Promotion Melee

Firms are flooded with a backlog of employees seeking pandemic-related promotions. Is there an answer?

It’s promotion season, and the communications department at a popular tech company has 39 workers eligible for promotions. How many spots are available? Three. Yes, three. If the firm follows its long-standing advancement protocols, 36 employees will head into the holidays feeling undervalued and, well, ticked off.

Similar scenarios are playing out around the globe as managers stare down the same problem: a logjam of employees seeking elevation. Indeed, experts say while the end of the year always produces some hand-raising, they can’t remember the stack of requests being this high. “This is an important topic,” says Andy De Marco, vice president of human resources for the Americas at Korn Ferry. “Many workers felt passed over because of delays and job freezes, at a time when they were working unbelievably hard.”

The bottleneck is caused by an extraordinary backup of employee advancement held back by pandemic-related hiring constraints and layoffs. To be sure, some companies did keep up with promotions last year, but more did not. Now, during the so-called Great Resignation, with millions quitting jobs, corporate leaders know they need to handle the requests carefully. A 2019 survey by Korn Ferry shows a third of employees will start hunting for a new job if passed over for promotion.

Traditionally, companies have stuck to strict numbers on promotions because of organizational structure. Now the debate centers on whether that should change, with some firms now simply granting most promotions. “That’s not a great long-term game because you wake up three years from now with a top-heavy organization,” says De Marco. As a rule, experts suggest firms tread carefully and not make blatant exceptions to long-standing HR rules. “You promote as many as are deserving, into roles that are needed for the business,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise.

The key is to do so with full transparency. “You’ve got to be able to justify and quantify why someone is promoted,” says Porter. For example, he says, if three workers are promoted, the announcement might include numbers showing that they led department sales for 2021.

One way of avoiding mutiny from the other 36 frustrated employees, Porter says, is to use incremental compensation as a way of acknowledging performance. For example, while the three promoted employees might receive 10% pay hikes with their new jobs, a 5% increase might be reasonable for another 10 high achievers, whose responsibilities remain the same. He suggests handling it with honesty. A manager might say, “In a normal year you would have been promoted, and we just didn’t have slots this year—but to recognize your performance, we’re happy to give you this bonus or pay increase.”

A strategy of openly communicating when and how promotions will happen can motivate passed-over employees while avoiding, say, an employee banging on a table because he’s endured 2.5 years without a promotion, says Juan Pablo González, sector leader of professional services at Korn Ferry. “It gives managers and employees something to discuss rather than argue,” he says, and it builds a sense of strong partnership between the organization and the employee.

Experts also recommend taking the time to evaluate the departmental or organizational structure before giving (or not giving) promotions. Maybe a division could use more managers? Maybe promotions could be accelerated? “Remote and hybrid workforces are forcing new operating models,” says González. “So you’ve got to rethink the shape of the organization.” Among the issues to consider: deciding on reasonable time frames between promotions, the value of title changes, and how certain employees’ career paths are charting.

All analysis aside, some promotions may be the only way to avoid too many fleeing employees. “In terms of retention, this may be the time to do it,” says De Marco.