When Is the Right Time to Promote an Employee?

Your employee has been doing a great job. Does that mean it's time for a promotion?
promote-graphic
Even in a small business without much hierarchy it is possible to promote employees by paying careful attention to their career goals. (Photo: Chuenmanuse/Shutterstock)

As the owner of your small business, you’re probably also the human resources manager (unless you’ve outsourced your HR, which is not a bad idea). As such, it’s up to you to decide if and when your best people are ready for promotion — and what promotion within your business even means.

NCR Silver talked with three HR experts about best promotion practices for small business owners.

Kim-Turnage

“The right time to promote an employee is at the intersection of that person’s talent and the needs of the business.” -Kim Turnage (Photo: Kim Turnage)

Make promotion about potential, not performance

Deciding when to promote isn’t easy, even for large companies with HR departments. And ideas regarding promotions have changed.

For example, the concept of promoting someone based on performance might seem obvious and logical, but it’s been long abandoned by many companies. Why? It makes workers susceptible to the Peter Principle, in which workers “rise to the level of their incompetence.” In other words, if you focus on how well your workers are doing, you’re liable to promote them into roles for which they are ill-suited.

Kim Turnage, PhD, senior leadership consultant at Talent Plus and author of “Managing to Make a Difference,” advised against this approach. Instead, she said, “The right time to promote an employee is at the intersection of that person’s talent and the needs of the business. Worry less about whether people have all the experience they need and pay more attention to their potential to do the job with excellence.”

That sounds good in theory, but how do you do it? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself periodically to help determine whether someone on staff is ready to be rewarded with advancement. They include:

  • Who steps up to take on responsibility when you need to get things done?
  • Who asks great questions that move you beyond the status quo?
  • Who is always learning more and connecting new ideas to your overarching goals?
  • Who has the influence with co-workers to advance ideas for making things work better?
  • Who has a knack for seeing what other people do well and positioning those people to succeed in the process of achieving bigger picture team goals?
  • Who do people naturally turn to for answers or advice?
  • Who manages change and conflict to keep people focused on achievement?
  • Who do you trust implicitly?

When one employee springs to mind as the answer to several of those questions, it may be time to recognize that person with a promotion.

Related: How to Identify and Grow Your Top-Performing Employees

Recognize when someone is already performing at the next level

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Pay attention to employees that perform duties beyond their job description and promote them when possible. (Photo: tsyhun/Shutterstock)

If an employee is already doing the work the next-level position requires, it’s probably time to promote him or her. Sometimes this happens organically — a person routinely steps up to take on new challenges or assumes more responsibility day to day. Formally recognize the work they’re doing with a promotion and officially modify their responsibilities.

Give promising employees a secret challenge

You might occasionally challenge talented employees with additional responsibility to see if they’re ready, then promote them if they pass the test.

Alexis-Chateau

“Before considering a promotion, we test our interns without letting them know they’re being tested or even considered for a higher position. When there’s no pressure, workers are more likely to show their true colors.” -Alexis Chateau (Photo: Alexis Chateau)

Alexis Chateau, founder and managing director at Alexis Chateau PR, subscribes to this approach. “Before considering a promotion, we test our interns without letting them know they’re being tested or even considered for a higher position. When there’s no pressure, workers are more likely to show their true colors.” If the employee doesn’t perform as well as expected, no problem, they can return to their usual role none the wiser.

Catch valuable employees before they jump ship

There are other ways to look at promotion. “If someone has clearly outgrown their position, it might be time to promote,” advised Donna M. Lubrano, adjunct faculty for business strategy and international business at Northeastern University.

“In many small businesses, an owner puts people in particular slots and leaves them there. Eventually they get bored. They’re not engaged because they exceed the requirements of the job. If you don’t promote them, they might move on and you’ll lose a valuable resource.”

Related: Three Keys to Retaining Your Best Employees

Keep the idea of promotion flexible

Many small businesses have a flat organization. So how do you promote an employee when there’s no deep hierarchy and no team for a higher-level employee to oversee?

“Promotion doesn’t necessarily mean managing people,” said Turnage. Indeed, promotion is what you choose to make it. Anything that involves more responsibility could be an apt reward, whether it’s a new role or taking on a special project.

Lubrano recommended paying attention to your employee’s goals and desires, starting with the interview and hiring process. Ask potential employees what they want to learn and how they want to grow while they work for you. Not everyone will be thoughtful about these questions, but some may have specific goals that align with your business needs.

Let them tell you how you can guide them through their career path. Oftentimes they can give you the information you need to take the next step, so that when the time comes, the promotion is a collaborative effort between you and the employee. This approach prevents you from “rewarding” people by putting them into positions they don’t actually want.

Related: What to Do When an Employee Asks for a Raise

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