If a new role opens up on your team, what do you do? Is it better to promote from within or add a fresh face to the team?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to filling new roles, and there are strong arguments on both sides of the fence. On one hand, an outside hire can help fill skills gaps and invigorate a team. On the other, promoting from within is an investment in the people that have already invested their time and energy on the team. It can be good for morale and speed.
We know that — more than almost anything — recognition and purposeful work matter to employees. Promoting internally is a people-first approach that rewards the contributions these people have made. But it’s still a hefty decision to make, and it’s not always the right move.
The needs of the business, skills, motivation, and fit matter — things that can be forgotten when we view promotions simply as reward for current work. The goal is to keep employees engaged by offering both ample opportunity to grow and the ability to master their skills.
Leaders have to strike the right balance between recruiting new talent and considering internal candidates. And no matter what you choose, you’ll have to balance that new position with the overall needs of the team.
What are the reasons to promote someone?
If your employees are thriving in their current roles, you might want to leave them there — right? Well, maybe not. According to Bloomberg, wage and opportunity stagnation are top reasons why people are quitting their jobs. There’s no exact formula to tell us when someone will tip from satisfied to disengaged, but one thing is clear: When people feel that they’re continually passed over for opportunities, that timeline gets accelerated.
Retention is one powerful reason to focus on career development with your current team. But it’s not the only reason. Here are some other reasons why promoting employees is a smart move.
1. To fill a business gap
Perhaps your team needs additional support, or someone is going the extra mile to see your department hit their goals. Your existing team knows the gaps that need to be filled and what success would look like. In this case, employee promotions make a lot of sense. A current team member would likely have an easier time creating a new process (while simultaneously mentoring a new hire in an old one).
2. Provide opportunities for development
It’s possible to take on new responsibilities and challenges in an existing role. But with work-life balance already precarious post-pandemic, managers may want to avoid giving employees two jobs for the price of one. A better route may be creating a new role — one that scaffolds them into a new skill set. They’ll enjoy dedicated time to learn as they grow.
3. Reward performance
Promotions have long been the traditional reward for high performance. Merit increases and recognition are key ways for employees to feel like they’re being rewarded for their efforts. If you have an employee who is stellar in their role (and has been for some time), a change in job title (and commensurate pay) might be in order.
4. They ask for it
It’s not possible to promote every employee that asks to be promoted — but every request should be taken seriously. After all, employees typically don’t approach requests like this lightly. If they’ve approached you with a case for why they should take on a new role or a higher level of responsibilities, it’s a sign of investment in their career. Following up on their request — either with new responsibilities, new role, or with a career growth plan — will build trust.
Signs that an employee deserves a promotion
Employees do sometimes ask for promotions — but not always. During the pandemic, the number of people who felt comfortable asking for a raise, promotion, or even accommodations at work dropped significantly. This change may actually have precipitated the Great Resignation, where employees are leaving their jobs en masse to seek what they couldn’t find in their current roles.
Managers and leaders, then, need to be proactive in spotting (and rewarding) talent and high levels of employee engagement. Here are some signs that a team contributor is ready to be promoted:
Signs an employee should be promoted
- High performance
- Shows initiative and ownership
- Can handle shifting priorities and projects
- Receives feedback well and uses it to grow
- Collaborates effectively with others
1. High performance
One of the key signs that an employee is ready for a higher level of responsibility is their track record in their current role. If you have a someone who rises to (nearly) every challenge, yet handles setbacks with grace, it may be time to consider a promotion.
2. Shows initiative and ownership
When something needs to be done, who’s the one that steps up to do it? Do they work through challenges and make sure to see an initiative through, even with setbacks? Do they understand who else to consult and inform to gain buy-in and create better solutions? If your employee is a creative problem-solver, solutions-focused, and displays strong decision-making skills, it’s likely that they’d thrive in a higher role.
3. Can handle shifting priorities and projects
Whether as a people manager or an individual contributor, taking on more responsibility within a company means being able to keep the bigger picture of team and company objectives in mind. It means not optimizing just for themselves but thinking through impact on other teams and being realistic about changing requirements. Do they complain when plans change or stay focused on team goals and be flexible in achieving them? Look for team members who can juggle and reprioritize with minimal thrash while keeping the big picture in mind.
4. Handles feedback well and uses it to grow
New roles bring new challenges. In addition to a mastery of their current role, look for someone who has a growth mindset and a beginner’s mindset. People who are constantly learning and seeking opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge will be motivated in a new role. If they have a habit of reflection and adapting their behaviors based on their successes and failures, they will quickly develop the skills needed in a new role.
5. Collaborates effectively with others
In today’s workplace, it’s rare that you can afford to promote someone who isn’t able to get along with others. Most projects are too big for one person. Even if you’re not promoting someone into a manager role, it’s important that your employees work together well. Someone who contributes to company culture, understands teamwork, and helps others is an ideal candidate for an internal promotion.
Benefits of promoting from within
Opportunities for advancement mean a lot to the employee, but they also have profound impact on the organization. Here are three benefits of promoting existing employees:
Several surveys (including this large one cited by SHRM) link opportunities for advancement to higher retention levels. This means that companies spend less money on talent acquisition, with (arguably) higher chances for success in the role.
When a person is already established at a company, onboarding to a new role tends to be much, much shorter. An internal hire doesn’t need to do the same acclimation process — or even paperwork — that an external hire would.
Internal promotions have a marked effect on employee engagement and morale. The benefit to the promoted employee is clear. However, seeing others advance — especially peers — can help the rest of the team feel like there’s room for them as well.
How do you justify a promotion for an employee?
If you’ve decided that an internal promotion is the right move, you may have to make the case to other stakeholders — or to HR. Here are three ways to make the business case for promoting internally:
1. Frees up managers’ time
By taking on this new job, your newly promoted leader can cover some of the responsibilities currently being performed by other managers. Think: What could your team be able to accomplish with another skilled set of hands on board?
2. Keeps the company competitive
If jobseekers often leave companies due to a lack of advancement, it stands to reason that opportunity is one of the first things that they’d be looking for in their new role. Establishing yourself as a brand that promotes from within can go a long way toward keeping you competitive in the labor market.
In addition, being able to offer attractive opportunities and pay to your existing employees makes them more likely to stay with you. You’ll find attrition drops and satisfaction increases when your team sees a clear path for advancement.
3. It’s a cost-effective recruiting strategy
Recruiting is expensive. It takes a significant amount of time and resources to find the right candidate for an open role. And even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll work out. Even if a new employee has the skill set, the organization may not turn out to be the right fit for them.
On the other hand, an employee who’s already thriving at your company can save you time and money spent in the recruiting process. They onboard faster and likely have many of the skills they need to thrive in the role. This also lowers training costs and — hopefully — the risk of turnover.
Keep on building
Career advancement is a critical component of job satisfaction. By extension, it also impacts employee engagement. It may not always make sense to promote from within, but it does always make sense to reward your employees’ hard work. Whether that’s by looking for reasons to promote them or some other way to recognize their efforts, you’ll make a palpable difference in morale, attrition, and employee retention.