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What should I do if an employee turns down a job promotion?

Choosing to promote internally is a great way to reward high levels of engagement and excellent performance from your employees. It demonstrates that hard work pays off, and gives your ground-level staff members something to shoot for. But, today, we’re following up a past piece on turning down promotions as an employee.

‘So, what should I do if an employee turns down a promotion?’ we hear you ask. ‘And why do employees reject promotions in the first place?’ Fortunately, we have some of the answers. 

Let’s look at some of the common reasons that employees decline being promoted, and how managers should respond to each one.

Employee anxiety about new responsibilities

Why do employees reject promotions? The simplest answer is that they’re nervous about what it entails. It’s perfectly natural for someone to be nervous about a new promotion, especially if they would be entering the management level for the first time.

It’s important that you treat an anxious employee with tact and empathy. Anxiety doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in being promoted. They’re simply second-guessing their ability to do the job effectively.

  • Highlight their accomplishments: If you think your promotion candidate is just having an attack of nerves, then it might be as simple as talking them round. If you really think they should be promoted, then point to some examples of their previous hard work and other qualities.

  • Put a pin in it for now: One of the most important points we could possibly make is that, even if someone declines being promoted, you shouldn’t necessarily write them off when it comes to future opportunities. Regardless of their reasons, things change, and you shouldn’t assume that it’s a sign of disrespect if they turn you down.

  • Help your candidate to upskill: It may be that your employee has some valid practical concerns about their ability to handle the responsibilities of their new role. Helping them to learn new skills through courses and mentorship ensures they know what they’re doing, and boosts their confidence. 54% of employees are expected to need upskilling by 2022.

Employee lack of interest in being a manager

'Okay,’ you might say. ‘But what should I do if an employee turns down a promotion because it doesn’t appeal to them?’

Again, this doesn’t necessarily reflect their feelings about you or the business. But people often get into particular lines of work for specific reasons.

A doctor might feel fulfilled by direct patient care, or a barrister might love the thrill of arguing in court. Some promotions, especially management-based ones, can take employees away from the aspects of their job that appealed to them the most, decreasing their overall engagement and satisfaction.

  • Read the writing on the wall: If someone genuinely isn’t interested in managing others (or whatever responsibilities their promotion would involve), that’s a fairly solid indicator they aren’t the right candidate. It’s a well-documented fact that businesses promote the wrong person over 80% of the time. So, be thankful for the warning and consider it a bullet dodged.

  • Consider alternative forms of promotion: People who aren’t interested in management still want career development. But would-be managers are far from the only employees worth investing in. It’s worth having different options for career paths to retain top talent. Businesses can be made or broken on the quality of their specialist employees, after all.

Employees have too many pre-existing commitments

Sometimes, a staff member doesn’t want a promotion because of how hectic their personal life already is. Whether it’s a child, an ailing relative, or a small business they’re running on the side, prior obligations sometimes force employees to turn down opportunities to advance.

  • Provide options for flexibility: Nowadays, high-flying careers are more accessible than ever, thanks to various forms of flexible work. You could allow your employee to work from home, establish a set of core hours, compress their work week, or even split their responsibilities with another candidate.

Promotion responsibilities outweigh the benefits

Promotions generally come with an increase in responsibilities, even if it isn’t into a management role. While an employee might accept based purely on the kind of work they’ll get to do, it’s generally expected that increased responsibility comes with increased reward. But, despite that, research from Robert Half UK found that 94% of CFOs and Finance Directors would promote an employee without increasing their pay.

If you’re still asking, ‘What should I do if an employee turns down a promotion?’

  • ...Then consider the fairness of your remuneration package: It’s essential for employers to reward their staff fairly. While money and perks aren’t be the be-all and end-all of engagement, they’re a concrete representation of how much employers value their staff. Not rewarding someone fairly for being promoted shows that the extra work they’ll be putting in means nothing to you.

  • Offer additional support: If the workload is too much, figure out what support you can provide. That might mean hiring them an assistant, providing new equipment, or helping them to build a collaborative relationship with specialists in your organisation.

Promotions aren’t the only way to offer development

You don’t have to promote someone to give them a sense of growth. It’s similar to what you’d do for an anxious employee, with the key difference that it’s not a means to warming them up, but an end in and of itself that means you’ll need to think more long-term.

Assigning them to a mentor could help them figure out what career path they want to take. Or you could even make them a mentor themselves. Mentors still get the rewarding feeling of guiding someone else, without the pressures of managing them, which could warm your candidate up to the idea of being promoted.

Offer training courses for upskilling, or a secondment with another department. You could even send them to another business altogether and broaden their horizons. Change stimulates creativity, and you never know where your next innovation will come from!

Want a better understanding of how your top talent feels about future promotions? Our weekly employee check-in provides the perfect opportunity to collect rich, timely feedback from your teams. Why not check it out?