4 powerful tweaks to run fair promotions

Ruby Dark

Jul 4, 2023

The top talent of today doesn’t just want a job, they want a meaningful career where they can grow, constantly. And if you don’t provide plenty of opportunities to do so, they’ll start looking elsewhere. Hold on to your people for longer and invest in their careers by running a fair promotion process with these 4 simple tips.

Running a smooth, fair, and motivational promotion process is no small order. Without an objective assessment process, you risk promoting people not ready for the jump, while overlooking more qualified candidates. And if you don’t spread the word about internal opportunities, you risk losing your top performers to your competitors.

But what many don’t realise is that with some simple tweaks to your promotion process, you can fix many of the pitfalls that companies tend to fall into. Here are 4 actions that form the foundations of a fair promotion process. None of them takes more than a couple of hours to set up. So what are you waiting for? Let’s de-bias promotions and give everyone opportunities to grow.

1) Prioritise internal candidates

Most of the time, it’s easier to learn about positions at a competitor than it is to know about internal opportunities. A Gartner study revealed that when searching for a new role, only 33% of employees look at their current company first.

This is especially true for minority group employees, who are more likely to believe that switching companies is necessary for them to advance their careers and grow their salaries.

Limited room for progressions is a key driver of employee turnover. Instead of looking outside for people to fill your senior roles, invest in your current employees’ careers. To hold on to your people for longer:

  1. Set up alerts for new internal roles. Whether it’s a monthly newsletter, ad-hoc notifications or a dedicated #InternalOpportunities channel, spread the word whenever a role opens up.
  2. Have managers discuss promotion opportunities in 1-on-1s. Whenever a role becomes available, make sure managers are aware. They can then discuss the role with their reports and encourage them to apply if they’re eligible.
  3. Prioritise internal candidates over external ones. Make sure you consider all possible eligible employees before looking elsewhere.
  4. Carve time out of the working day for employees to fill out their applications. If employees have to submit an application to be considered for promotion, give them time during the working day to do so. 30 mins should suffice. This way, people with additional commitments outside of work (such as parents and carers) aren’t put at a disadvantage.

2) Set objective criteria for success

One of the ways bias seeps into promotion decisions is when criteria for success are vague. The first people that decision-makers consider might not necessarily be the best for the role, but the most “visible” employees who ”fit the mould”. In other words, candidates who already look like people in your leadership team, which tends to be white, cisgender men.

Make sure you always consider the full range of eligible employees. Define clearly the capabilities, responsibilities and technical skills needed to succeed in the role. This provides objective metrics to guide managers’ decisions.

  1. Review the job description of the new role. Make sure you clarify the daily responsibilities and expectations.

    E.g.: Analyse customer pain points and design product prototypes that meet their needs.

  2. Define measurable and specific criteria for successful performance.

    E.g.: The ability to understand and action both qualitative and quantitative feedback on our product.

  3. Mention the specific, technical skills that the role requires.

    E.g.: Proficiency in the Adobe suite and Figma.

  4. Mention other qualifications or experience required. Make sure to be certain that this is totally necessary for the role. Ask yourself: Is it absolutely crucial for this role to have a Master’s Degree, or is work-related experience just as valuable?

3) Run default opt-in promotions

Do you rely on employees to put themselves forward for promotion? If so, you put some people at a disadvantage.

Multiple studies show that women are less inclined than men to boast or self-aggrandise, even when performing equally well. Self-promotion is a typically Western value — people are taught that they need to ‘fight their own corner’ by emphasising their achievements and strengths. But for employees from non-Western cultures, self-promotion is less of an expectation. Collectivist cultures (such as Japan or Singapore) generally emphasise modesty and humility instead.

Of course, it’s not always straightforward, but these norms and expectations can put people on uneven playing ground.

You can remove the barriers by changing to default opt-in promotions. In practice, this means automatically considering every eligible employee when an internal role opens up, unless they explicitly say they don’t want to.

  1. Tell all employees that from now on, everyone will automatically be considered for promotion whenever an internal opportunity arises. If they don’t want to be considered, they should explicitly opt-out.
  2. Whenever a new role opens, review the criteria for success and identify eligible employees using their latest performance reviews.
  3. Identify at least 2 internal candidates (whenever possible) and move forward with the promotion assessment process.

4) Compare promotion candidates against each other

Here’s a simple trick to avoid cognitive bias: comparative evaluation

A famous Harvard experiment revealed that decision-makers were more likely to select men for math tasks and women for verbal tasks when they considered candidates in isolation. But when they switched to side-by-side comparison — comparing the performance of multiple candidates at the same time — they were able to focus on objective criteria. With this simple trick, decision-makers ended up selecting the best fit for the role.

When we don’t have a point of comparison, our brains are more likely to rely on inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes. So next time you’re reviewing candidates for a promotion, compare their latest performance reviews (and any other relevant criteria) side-by-side.

Isolation: one tree standing on its own. Comparison: a group of trees together.

Here’s how to promote the best candidate every time:

  1. Recommend at least two individuals for promotion every time a role becomes available. This nudge helps managers to think beyond the obvious top fit and consider a broader pool of candidates.
  2. Compare candidates side-by-side rather than one at a time. Review recent performance reviews, qualifications, skills and outputs to guide your judgements, but always review comparatively.
  3. Focus on objective evidence rather than future potential. Vague statements such as “I think they would do well as …” aren’t objective. Whenever you notice this thinking cropping up, steer the conversation back to their existing achievements. Identify past evidence of the candidates demonstrating the desired skills, capabilities and achievements to back up your judgements.

There you have it. With clever behavioural design, you can provide more opportunities for employees, consider a broader pool of candidates, and fill your senior roles with top performers.

Not only does this take the guesswork out of promotions, but it gives employees a clear sense of what they need to accomplish to move up the career ladder. You’ll keep people happy while giving them ample room to grow. It makes life easier for everyone.

Backing it up

Bohnet, I. (2016). What works. Harvard university press.

Bohnet, I., Van Geen, A., & Bazerman, M. (2016). When performance trumps gender bias: Joint vs. separate evaluation. Management Science62(5), 1225-1234.

DDI. (2020). Diversity & Inclusion Report. [https://www.ddiworld.com/research/inclusion-report]

Lalwani, A. K., & Shavitt, S. (2009). The “me” I claim to be: Cultural self-construal elicits self-presentational goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology97(1), 88.

Pazzanese, C. (2020). Women less inclined to self-promote than men, even for a job. Harvard Gazette.