Selecting Employees for Promotion

Author: XpertHR Editorial Team


Promoting employees recognizes and acknowledges their performance and hard work and makes them feel valued. It boosts the morale of promoted employees and increases their productivity, as well as motivating them to improve their skills and talent further. In addition, promotions help identify candidates with potential to be developed and prepared for future leadership roles.

Whether filling a vacancy or establishing a new role, employee promotions should result from the consistent application of clear and neutral processes. In addition, the consideration and evaluation of applicants for promotion should be based on objective criteria.

This guide discusses the process for selecting an employee for promotion, from setting the criteria for promotions to making the final decision.

Knowing When to Promote an Employee

A promotion should be within an individual's capabilities, yet challenging enough to require the employee promoted to stretch to keep the individual motivated. It should occur at an appropriate stage in the employee's career. If an employee is promoted when they are not ready, it can lead to inefficiency in the performance of the role and stress for the employee. If the employee is promoted too late in their career, the employee may be disengaged in the role and with the organization, leading to a lack of motivation and poor performance.

Managers and supervisors should discuss employees' long-term aspirations with them and put the mechanics in place for them to achieve their goals. An individual should want a promotion and not feel obligated or pressured to accept it.

Through training, employers should equip supervisors with the skills to engage in dialogue with employees about what motivates and inspires them, and to recognize and put in place opportunities for developing employees to enable them to achieve their goals.

As part of the ongoing dialogue, supervisors and managers should review how realistic each employee's aspirations are, considering the employee's strengths. If an employee has not performed well in an area that is central to their goals, the supervisor should help the employee focus on development in this area. If it is an area in which the employee has been focusing for some time with little improvement, the employee may need to be encouraged to review their aspirations.

Performance appraisals can be used to support and encourage employee development and growth within the organization. Well-documented appraisals are a key resource for evaluating whether an employee is ready and qualified for a promotion.

Employers should exercise care when relying on past performance as a consideration or factor in making promotion decisions. A wise employer scrutinizes performance appraisals for supervisor bias, complaint history and whether 360-degree performance evaluations were relied upon in making the promotion decision.

Establishing Promotion Criteria

Employers should set aside sufficient time to identify appropriate promotion criteria. Identifying accurate criteria for the role helps the employer to choose the most suitable candidate, make fair and objective decisions and give meaningful and developmental feedback. The employer should also design the selection process to test the criteria required for the performance of the role.

Develop specific, job-related criteria for each position that reflect the duties, functions and competencies of the position, and ensure these standards are consistently applied when choosing among applicants for promotion.

The criteria for a role can include:

  • Experience-based criteria, like running teams or projects of a certain size, or managing a profit and loss account;
  • Knowledge-based criteria, such as having an understanding of the current laws and regulations in the industry;
  • Technical criteria, including skills and capabilities in key areas; and
  • Behavior-based competencies.

The following guidelines can help employers compile appropriate promotion criteria:

  • Clarify the skills or expertise needed to perform the position. For example, if the role requires technical IT skills, the employer should state explicitly what level of expertise is needed and why;
  • Prioritize the competencies required for the main aspects of the position;
  • Collect input from the hiring manager to help articulate the key behaviors required for the position; and
  • Distinguish between essential and desirable attributes for the position. For example, are academic qualifications of a certain level required?

Employers should place more emphasis on essential criteria, with the most critical criteria being assessed early in the process.

Increased Remote and Hybrid Work

To stay competitive, many organizations have chosen to incorporate more flexible workplace options. Remote, hybrid, mixed and blended workplace environments are more popular than ever, meaning employees may not always be or ever be in the actual office. A Gartner poll showed that 48 percent of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30 percent before the pandemic.

Employers should be mindful not to overlook remote employees or bypass them for promotion consideration. Just because those employees may be "out of sight" should not mean they are "out of mind" when it comes to employment opportunities.

Employers should understand that onsite positions do not automatically mean that a remote employee would not be interested. All employees should be informed of advancement opportunities, and allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to apply for an opportunity.

Even if a position is part of a team that works in the office, this does not mean a remote employee could not be effective in the role. With the right coaching, a team with mixed work arrangements can be just as effective as a team where everyone is working in the office.

Creating Accurate Job Descriptions

Job descriptions guide promotion decisions to the extent that they set forth the minimum qualifications for the position and the essential functions of the job. They also form the basis for the content of any posted and/or advertised position vacancy, whether internal or external. Candidates' backgrounds, in turn, are typically assessed or evaluated against the duties and responsibilities of the posted and/or advertised position vacancy.

Considering Rate of Pay

Once the criteria for the position have been established, employers will need to consider the pay range or rate of pay for the position. Employers should also consider whether that amount will be shown directly on the job posting or negotiated on in an individual basis.

Identifying Decision Makers

The promotion process may involve multiple decision makers. Organizations can benefit from involving the managers of the department who will directly interact with the successful candidate on a regular basis. Employees in a more senior role are usually well placed to feed into the decision because of their practical knowledge of the skills required for the position.

Employers should not involve an internal candidate's future peers in the selection decision. It could have a negative impact if, for example, the successful candidate's colleagues know what their salary is, or the colleagues imply that they have authority over the successful candidate. However, the employer could seek the views of similar level employees when compiling specifications of the job description.

Issues may arise if some candidates are better known to the manager than others. This could lead to a lack of objectivity and a perception that the process is unfair. In these situations, employers should involve an additional person to lead the assessment and selection process. For example, this person could ask the interview questions and the manager who knows the applicant could observe the applicant's responses.

Training Decision Makers

Employers should also give training to all decision makers (interviewers) involved in the recruitment process, including individuals involved in narrowing the list of candidates, interviewing and other assessments, and selection. The interview process can favor candidates who are confident and skilled at selling themselves. Training helps interviewers to get the best out of all candidates, ensuring that those whose performance is polished are not assumed to be stronger candidates.

Training can also help to increase the objectivity of the decision-making, which can be particularly helpful where there are internal candidates, some of whom may be known to the decision makers. Evidence of training can be critical if a promotion decision is challenged on the basis of fairness and equal opportunity.

The Promotion Process

Advertising the Opportunity

Many organizations seeking to promote from within choose to advertise vacant roles internally and seek external applicants only if there are no suitable internal applicants. When promoting from within, employers should create internal advertisements for the position.

Even if the organization believes that it has already identified the ideal internal candidate, the process of creating an advertisement can help ensure that suitable candidates who may be less known to the hiring manager are not overlooked.

The advertisement should be clearly written and provide sufficient information for employees to make an informed decision about whether they have the relevant skills and experience for the role. The advertisement should set out the:

  • Department;
  • Role;
  • Reporting structure;
  • Location;
  • Main responsibilities and essential job functions; and
  • Qualifications, skills, experience and competencies.

It also is helpful to include the deadline for applying and other information about the application process.

Once prepared, the advertisement can be communicated on the organization's intranet, distributed in team meetings and/or posted on company bulletin boards or internal locations where the employer posts other important notices. Supervisors should not exclude part-time or remote employees. Employees who are on leave also may need to be informed of promotion opportunities by other means, such as by email.

Application Process

Employers should give clear guidelines on what they require at the application stage of the promotion process and ask all candidates for the same information. Sometimes, promotion procedures require the completion of a written, formal application for employment or the submission of specific forms or documents. Other forms commonly attached to applications include the candidate's most recent performance evaluation, resume, training certificates or college transcripts.

Requiring internal candidates to give this information allows employees to evidence their suitability for the role and ensures that the decision makers are consistent in their practices. This is why the use of standardized forms such as official bid requests or application forms are highly recommended.


A face-to-face interview is the most appropriate method of testing a candidate's suitability for the role. However, with the technology and remote employment becoming more popular, some employers are now conducting virtual interviews through online platforms.

Regardless of the method used, interviewers should:

  • Determine what questions they will ask in advance of the interview, based on the publicized criteria for the role;
  • Use checklists, uniform interview questions and standardized scoring systems to ensure consistency and to reduce the introduction of subjectivity into the process;
  • Focus not only on whether the candidate has the knowledge and skills necessary for the role, but also on how the candidate applies them; and
  • Ask the same questions of all candidates, allowing for some specific questions that relate to the candidates' particular experiences, to enable a fair comparison of the candidates.

Employers should also require interviews to be conducted by more than one person, to enable a range of perspectives to feed into the process.

During the interview, the employer could explore whether the candidate has had similar experiences to those that they would experience in the target role. It could also explore the candidate's experience learning new skills and responding to new situations.

Using Assessment Tools

In addition to interviews, employers may use other tools to assess a candidate's suitability for the role. Assessment tools can test anything from technical knowledge of the target role to the practical aspects of the role. Typical assessments include requiring candidates to give a presentation, write an article, complete a case study or take part in a role-play during an interview.

The most appropriate method of assessment depends on several factors including:

  • The nature of the position;
  • Number of applicants;
  • Size of the organization; and
  • Available resources.

Review assessment methods and tools to ensure they do not unintentionally treat employees differently, creating a disparate impact on certain protected classes of employees. Promotion tests, qualification standards or other promotion selection criteria may be attacked on disparate-impact discrimination grounds if they exclude a class of employees based on a protected characteristic. Such tests, standards and criteria must be job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.

Alternative Assessment Methods

An employer can also use alternative assessment methods to test a candidate's capability - for example, a simulation-based assessment that puts the candidate in situations that they are likely to experience in the new role.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using alternative assessment tools.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • May help save costs and resources and prevent delay.
  • May allow several people to be assessed at the same time.
  • Allows testing of a candidate's potential to deal with situations that the candidate may come across in the new role.
  • May be more costly and time consuming.
  • Use should be limited to specific situations and roles.
  • Requires proper training to use effectively.
  • May misinterpret test results.

In general, only use an alternative assessment method or tool if the assessment specifically relates to the particular role at hand, the employer knows what it wants the assessment to achieve, and its use is consistent with business necessity. There should be a clear link between the test and the role. The employer must also know how to interpret test results.

Personality Assessments

Personality tests generate personality profiles to help determine how a prospective candidate fits to the position. While a personality assessment may be a useful tool for promotions, employers should keep in mind how diverse personalities, backgrounds and approaches enhance any team. Some states also limit how employers can use personality and integrity testing in the hiring process.

Screening Employees

The most common time employers rescreen employees are during promotions. However, screening candidates for promotion imposes additional responsibilities, whether the screening involves a criminal background check, a credit check or a drug test.

Background Checks

A background check on a current employee may be necessary based on the industry and/or the position to which the employee is applying. For example, a marketing associate promoted to a payroll representative is being moved to a new department with different responsibilities and access to the employer's finances, as well as confidential employee information. The employer should exercise due diligence to ensure the individual in the position does not pose a risk to the organization's safety and security.

Before conducting a background check on a current employee, employers should 1553#fair-credit-reporting-act "understand all applicable laws and regulations"] and weigh the risks and benefits before conducting the screening.

Criminal Convictions

Employers must exercise caution if they use criminal conviction or other information (for example, filing for bankruptcy) in promotion decisions. If conviction of a crime is a factor, employers should consider whether the offense for which the employee was convicted is job related.

It is necessary to consider:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense or offenses;
  • The nature of the job promotion sought (e.g., whether to a position of trust); and
  • The length of time that has passed since the conviction and/or completion of the sentence.

Drug Testing

Drug testing introduces a whole new set of issues that requires special consideration. Employers who decide to drug test employees must follow applicable state drug testing laws, administer the testing programs in a nondiscriminatory manner and respect employees' privacy expectations and rights.

Evaluating Applicants

Organizations should implement clear, neutral and objective policies and procedures for considering and evaluating applicants for promotion.

When conducting the promotion process, employers should:

  • Consult and follow relevant written policies and procedures;
  • Apply each of these policies and procedures uniformly; and
  • Review promotion decisions to ensure fairness and to identify areas for improving the process.

Promotion decisions typically take into account several factors. Among them are:

  • Employer's needs;
  • Employee's previous employment record and job performance,
  • Employee's potential for assuming greater responsibility;
  • Employee's level of experience; and
  • Qualifications and requirements of the position.

Internal Reference Checks

When a promotion would result in a change in the employee's direct reports, employers may benefit from seeking the views of the candidates' current supervisor or manager on their suitability for the role. The most relevant information is objective performance-based information. However, decision makers should treat references with caution as they are not the most reliable source of information, even when they are internal.

Disadvantages in conducting internal reference checks include:

  • The same amount of information may not be available on all candidates;
  • The employee's current role may be very different from the role sought; or
  • The supervisor's opinion may be biased if they've been caught off guard or want to keep the employee in their current position.

To overcome these disadvantages, the employer should emphasize to decision makers that their decision should be objective. They should take the above factors into account when considering the opinion of a candidate's supervisor and treat the information as secondary to the other information gathered during the internal selection process.

As with external references, employers should not seek to obtain such information on a candidate unless the employee has confirmed that this is acceptable to them.

Option to Require Support for Internal Applications

Employers could stipulate that an internal candidate's application for a vacant role be supported by the applicant's supervisor. If there is good dialogue between the supervisor and employee about the employee's career aspirations and goals, the supervisor can help the employee to make informed choices about which roles to apply for. Knowing the employee's ambitions helps the supervisor to plan, and the supervisor can be prepared to support the individual if they are unsuccessful.

But if an employee does not have a good relationship with their supervisor, the employee may feel intimidated or unable to ask for support, which might hinder their chances of success. A manager might also be unwilling to lose strong performers in their team, which might deter them from supporting and encouraging employees to apply for a promotion. To combat supervisor resistance, employers should train supervisors to help them understand the benefits of effective promotions as a whole to the organization, and help supervisors ensure that they have strong successors for vacancies in their team.

Employers should provide supervisors and employees training in the skills required to hold meaningful discussions about career aspirations and goals, as well as ensure that there are formal opportunities in the performance management process to encourage such dialogue.

HR should be available to support and be a resource for internal candidates and their supervisors. Employers should include a contact name and telephone number for the HR department for all vacant positions. HR may also contact internal candidates to ensure that they have all the information that they need and to encourage them to make use of available support.

Review Promotion Decisions

Once an employee has been chosen, review the validity of the promotion decision. For instance:

  • Do the responses to the interview questions support the stated reason for the selection decision (e.g., the successful candidate was the most or best qualified)?
  • Does the successful candidate's qualifications and work history support the selection decision?
  • Do similar promotions by the decision maker(s) involved lend support to the stated justification for the selection decision (e.g., the successful candidate was the most or best qualified)?
  • Is the stated reason for the selection decision consistent with or supported by the job description and advertisement for the position?

The reasons for each step or stage in the selection process - from the selection of whom to interview to the selection of whom to promote - should be well documented, and the records maintained in accordance with recordkeeping laws and regulations.

Communicating the Outcome

Employers should inform candidates at each stage of the process when they can expect to learn the outcome of that stage. It is best to make decisions quickly and communicate the outcome to candidates as soon as possible, so they remain engaged with the process and focused on their work. Treat all candidates consistently as to when and how the outcome of each stage is communicated.

Employers should also give detailed feedback to all internal candidates, whether or not they are successful and regardless of the stage that they reach. The employer should not give feedback to a candidate until it has communicated the outcome of their application, but should do so as soon as possible afterwards. The feedback should be consistent with the outcome, so that candidates understand the decision, even if they do not agree with it. For example, if unsuccessful candidates receive only positive feedback, this can create confusion and frustration.

Where possible, the employer should give face-to-face feedback to candidates, so they have an opportunity to reflect and ask detailed questions. It also demonstrates commitment to employees because it requires the employer to invest time and effort.

Methods of Communication

Generally, employers first communicate a promotion with the successful candidate. This may be done in person, on the computer virtually or by sending the employee a formal promotion offer letter and/or email.

Regardless of the type of promotion, employers should remember to celebrate and recognize the promoted individual. Whether the recognition involves a congratulatory announcement in the office or an email sent out to the team, these actions are appreciated and valued by employees.

Informing Unsuccessful Candidates

Candidates who are unsuccessful with an application for a promotion might feel demotivated and disenfranchised from the organization. This might lead them to look outside the organization for a new role. Or they may become openly critical of the organization, which can have a negative impact on their colleagues and customers.

To help manage the impact of the negative news, the employer should be supportive of the unsuccessful internal candidate to ensure that they remain motivated, and so that they have a better chance of progressing in the future. One way to provide support is by giving detailed feedback as quickly as possible after communicating the decision. This can help the employee not to dwell on the failure.

The feedback should consist of constructive criticism and useful advice to enable the employee to take practical action for improvement. When building an actionable development plan, the areas identified as requiring improvement during the assessment process should be addressed. The plan should include concrete steps and some "quick wins" to help the individual feel as though they are moving on.

The type of support that is most appropriate depends on the individual and the circumstances. The HR department should guide and support managers in dealing with successful and unsuccessful internal candidates.

Supporting Employees After Promotion

When an employee is promoted, feedback is key in helping them to perform well in the new role. Employers often mistakenly think that internal employees who have been awarded a promotion do not need assistance with their new role, because the employee knows their way around the business and its processes. Promoted employees are often left to do their job without the support that an external candidate might receive. They often do not recognize or consider that they may need help, and do not ask for assistance.

This approach can have a detrimental impact on a promoted employee and the organization. When an employee does not receive the support needed to navigate in the role, they may experience stress and underperform. An employee who was previously successful and happy in the organization may become frustrated if they struggle in their new role due to lack of support.

Many promoted employees need support with their new role. Even the most capable employees have areas for improvement or strengths on which they could build. There are likely to be some pressing issues with which they need support, for example, with the technical aspects of the role or getting to know the key stakeholders. Mentoring or coaching can be particularly helpful for promoted individuals experiencing difficult situations, such as supervising people who are their friends or who were until recently their peers, or if the promotion involved a move to a new department.

The selection process often yields valuable information about the kind of support that would be useful. A discussion between the promoted employee and their new manager can highlight opportunities for growth and improvement and where support and coaching are needed (e.g., aspects of the role that are not core). The manager and employee should discuss and put together a long-term plan to develop and support the employee with their new role.