how do I tell an employee that I’m not promoting him?

A reader writes:

I am in a tough position. I have decided to not fill a position for a team leader rather than hire the sole internal candidate for the role. My reason for not hiring this person is because I need someone who will mentor the new members of the team, and my concern that he would not be good at this was confirmed during the interview. He was very arrogant and focused on how he believed he was better than anyone else on the team. He said nothing about the team, nor had any suggestions for where he could be an effective team leader. In fact, he needed to be prompted to remember the name of the newest member of the team, despite the fact that he sits right next to her and has worked with her for the last four months. (This is only a team of five people by the way!)

I do not think he will take this news well and may act out once I tell him. What is the best way to deliver this difficult news and lessen the negative fallout? I want to be honest but I am concerned at his reaction on hearing my decision. He is skilled at his current role, just not the role he applied for.

I answer this question — and three 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Should I revoke a job offer?
  • Should managers also be individual contributors?
  • Asking staff for feedback on me when I’m doing their performance reviews

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    On top of Alison’s advice, if the person’s desire / aspiration really is to lead and mentor a team, start coaching them toward that. Add the relevant skills to their development plan — and have them be accountable to showing how they’re building those skills.

    It’s one thing to be turned down for a promotion because you don’t have the requisite skills (and hopefully, this person would understand the gap and react professionally), but it’s an entirely different thing to be told you lack the skills and see no potential of developing them or getting to the next level. People don’t always learn these skills on their own; they need coaching and development.

    1. 2Legit*

      Yes! After an internal rejection, I was told “you’ll get to do xyz” to further develop skills…. and it didn’t happen. None of it happened. Of course, they were okay with letting me do the work of 3 people, though, during covid. Without any recognition, increase in pay, no perks for the insane increase in workload. It really soured me on that company after I had spent several years there. I was already unhappy, but that was the nail in the coffin. So glad I left!

      1. Anon for this*

        Yes, please have a conversation with the employee and explain things and offer him mentorship. I applied for a promotion and didn’t hear anything until they announced who actually got it. At no point did my supervisor offer to meet with me or explain what I could have done better. Now I am actively looking for a different job, despite being told they value me and getting outstanding performance reviews because actions speak louder than words.

    2. Velawciraptor*

      It’s absolutely important to coach on those skills so the person knows how and what he needs to develop. In the past when I’ve had to pass on internal promotions, giving that feedback has made it possible for the individual to grow enough that they could be promoted the next time the opportunity arose.

      I think another point on the potential for acting out is, that if he did so, it would be important to point out that such behavior is not only unprofessional and unacceptable generally, but that it also reinforced the impression that he was not ready for promotion and would make it hard to consider him as a candidate for promotion in the future.

    3. Skytext*

      I agree except…….he doesn’t need feedback and coaching to learn the person’s name that has been literally sitting next to him for FOUR MONTHS! If he is that oblivious, or narcissistic, or misogynistic, or just has his head up his own ass that far, he needs way more help to become management material than this OP can or should have to provide.

      1. KayDeeAye*

        He does sound…OK, I won’t say hopeless, but he does have a LOT to learn, including that it’s important to, you know, think of the people around him as people, with needs and strengths and weaknesses and *names*.

      2. Susanna*

        I thought the same. It’s hard to coach someone on skills that require a basic sense of paying attention to others. If someone doesn’t even know the *name* of the person who’s been sitting next to them for 4 months… I don;t know that’s salvageable.

        1. MustardPillow*

          Well, to be fair, maybe he was nervous and forgot. I’ve forgotten people’s names when my mind is off thinking about other things like making a particular impression.

          1. Snuck*

            I suspect not though. It’s a pretty simple example, but if he just forgot in the moment and everything else was fine then the OP wouldn’t have raised it as an issue.

        2. allathian*

          Yeah, I agree, and I’m bad with names to the point that I’m not sure if I’d be able to identify all of our new hires by name if I ran into them at the office unexpectedly when I haven’t met all of them in person yet. Thank goodness for compulsory name tags with a large enough font that I don’t have to peer too closely at anyone’s chest from 6 ft away…

          But if I sit next to someone for 4 months, I can guarantee you that I’ll know their name.

    4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      In theory I agree with you, in practice, I’m not sure that excess arrogance can be coached out of someone… It sounds like this person is rather full of himself and doesn’t pay much attention to anyone else, typically the kind of person who will just double down on whatever rather than acknowledging mistakes or factoring new information in.

  2. Kurious Oranj*

    Oh, #3 hits home. Especially when the new supervisor in question misses the individual contributor role soooo much that they end up doing the work of the direct reports, whether the direct reports asked for help or not.

  3. KHB*

    If this person “acts out” when he doesn’t get his way, that sounds like a very good sign that you don’t want him anywhere near a leadership role.

    1. Snuck*

      Agree. There sounds like there’s multiple reasons not to promote this person.

      Make a list of them. Find the three main ones. Give that as feedback. One of them should be “Willingness to accept feedback in a professional manner” and another should be “Develop a team work approach and a professional relationship with peers, managers and partners”. Not sure on the third, something like “Develop mentoring and support behaviours appropriate to management roles”.

      There. Three things. Then if your company has various conflict management, leadership etc courses… only send him when he meets the criteria. I’m so very very tired of people sending problem employees on these courses, inflating their sense of ‘suitability’ for management roles, and then letting them project themselves as higher because they’ve ‘done the course’. Suggest this employee seek out EAP to get some guidance, and consider giving them time off work to attend courses on their own. When they start to get to a reasonable level invest more in them, but for now the gap is too large.

      And plan to cut this person loose. Or for them to leave. I wouldn’t be working to save this person unless their skill sets were incredibly rare. And I certainly wouldn’t be promoting them. Have the tough conversation, then put up with a few weeks of nasty, and be done with it. If they react unprofessionally then document that, put them on a PIP and remove the slowly killing cancer in the team.

      1. Medusa*

        It doesn’t sound like he acts out. Or at least, the LW didn’t mention it if he does. He sounds like he might just be your run-of-the-mill, unpleasant yet reasonably competent co-worker.

        1. Snuck*

          The LW says they worry he will act out. Given that’s not the normal behaviour I have made the assumptions that the LW has a reason to make that statement.

  4. Eldritch Office Worker*

    #4 I think what makes it feel weird is framing it as “feedback on me”, something that might traditionally come up in your own annual review if it includes upward feedback. That’s not what you’re asking though! You’re still asking about them, you’re just asking what kind of supports they need and if they need any adjustments to the way that they’re managed. Totally normal. We ask that during normal check-ins from time to time in our company. It’s great feedback to be open to and nothing to feel weird about.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      Yeah, my boss asks if there is anything I need from her, if our meetings frequency/duration/format/content still work for me, any meetings/groups I’d like to be added to/dropped from, etc.. I think the LW’s questions fall solidly in that vein

  5. Ope!*

    I’m a new supervisor to a very small team and I’m surprised how much I’m still calibrating #3. I knew I wouldn’t be doing individual contributor work like I was before, but the team is small enough (5 or less) that I do still have room for and expectations of carrying my own (reduced) workload. I’m less than a year into the role and still working on figuring out
    A) what I WANT to prioritize as “my” work
    B) What the team I work with are interested in and capable of as “their” work
    C) the levels of management that the people I work with want / need that impacts how much time I have for A & B

    1. All Het Up About It*

      I’ve always been a manager of small teams as small/smallish organizations. So some type of individual contributor requirements are always there. It can be very frustrating when there are TOO many. My first role, I had really great balance with it, but I had great processes in place before I stepped in. My new role, it’s a bigger challenge, for many different reasons that I would love to tell you over a glass of wine sometime. Ha!

      Good luck with your calibration.

    2. Grey Coder*

      I’m afraid that calibration will be an ongoing activity. You’ve already noticed that with your point C — if you acquire a new team member, they may need more or less support/coaching from you than previous team members. Or a new project comes along where you need to spend more time co-ordinating your team’s work with that of other teams. Or someone leaves and you need to fill in. Etc, etc, etc. I was in this role for about 8 years and my percentage of “individual contributor” time varied from 0% to about 75%.

    3. For the Moment*

      A thing I figured out for tuning what I took as “my” individual work vs. what I delegated was an understanding that my time doing management was often interrupt driven. If there was a situation that would take 5 minutes to tell me about and 5 minutes for me to unwind to get one of my staff able to be productive that day, the right answer 99% of the time is to take the ten minutes to get the day’s worth of productivity.

      Repeat for 8 staff and the three hours of planned focus time I had for “my” work now looks like confetti. So my life got easier and more productive when I stopped taking the “needs 4 hours of focus a week” projects for myself. Even if they were only 4 hours a week of work, they were the wrong kind of 4 hours for me to reliably have.

    4. Sweet Christmas!*

      This really depends a lot on your role and the expectations of it – I’m a manager and I also have some duties that people would label as “individual contributor” duties. But I will say that this is very much what less than a year in feels like – I didn’t start to feel like I wasn’t failing every week until I was about a year into the role, and I didn’t start to feel like I was actually doing a decent job until I was two years in. And every time your team changes a little bit, you have to relearn this all over, although it gets much faster over time.

  6. COBOL Dinosaur*

    I would have loved to have seen an update on this one. I was always curious what the person’s reaction to not being promoted was considering he seemed so arrogant.

      1. Tuckerman*

        Interesting. Not what I would have expected but a great update and shows how some people just need a nudge in the right direction.

        1. Koalafied*

          Yes, it seems like this fellow wasn’t intractably arrogant on a personal level, he just needed to recalibrate his understanding of “what impresses my bosses/is valued by the company.”

          If I had to make up a backstory for the character, I’d reckon that probably somewhere along the way he’d gotten misguided advice about how he should always be selling himself. Or he had a past boss whose compliments always skewed towards “wow, you’re so much more talented than your teammates,” so in his mind “being the most talented on the team” became equivalent to “valued by manager,” and when he wanted to put his best foot forward in an interview, he fell back on emphasizing what he believed to be the trait(s) managers value most.

      2. EmmaPoet*

        This seems like a really good update. The LW got this person to rethink things, they learned how to mentor/coach, and the whole team benefited.

      3. Sara without an H*

        Thanks for the link. It’s great to see an example of how explicit feedback works in real life.

  7. idwtpaun*

    #2 comes across to me as an employer being shocked than an employee is advocating for themselves instead of being prostrate with gratitude to the great and powerful job-giver. I hope it wasn’t actually as bad as that.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      Agreed. I’m a little disappointed Alison didn’t take the OP to task on that.

      The very idea of being punitive because you didn’t like what the person you agreed to hire negotiated? You literally agreed to it and now you want to be mad?

      And the line about not considering the businesses needs. Totally smacks of employee should be grateful we even offered them a job.

      1. Koalafied*

        And over just a few thousand dollars that was in keeping with the desired range he stated up front!

        Sure, if he’d said $80-90, agreed to proceed even hearing that the range officially tops out at $80k, and then countered with $120k, I’d say he wasted everyone’s time and if you’re awash in enough good candidates that you can be picky it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to decline to negotiate further if he tried to come back on the second pass and say actually $85k would be OK. That’s not what this is.

    2. generic_username*

      I sort of agree. They also seem to be holding the job candidate to the impossible standard of knowing their internal constraints.

      Also, why didn’t they ask about start availability during the interview process? The last time I interviewed (very recently), they asked me during the phone screen how soon I could start the role (they also discussed the budget for the role at this point). I let them know upfront I’d want to give my current job a month notice, and then wound up dropping out of the process due to the budget constraints of the role. It would have been terribly frustrating to go through the entire process to find out those things didn’t align at the end…

      1. mlem*

        Two months is both so long and so specific that it sounds like either the person has a UK-style commitment or is still in school and planning to start post-graduation. Either of those should be fine if discussed; there seems to be a general lack of communication in the case of the letter.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          I actually just asked for a start date 2 months in the future. A month to finish up at my job, and a month off so I start fresh. I’m in public health though, so part of that is that everything’s been SO HARD for the past few years that new boss totally understood.

        2. Sweet Christmas!*

          I asked for a start date that was about six weeks into the future for my current job, because I had some travel planned and wanted to also wrap up some projects at my previous job, which is in a slow-moving field. It wasn’t weird at all for them, but they have many people that come from that field into the role. Even still, I’ve seen other organizations at my company delay start dates for travel, children in school, maternity leave, civic service and all kinds of other stuff.

          Our reasoning is that we hope this person will be around with us for years, so delaying by a little longer than we’d expect for the right person is the right choice.

    3. EagleRay*

      My thoughts exactly! They’re viewing a normal negotiation process as a personal insult. The 2 months is on the longer side but maybe that’s what’s needed to wind down their other job?

      1. Velawciraptor*

        They also seem to be holding the candidate responsible for the fact that they’ve offered a salary out of their original budget. If that was going to be an issue, salary range and flexibility on that should have been advertised up front.

        1. Fluffy Fish*

          As I’ve heard stated before, OP is acting like it’s coming out of their pocket. They’re making perfectly normal negotiations weirdly personal.

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yeah, it was the top of their salary range… but it was the bottom of the candidate’s range! So that negotiate seems pretty in line with those facts to me and reasonable on both parts.

    4. Gigi*

      They also don’t mention trying to have any sort of conversation about the start date. Maybe they did and the candidate immediately shut them down, but it sounds like the LW didn’t even try to say “oh, that’s a stretch for us. Can you start any sooner? We need to fill the role by XYZ date”. That’s a perfectly reasonable limit to have…if you say you out loud to the other person!

    5. Medusa*

      That’s exactly what I thought. I could maybe see pause at the “I will start in two months” statement if they phrased it as “My start date will be XX” rather than “Ideally, I would like my start date to be XX” and then throwing it back to the hirer for their thoughts on whether or not that would be feasible, but not enough to rescind the offer.

  8. ecnaseener*

    Alison gives LW2 a little more benefit of the doubt than I do…negotiating for a few thousand dollars and being unavailable to start right away don’t come anywhere close to “sheer entitlement and a lack of teamwork.” Even if the candidate was brusque about it, I can maybe see entitled, but team-player-ness doesn’t enter into it (unless of course your definition of being a team player is putting the company’s interests above your own in all things).

    If this wasn’t an old letter, I’d tell LW2 to examine their reaction a little more closely – why so offended by a fairly normal business negotiation? Is it a power thing?

    1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      I 100% agree about the negotiations but just announcing that he was starting in 2 months strikes me as presumptuous. That’s a conversation, not a proclamation.

      1. ecnaseener*

        If he’s not available for 2 months, he’s not available. (And if he’s technically available but not interested, that’s completely his decision and not something he needs to open up for negotiation if he’s not going to change his mind!) Yes, I would advise including something like “is that going to pose a problem?” so maybe he was overly brusque – still nothing to do with teamwork.

  9. anonymous73*

    I feel like the first letter is similar to the Adam letter today. As a manager you can’t let your fear of how an employee will react to feedback keep you from managing them properly. Walking on eggshells, hinting around at change and refusing to discipline them for bad behavior does a disservice to the rest of the employees and the company. Yes the specific language may change from person to person, but be clear and explicit with your expectations, and lay out consequences when those expectations aren’t followed.

  10. iki*

    #3: This is such a good question. It could be my field (software engineering where technical skills tend to be prized above all else) or that a few of the companies I worked at were “streamlined” after being purchased by private equity, but I see a lot of lack of respect for the work of management that leads to overburdened and ineffectual managers, which then leads to less respect for the work of management, which then allows the feedback loop to continue. Part of this has to do with the fact that good management is trickier to quantify than work from individual contributors. And often when a good managers been working with a team for a while, they’ve shaped the team so well that the team will be fine without a manager for a while, so leadership eliminates the role. But mismanagement slowly creeps back in. Or the work of management falls to people it shouldn’t who then can’t contribute at the level they were before.

    Good management is hard and tricky and a full job. There are a lot of bad managers out there, especially because management is often misunderstood, but great management makes work SO MUCH BETTER for individual contributors. It’s magic, I swear. But it’s not something people can really experience until they’ve had a really good manager OR see what happens when that good manager is gone.

    1. Alexis Rosay*

      “And often when a good managers been working with a team for a while, they’ve shaped the team so well that the team will be fine without a manager for a while, so leadership eliminates the role. But mismanagement slowly creeps back in.”

      Yes, yes to this. I’ve seen it happening with managing programs as well as teams—someone makes it look easy or even effortless and others conclude they’re not actually doing much. It can take a year or more for the cracks to really show after someone is eliminated, so often those in charge don’t quite make the connection to eliminating the role.

  11. Xaraja*

    Related to managers doing work in addition to managing, I often feel odd about the fact that i go to my grand boss who is a VP to work through technical problems quite frequently. He’s worked for the company for 27 years and he knows the systems backwards and forwards. He’s nearing retirement and he makes a point of teaching whenever he works with someone to show how the things work, but he definitely sits down and works through a very granular technical issue, sometimes for hours, to find the problem and correct it. I never know what to call this when I’m trying to tell a story about work.

    (My boss and my grand boss have kind of different specialties in the various systems so which one i take different issues to depends on that. One is the director of IT and the other is the VP of IT. The director is the one who does my evals and approves my time off and stuff.)

  12. Spcepickle*

    I could have written letter number one. I told a person they were not getting promoted, they went over my head and yelled at my supervisor for over an hour, including some pretty exploitive cursing. What it did was 100% solidify my choice in not promoting him.
    As I was told, “this is why you make the big bucks”

    1. SixTigers*

      Okay, I can understand someone being upset that they didn’t get a nice promotion they were hoping for, but how in the name of heaven would that person think that going to the next boss up and screaming about it is going to help?

      And why did your supervisor let the person sit there and carry on like that? I don’t understand why the screamer wasn’t walked out for at least a 3-day cooling down period.

    1. irene adler*

      Thank you for this!

      Makes me wonder if someone simply wasn’t clear on what it means to be the team leader. IF this was a new position, maybe they didn’t understand what management wanted in a team leader. Is the position more “team” or more “leader”? Maybe they felt it was more “leader” and figured exuding confidence was they way to show their leadership qualities.

      I am pleased this person rose to the challenge so beautifully!

  13. generic_username*

    Re #4 – ask them to provide their feedback after you’ve provided your feedback of them in writing. I only say this because I’m certainly not going to raise issues with my supervisor to my supervisor before I see their feedback of me in writing because I wouldn’t want to impact my scores negatively. Our performance review is directly linked to our annual raises so I’m not messing around with risking a negative feeling toward me at that time of year. So yeah, I’d let them know ahead of time that you’ll want to discuss it and then wait until the end of the review to set aside their review and discuss you and their needs

    1. mlem*

      Yeah, my company also does annual performance reviews/”raises” (which work out to “roughly COLA if you’ve been a very good peon this year”), and I wouldn’t be comfortable with any form of criticism towards the person initiating that process for me *during that process*.

  14. Lauren*

    LW #2: That salary negotiation is entirely standard. The fact that 80k was the top of your budget is not the candidate’s problem and doesn’t change their worth and right to ask for what they are worth.

    While it’s strange that they didn’t *discuss* needing 2 months before they could start, that’s not all that unreasonable when you consider many jobs require 30 days notice (not just 2 weeks) and perhaps they want to take some time off before going all in on a new job. This could actually be about them being a GREAT team player – fulfilling their responsibilities at their old job and wanting to be fresh and rested when they join your team!

  15. NorthBayTeky*

    Sorry Alison, couldn’t read your article over at Inc. They will not allow reading their article without an account now. Is this a new thing between them and you?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s been that way for a while, across their whole site. They give you a certain number of articles for free each month and then make you register.

  16. Chocolate Teapot*

    2. Where I live, 5-10 years of employment means 2 months notice. However, perhaps the 2 months is a month’s notice, plus some holiday? There have been questions here before about a new joiner suddenly springing travel plans shortly after starting a new role, when it might have been easier for them to start at a later date.

  17. Katie*

    Asking for feedback of what can be done to help them is perfectly acceptable and really part of being a good manager.

    I had a manager 15 years ago that insisted I provide her negative feedback. I declined to do so until she pushed to the point that I did. Then she was hateful and defensive about that feedback. Don’t ever be that manager.

    1. Medusa*

      Okay, that’s hilarious. I mean surely not for you when it happened, but what was her end game?

      1. SixTigers*

        To hear that she was widely beloved and that there was nothing she could do to improve?

    2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      oooh yes!
      ToxicBoss1 went through a tough spot in his marriage, found his wife was cheating on him and was depressed. He was slightly more prickly than usual (would have been harder to be a lot more prickly, because he was already very prickly before this tough spot), and started wearing unironed shirts and not bothering to shave. Then one day he called me and my colleague into his office and explained that he was going to their country house for a week to mull his marriage over and while he was about it, please could we tell him everything we disliked about him so that he could mull that over too. The idea being, I think, for him to hear some home truths and to start to improve as a person.
      My colleague and I just sat there, stone-faced, and said we had nothing to say and then after a bit he let us go back to our desks.
      I mean, I could have ranted all afternoon, there was that much I hated about the guy, but I didn’t want anything on my conscience if ever he decided to bump himself off after thinking about everything in his country home. Talk about inappropriate!!!

      Although, when at last ToxicBoss2 made me redundant, and the person replacing HR (because the place was far too much of a mess to be able to retain HR officers) asked me to tell her how I felt about the whole sorry mess that led to me being made redundant, I had no qualms whatsoever about telling her just how toxic the place was. I specifically said that the boss had been extremely petty trying to make me work all by myself in a co-working place that was nearly two hours away from my home, just because I didn’t want to work from home.
      (But never mind, I documented the nervous breakdown I went through at the thought of the panic attacks I’d get travelling there in the metro, the occupational health doctor duly noted all that, and issued a certificate to the effect that my health prevented me from working at that company. This meant that either he had to make me redundant with full severance pay or he continued to pay my salary without requiring me to work. AND she launched full investigation into the toxicity of the workplace because when she went to discuss my accusations with him, she noticed that all the other staff members seemed very tense and stressed out)

  18. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    #4: we’re in the middle of review season and it’s my first one both as a manager and with this team. Our form specifically asks about additional resources, needs, etc that would improve ability to meet goals and metrics, as well as specifically is there anything your manager can do to make you feel more supported. I explained that section to my team as sort of a wish list, heh. I’ve gotten some good feedback that way, including several things that we’ll be implementing immediately. I also told my team that if they had any kudos, thank-yous, etc that they had gotten over the course of the year for going above and beyond that they wanted me to include in the official documentation of their review, they were certainly welcome to send me copies of those.

    As far as actually giving feedback *on me* – I told them, in the discussion of the review process:
    Y’all know I’m a first-time manager, and I am 100% open to feedback, because I get a review too and my job is in large part to do the best work I can for you lot, and your opinion on how well I’m doing at that is very relevant. So if anyone has any feedback, positive or negative, on my performance in managing this team that they would prefer to share somewhat anonymously – you can send any of that to [my boss] at any time, and she will keep it as non-identifying as possible when she communicates it to me unless you specifically ask her otherwise. This is entirely optional, of course, but I promised you all when I started that I would do my best for you, and if I’m not managing to do that, I can’t effectively work on fixing problems I don’t know about.

  19. AthenaC*

    Managers as individual contributors – it really depends what makes sense. There’s certain tasks I do myself because they are advanced enough that it takes someone with my level of experience to do them. Ultimately the goal is to teach others, but in between now and then, stuff still needs to get done.

    There’s also tasks that can be delegated or have been delegated that I’ll take back and just knock out quickly if my subordinates are overwhelmed.

    So basically there’s a balance – if too many things are on fire and need me to step in, the management suffers, but if I step too far back, then my subordinates get buried. I think I’ve gotten good at finding the balance overall, but it does change with every project.

  20. Yep*

    OP1, never hire someone like that into a people management role. If you do, give them extensive management training first, and ensure that there is constant oversight so that they do not descend into bullying or otherwise being a complete and total nightmare for everyone who reports to them.

    If they ever come to you, claiming that they have someone on their team with some sort of problem or issue – whether supposedly performance based or something to do with cultural fit – you will need to ensure that the issue or problem really does exist by performing an extensive investigation and making sure the evidence is watertight. If you don’t, you’re not only screwing good employees out of their livelihoods and good health, and you’re losing good employees.

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