It’s the end of the work day when a direct report Slacks you to see if you “have a few minutes.” Not long into the call, the elephant in the room is revealed: They know you’ll soon be hiring for the role above them, and it’s a job they want. They think it’s time they got a promotion.
The honest truth, though, is that you’re not confident this employee is ready for a promotion, otherwise you would’ve approached them about the role yourself. Now, you need to quickly confirm that your instincts are correct, and that they really aren’t yet ready to be promoted. And you also need to find a way to tell them this news without demotivating them, turning the exchange into a constructive, teachable moment that will help them in the long run.
Below, executives who’ve been there shared with us how to do just that.
7 signs your direct report isn’t ready to be promoted
1. They haven’t prepped any proof.
If your direct report initiated the conversation without clear, documented proof of their promotability ready, that’s a red flag, Scott Hasting, Co-Founder of BetWorthy LLC, said.
“Usually, when an employee asks for a promotion, they have a list of accomplishments, a portfolio, reports and more to convince management,” Hasting said. “However, when the employee doesn’t have both the quality of work as well as documentation of it to present, there’s a high possibility they aren’t yet ready to take on a higher role.”
2. They lack the bigger picture.
Not understanding what’s important to the company on a strategic level points to a promotion being premature, Lauren Cook-McKay, Director of Marketing & Content at Divorce Answers, said.
“Employees often feel upset because they’re ‘working hard’ but their efforts don’t seem to be rewarded in tangible ways,” she said. “However, the unfortunate reality is that they may be working hard, but not on the proper things. They may find themselves spinning their wheels without the personal recognition and promotion possibilities they desire due to a lack of alignment between their efforts and the needs of the organization.”
3. They’re not a team player.
Someone who’s gunning for a promotion but views their job transactionally may do excellent work, but in an isolated, “Ivory Tower” context. Oftentimes, these individuals aren’t ready to be promoted, Chris Nddie, Marketing Director at ClothingRIC, said.
“In today’s workplace, aptitude often takes a backseat to attitude,” Nddie said. “Employers want knowledgeable people, but they also want individuals who can work well with others and achieve corporate goals in collaboration with and through others.”
4. They come to you with problems, not solutions.
It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book. But if your direct report hasn’t clearly proven themselves to be a provider of solutions, and not just an identifier of problems, they aren’t ready to be promoted, Ryan Jeffords, founder of Buy Here Pay Here, said.
“This mentality toward solution development is, in my opinion, the clearest sign of someone who is not ready for a promotion,” Jeffords said. “The best leaders don’t place blame on others when something doesn’t get done — they complete the task. They don’t grumble to their staff about something that isn’t occurring; instead, they discover a remedy. If they don’t have this ‘bare minimum,’ they are not yet ready for advancement.”
5. They’re working overtime, a lot.
This one’s a slippery slope, as you don’t want to penalize people for working hard. However, continually working overtime can also be a sign of promotion-averse qualities like poor time management, Craig Miller, Co-founder of Academia Labs LLC, said.
“The way you handle your work hours will always reflect your work ethic,” Miller said. “If a direct report is working way too many overtime hours just to finish their tasks, then they are most likely not yet ready for a promotion. They need to improve on their time management skills before they can be considered.”
6. Conversely, they’ll only work 9-to-5 — and not a second longer.
Maintaining clear work-life boundaries, with firm start and stop times to the work day, is one (highly encouraged) thing. But if an employee is never willing to give a little extra when the situation calls for it, either in regards to their hours or responsibilities, they may not be leadership material yet, Gergo Vari, CEO of Lensa, said.
“More responsibility means being willing to come in and leave a little later when need be,” Vari said. “If someone is always the first out the door, it’s a sign they aren’t ready for the demands of more responsibility.”
7. They do their job exactly as they’re asked, with no ideas for improvement.
Following orders, on the one hand, shouldn’t be held against someone. But a truly promotable employee won’t just unquestioningly do what they’re told; they’ll think critically about their work and will assume the responsibility of innovating where they can, executive coach Irial O’Farrell said.
“Someone who isn’t looking at more effective ways of getting work done isn’t demonstrating the broader ability managers need to think beyond current processes and look for alternative ways of achieving outcomes,” O’Farrell said.
What to do now
1. Make your feedback actionable and specific.
Denying a promotion in a way that still leaves the employee feeling respected and motivated is “a careful balancing act,” Tina Hawk, SVP of Human Resources at GoodHire, said. No one likes to hear a “no” — most especially when they don’t understand the reasons for it, she added.
“If an employee is not yet ready to be promoted, it’s important to relay this information in a way that is both constructive and actionable,” Hawk said. “Perhaps the employee doesn’t quite have the experience they need, or they might be missing targets. In each case, turn those reasons into teachable moments by giving them ways in which they can get closer to their goals. Give them opportunities to obtain that experience.”
Steer clear of vague filler statements when offering your explanation, too, Gerrid Smith, CEO of Property Tax Loan Pros, said.
“Rather than providing a broad review, zero in on the precise reasons they were not prepared for the promotion and collaborate to develop an improvement plan for these specific areas,” Smith said. “If the promotion wasn’t announced concurrently with performance reviews, the chat may be an opportunity to revisit specific abilities or areas for growth that you and your employee have already highlighted.”
2. Share them on the organization’s strategic plan.
If they seem to lack awareness of what the company’s big-picture priorities are, make sure this isn’t on you as a leader for under-communicating them. Shore up your employee’s understanding by sharing them on the company’s strategic plan now.
“The organization’s strategic plan is a fantastic source of information,” Smith said. “The strategic plan will inform them what’s important to the firm, what its top priorities are, and how their contributions can assist the company in meeting its goals and objectives.”
3. Make sure they understand how the promotions process works in general.
The more information you can transparently share about how promotions are granted, the better, Adam Fard, founder of a UX Agency, explained.
“Increased transparency into the process can help your employee feel as though the decision was made in a structured manner — and, at the end of the day, people want to know that career-related decisions are made fairly,” he said. “Even if promotions are not always based on performance reviews, it might be beneficial to explain how and when promotions are issued. Even though it seems self-evident to you, it may be novel to someone who is not directly involved in managing others.”
4. Set up regular check-ins.
Going forward, set up a series of progress check-ins with your employee that will specifically review and address how they’re performing against the promotion plan you’ve now outlined.
“If you’ve pledged to support them in honing particular abilities, make sure to check in on how things are going,” Jeffords said. “Consider arranging regular check-ins to provide feedback on how you and others are perceiving their work. Even if you’re satisfied with the job, following up is critical to making your employee feel like you’re involved in their success—and keeping them driven to earn the promotion the next time.”
Find more leadership advice on the blog.