figure out what’s next because I don’t see things getting better any time soon.

  7. Forrest*

    OP, are you sure these two colleagues want the promotions? Have you confirmed that they actually want to be promoted and are just worried about how to handle jealous co-workers, and it’s not that they actively want to stay in their current roles as peers with the other coworkers, and “I’m a bit worried about what they’ll say” is just a way of expressing their reluctance?

  8. Aziraphale*

    As a manager at a library, I really appreciate Alison’s answer (as always). I agree with all of the comments about libraries being a path where there is a lot of competition and sometimes, not many paths upwards. It’s extremely frustrating that library schools are still telling students – “Oh, a lot of librarians are retiring so there are a lot of jobs.” No, not true now and not true when I was getting my MLIS 10 years ago. Librarians, especially those in professional positions (i.e. head/lead/manager positions) tend to cling like barnacles to their book carts. I mean that in the nicest way — some people really enjoy their work and want to stay as long as possible. However, when people retire, those positions are often not filled or are filled differently/taken from FT to PT. So, it creates a very competitive environment when any type of job opens up.
    Which can lead to some grumbling when people get promoted. I get it. I have promoted people and have made it clear when I do this. Luckily, my current team is great and people really support each other – so the last few promotions were really supported by everyone. But, Alison’s advice is so solid — being transparent right away, but also addressing any grumbling right away, is what should happen. Does it usually happen? No. But it should and hopefully in this case, will help both the people bring promoted and the rest of their team.

    1. Thankful for AAM*

      We have already been told that when the current full time people leave their roles, they will each be converted to part time. Our system will soon be all part time staff and full time, exempt managers. And all managers will be librarian IIs (for the librarians in the crowd). That means no librarian 1 positions and literally no pathway to advancement. For the non-librarians, that means you would have to go from part time to a full time, mid level manager.

        1. TM*

          For institutions that have been around for years and years and years, libraries can be extremely short-sighted.

    2. PlainJane*

      They’re also still selling that “Oh, the average salary is $55K, so go ahead and take out those loans; you’ll be fine.” Grrr.

      The FT to PT shift is very frustrating, since of course, that also means you don’t get health insurance. (I was once given two 19hr/wk jobs at the same place so I could work 38 hours and not have benefits, though that wasn’t at the professional level.) And the inability to move up, combined with the common elimination of step raises means that you’re professionally stuck for a very long time. (Want a raise? Apply for a new job, silly! Oh, no, we’re going to give it to the person who doesn’t have your degree or the loans that came with it…)

    3. Ace in the Hole*

      Yup. My mom (currently a library director) was planning to work several more years before retirement. She agreed to retire at the end of this year because she was told the only way they’d have the budget to hire a desperately needed full-time librarian is if she retired.

      Lo and behold, as soon as she submitted her formal letter of resignation they said they won’t be hiring a full time librarian after all, just one additional part-timer…

  9. Mel_05*

    Totally agree with the transparency thing. I also think that having to be transparent about why you’re promoting people helps managers be sure they’re making the best choice instead of just promoting the people they’re cliquey with.

    But, it’s really discouraging when it’s not clear why some people are getting promotions or better assignments – or when it is clear and the reason is bad.

  10. Thankful for AAM*

    I saw only the headline and thought, it’s a library!
    In addition to what others said about libraries, there is a tradition of NOT being transparent because then someone will be upset. People get upset when there is transparency and upset when there is not. I think mostly because managers don’t actually know what transparency means. We are choosing an internal hire for a lead position right now. The details about it are as clear as mud but I am sure the top level folks think they have been very transparent!

    As others said, there are limited leadership roles, limited funding/projects, limited pathways to leadership, and staffs who prefer to avoid conflict (reality).

  11. PlainJane*

    There may be some concern about processes if promotions were just granted–I know that in every public place I’ve worked, promotions are really “applying for and getting a higher level job”… in other words, you aren’t “given” a promotion, you have to go through the entire job application process over again. So if employees have just been bumped up, other employees might well say, “Wait a minute, the job was never posted! I couldn’t even APPLY for it?” What does the union say? What are the usual norms? That might be what the concern is–that the newly promoted think the ones who weren’t promoted are going to assume something hinky is going on because of a difference in procedure.

    1. Smithy*

      Coming from a non-library nonprofit perspective – I think a lot of these issues of fairness/jealousy could be addressed if these scarce jobs were at least internally posted. If nothing else, it can call out that ultimately there’s only the option for one or two posts at X level and even if everyone could potentially do the job, only one person can get it.

      At my last job, one person was promoted into a job that at least 3 if not 4 other staff members could make the case they’d be equally if not better suited. While leadership may have felt their explanations were clear, it’s was not heard that way by either junior staff nor the promoted staff member’s new peers.

      Certainly there are plenty of letters to AAM over the years where people remain upset following opportunities to interview and not receiving the role. However, I do think it’s savvy to be mindful of whether staff are being jealous or if they’re upset they’re not receiving opportunities for promotion. It could be a case where both staff being promoted focus on children/youth and the OP can make these promotions because their budget for youth has grown in response to the needs around COVID. Therefore there simply was never a possibility for anyone with a different focus area to be promoted – or a similar reason that can be transparently communicated. But if there’s not that kind of clarity…..I think writing off the coworkers simply as jealous may not entirely be fair.

    2. uncivil servant*

      I don’t know how it works in this system. (There was an interesting discussion on the Library Think Tank on Facebook a few months ago started by someone saddened that her library didn’t change her job title once she finished her MLIS. Most people were surprised she thought this would be possible, a few were outraged that not all libraries do this.)

      When people in my organization get new positions, the message from the library manager is always this awkward mix of congratulations and HR-speak justification for the change. For example, “I’m so happy to announce that Jenny has been appointed to an indeterminate Librarian II position. Jenny has done great work on the ILS migration project and she was the successful candidate in a selection process for a one-year term Librarian II position in 2018. We’re so happy to have you, Jenny!”

      1. PlainJane*

        Huh. I didn’t know it was possible anywhere. Learn something new everyday, I guess. But I’ve heard of a lot of MLS librarians sticking in paraprofessional or even clerical jobs, applying over and over for librarian jobs any time they open.

  12. Maud Bailey*

    I also work in a library–currently it’s a large academic one, but I’ve also worked in public libraries. I agree with previous commenters–something about library culture seems to breed a lot of mistrust and resentment among staff. As people have pointed out, opportunities to move up are few and far between. There aren’t many library jobs available in any given place, and people don’t always want to move (i.e. in most areas of the country there’s just one library system and maybe an academic library or two). At my workplace,library administration has been very transparent and candid about what can and can’t be done as far as salaries and advancement; some things are determined by the university, some things just aren’t fair to others, etc. We still have the reality that job levels are fixed, people tend to stay in their jobs for decades and the job might change when they leave, and that there isn’t much money for raises each year. But, I think it really helps that administration is open about seeing those realities and acknowledging them.

    One other thing that I was going to suggest in addition to the transparency already mentioned is to make sure that you have a structured employee evaluation and development system. My current employer does annual reviews each year that have specific areas of evaluation, and I also have a one-on-one meeting each month with my area supervisor. I know what the expectations and metrics are, and they are the same for everyone. At a smaller library where I once worked, my supervisor created goals each month that we were asked to achieve and actually had a sticker chart for them. People who completed them got a small treat at monthly meetings. It sounds cheesy, but it actually worked really well to build morale. My supervisor participated too, and it included everyone in the department (full-time and part-time). I think that as a supervisor you need to make sure that you are building morale and camaraderie through clear expectations that apply to everyone.

    One last thought–if promotions just mean being moved up to a level where you manage people, some staff might not want this. Not everyone wants to be a manager, and it’s really depressing to feel like the only way to get ahead is to move into a position that manages.

  13. Bob*

    What an odd dynamic.
    Most workplaces continue to function properly when people are promoted so its kinda strange to have this very strong issue happen in a Library of all places.
    That said i agree with Alison’s advice, don’t get stuck in the weeds, be open and respond to those who are apt to act resentful with opportunity instead.

  14. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    A tough dilemma – because if you elevate one or two people above others, there may very well be repercussions.

    Yes, you can tell those passed over “this is what you have to do to move up, and next time… ” — but if the person has done all the right things, has reached middle age, and is passed over for someone younger and with less experience, you better the hell be able to justify it without over-rationalizing it. Especially if this is the first promotional opportunity in some time – there may be no “next time” and people realize that. Promote the wrong guy or gal, and you might de-motivate people that were passed over.

    Conversely someone might be embarrassed, or uncomfortable about moving up. They will need coaching , and they may have to be prepared to handle resentful attitudes.

    So when you do hand out that rare promotion, make sure everything is RIGHT.

  15. That NonProfit Finance Guy*

    Do they need to be promoted to a supervisory position? I mean, giving them recognition is GREAT! But does the fact they are kicking butt at the job alone indicate they need to be promoted? Making them full time does seem to be a good way to do it–>more hours doing the job they are doing very well. Or maybe giving them a raise–>optics remain the same, but you reward them still.

    It also goes without saying: management is a whole different animal. Just because they excel at A doesn’t necessarily translate to a good manager.

  16. Another Library Manager*

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet – if there is specifically one person, or a couple of people, whose reaction they are worried about, consider whether there are other issues with that employee.

    Like, I’ve been at a library where if someone said they were worried about this, I’d know who they meant immediately, and that’s not a great sign – I had been letting some things slide as a manager that needed addressing.

  17. Kestrel*

    One thing that may or may not be a factor in potential resentment is that this year COVID may have really sapped some employees capacities to go above and beyond. For example, it’s hard to volunteer for an extra shift when childcare is hit-or-miss (or maybe even cover regular shifts sometimes). So you may want to think about whether you’re, say, rewarding the only two people who don’t have small kids or something along those lines. I’ve heard quite a few stories about people being passed over or even laid off based on reduced performance this year, when there was really no way around it. Not that good performers shouldn’t be rewarded, but take a good look at whether you’re evaluating performance going back further than last March.

  18. B Wayne*

    Boy, I’ll tell you. I was “one of the boys” enjoying my buds at work and work in general until I took a supervisor roll only for the extra money. And it was “mean boys” after that. My work friends for years turned into hateful middle school girls within weeks. Worst two years I experienced there and was grateful reorganization put me elsewhere (at less money) for the last two years I worked there. In hindsight, I should have said the heck with the (not really that much to make a real difference) money and just kept doing what I was doing.

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