How Can I Develop Employees Who Can’t Be Promoted?

A reader asks: 

I work at a relatively small organization (40-50 employees) that recently expanded from having two levels of management (executive director and department managers) to adding a third level of project managers.  Our project managers were all internal hires, but some of our employees who have more years with the organization were not promoted because they were not the right fit for these positions. The positions involved more people/project managing, and though these employees are very good at their jobs, they had never shown any interest nor strengths in more traditional management skills and thus those areas had not been developed with them.

At this point, I have a few employees looking for “their promotions” because they feel they have been with the organization a long time and want to see opportunities for movement for themselves. We are not that big of an organization — there is only so much vertical movement that can occur and keep it healthy and well structured.  Frankly, I am dealing with problems from two directions.  From the staff, I am trying to figure out how to develop employees and maintain their job satisfaction when there are few opportunities for upward movement. But I also want to make sure they are developing in a way that they are ready to move up when and if opportunities arise as the organization continues to grow.  From above, I have pressure to retain employees at all costs, even if that would mean promoting them into some random position I would have to create.

I personally don’t have a problem with employees deciding they need to move on to meet their professional goals.  While I don’t want to lose them, I can completely understand that someone might need to make that decision.  I just (a) don’t want to end up having to destroy my department because of forced restructuring in order to retain employees and (b) don’t want people to move on because I wasn’t doing my job in trying to develop them as best I could within their current positions.

Well, first, you need to push back on whoever above is telling you to retain people at all costs. Retention should not be a goal in and of itself; retaining your top performers should be, but many times you should actually want to see others transition out. If your goal is retention, you’ll make all kinds of bad decisions, like counter-offering with a higher salary when a mediocre employee accepts another job, or tolerating low performance because you don’t want to fire people, or yes, promoting people who aren’t actually good promotion prospects for the organization. Your goal shouldn’t be retention; it should be to create a high-performing team, which means retaining your top people and moving out those who aren’t meeting a high bar.

So you need to push back with your upper management and advocate for practices that meet that goal – not retention-at-all-costs, which will undermine it significantly.

As for the question of how to develop employees “in place” when there aren’t likely to be promotions available to them because of fit, you can absolutely find ways for people to grow without moving to a new role, if you’re committed to it. For instance, are there ways they can improve their skills in their current roles? Development opportunities to expand their skills in ways that will be useful in their current work? Ways to give them increased responsibility (and accompanying salary increases) or a greater role in your department without moving them?

At the same time, it’s important to be transparent with people. If it’s not likely that someone will be a candidate for promotion because appropriate slots simply don’t exist, be honest with them about that. It’s far better for people to know than to have false hope, and they’re more likely to be resentful if they keep thinking promotion is a possibility but it never materializes. So talk to them about the situation and explain why it’s unlikely (small organization, not natural growth path, etc.). But simultaneously, talk to them about how they can grow where they are and make it clear that you’re eager to assist with those efforts if they want to pursue that path.

Frankly, this is the more pro-employee approach anyway. It’s not kind or helpful to people to move them into roles they won’t excel at, or to contort your department trying to create positions the organization doesn’t really need just to provide a false path of advancement. Do people the service of talking with them honestly about the situation, and let them make the decisions they feel are best for them – with your support either way.






Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Sarah G.

    Tricky situation for the OP, and great answer that lays out a specific plan of action. I love that you make a point of transparency.

    [Reply]