7 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Giving Promotions

Promotions at Work: The 7 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid 

Many companies tend to struggle to get promotions right. In fact, research has found that four out of 10 newly promoted managers and executives fail within the first 18 months in their new positions.1 

The cost of leader failure can be very high, but knowing how to properly go about giving promotions at work can help employers make better decisions moving forward.

Here are seven of the most common mistakes when promoting employees and how to avoid them.

1. DDI 2013 Trend Research: Driving Workplace Performance Through High-Quality Conversations

1. Promoting for the Wrong Reason 


Choosing to reward an employee for the wrong reason is potentially the biggest mistake you can make when giving promotions at work. Promoting the wrong person at the wrong time can have lasting damage on a company’s success and employee morale. With only 29.4 percent of employees believing promotions in their company are based on merit, something has to be up.

Are you considering giving an employee a promotion? Be sure none of these are among your promotion criteria: 

  • The employee is a friend 
  • They're likely to quit otherwise 
  • You need to fill the position quickly
  • They've worked at the company for a long time
  • They seem bored in their current position 
  1. 2014 Best Place to Work Rankings

Once you’ve made the (right) decision to promote an employee, communicating it well to both the employee and the rest of the organization is critical. Failing to do so could potentially lead to resentful, unmotivated employees.

There are several ways to give promotions that will motivate peers rather than hurt their pride and negatively affect their performance. Explain to the company why a particular employee was chosen for a promotion. This will highlight what you expect as well as help other employees understand and support the promotion. 

Additionally, offer praise to the rest of the employees for their performance. This will encourage them to continue doing what they do well and make them feel appreciated.

2. Forgetting to Try Before You Buy 

Many managers hope a promotion will unlock new potential in an employee, but this is wishful thinking. You don’t buy a new car without taking it out for a test drive, so don’t promote an employee without first testing out their ability to perform well in a new position. This is critical, since companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job 82% of the time³.

Smart managers test an employee’s capacity for the new position before they make the promotion. First, assess the employee’s current performance using multiple sources. Asking for feedback from others can help you gain additional insight into whether the employee would do well in a higher-level position.

Most importantly, experiment before making the role permanent. Test the employee by designing an assignment that is similar to what they’d be working on in their new position. Their ability to successfully complete the assignment as desired and in a timely manner will give you a better idea of their ability to succeed after being promoted.

  1. 2014 Gallup Analytics: Why Great Managers Are So Rare

3. Greasing the Squeaky Wheel 

In school, the student bouncing in their seat with their hand raised high was often ignored. In the workplace, the opposite is true. Only 33% of employers say they are more likely to promote an employee who has been vocal about asking for a promotion in the past, 4 and 68 percent of professionals who have asked for a promotion have received one5.

This data clearly indicates that those who ask for a promotion are likely to get it—but their desire for development within the company isn’t reason enough to promote. While it is an important indicator, you should still look at your talent holistically. Just because an employee has expressed their interest in moving up the ladder doesn’t mean they should be chosen over another (potentially more qualified) employee for the job.

Take note of an employee’s eagerness, but be sure they have the skills and experience to back it up. To ensure an employee has earned the promotion they’re asking for, actively discuss and review their career advancement goals to assess their readiness for the next step in their career.

  1. 2013 CareerBuilder Study: Surprising Factors That Play a Part in Determining Who Gets Hired
  2. Accenture 2014 Global Research

4. Not Including Others in the Decision 

One way to know that an employee will thrive in a new position is to get others involved in the decision process. Currently, 40% of employees feel that decision-makers consistently fail to seek out other opinions before making a final decision6. Rather than drawing only on your own assessment of an employee, bring others in on the decision. 

Speaking to an employee’s team members or people they manage, for instance, generates more honest feedback. Not to mention, talking with people who interact with the employee in various ways gives you insight on the employee you might not otherwise get. Collaborating with others before giving someone a promotion ensures that the employee not only deserves the new role, but that they will perform well in that role.

Including others in the decision process can also help combat coworker jealousy. Employees will see that you’re taking the necessary steps to determine if someone is worthy of a promotion and that you value their opinions on the matter.

5. Hiring Externally vs. Promoting Within

The topic of hiring externally versus promoting within is widely debated. But not considering current employees for a job opening they’re qualified for can be a big mistake. Hiring internally saves money on hiring costs and compensations, and boosts employee engagement and performance.

Research has found that external hires are paid 18 to 20 percent more than an internal employee for the same position. 

What’s more, they receive lower performance evaluations for their first two years on the job than their internal counterparts7. It’s because of this that more companies are choosing to invest in hiring internally to stop great talent from walking out the door.

There are a number of reasons to look at current employees before hiring externally. For instance, current employees already understand how the company functions and have adopted the organizational values and goals. Additionally, internal promotions improve employee morale by recognizing outstanding achievement, thus encouraging others within the company.

To make hiring within your organization work for you, consistently groom your future leaders. Create a thoughtful, strategic succession plan for your employees to ensure they are trained, experienced, and worth considering when high-level positions become available.

6. 2011 Fierce, Inc. Survey Data
7. Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

6. Using Promotions as the Primary Way to Reward Employees

Promotions, while a reward any employee would be thrilled to receive, shouldn’t be used as the primary way
to honor employees for their achievements. Maybe you have a limited budget or there isn’t a real need to promote someone at this time. Promotions should always be based on the organization’s strategic need over the employee’s want for growth. Until your company is in an ideal position to give an employee a promotion, try some other ways to motivate employees and keep them engaged. 

One of the simplest ways to reward employees for a job well done is by recognizing their contributions to the company’s success. Organizations with strategic recognition programs in place exhibit 28.6 percent lower frustration levels than companies without recognition programs.8 A public “thank you” can go further than you think—it encourages coworkers and shows employees they’re a valuable asset to the company.

Looking for something a little different? Try offering flexible work hours. Now, more than ever, employees are foregoing promotions in favor of what matters to them most—work- life balance. Giving employees the option to work from home on occasion or to leave work an hour earlier on Fridays not only helps to motivate them, but it can help enhance their overall quality of life.

8. SHRM/Globoforce Report: The Business Impact of Employee Recognition

7. Viewing Promotions as an End-All 

Many managers and employees view a promotion as the end result for a period of hard work and top-notch performance. This view couldn’t be more wrong. A promotion isn’t an end-all, but rather a new beginning—one in which the employee takes on a new, more challenging role. Keep in mind that the employee is going from a job that they know inside-out to one they know little about.

That being the case, they’ll need more coaching and support from you. Despite the importance of training employees to be successful in their new positions, 70 percent of employees didn’t receive any training last year at their place of work.9 Helping a newly promoted employee be successful is critical for two reasons:

  1. The promoted employee's performance will either validate or invalidate the original decision. Additionally, it shapes how others within the organization view those promotion decisions. 
  2. When managers help employees grow into their new and expanded roles, they gain employees' loyalty, as well as motivate other employees to work with them so they can experience similar growth. With 48 percent of employees saying that they would stick around because of a good manager, coaching is essential.10
9. Cornerstone OnDemand 2013 U.S. Employee Report
10. Ibid.

Things to Remember: 
  • Maintain transparency by explaining the promotion to the organization
  • Create an assignment to test an employee's ability to perform well in the new role
  • Seek out the opinions of others during the decision process
  • Consistently provide training and coaching to employees


  • Promote employees for superficial reasons (avoid bias!)
  • Use promotions as the main way you reward and motivate
  • Just promote the loudest, most eager of the bunch (unless they've truly earned it)
  • Hire externally before first considering current employees


The next time you promote an employee, keep these commonly made mistakes and ways to avoid them in mind. Doing so will ensure you’re going about the promotion process in the best way possible: promoting the right people at the right time and encouraging others in the process.