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Aug 23, 2013
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

What do you do when you promote someone in your organization and it just doesn’t work out?

I’m not talking about someone who simply struggles a bit to adjust to a new position, but rather, someone who gets promoted only to then show everyone that they are absolutely not the right person for the job

The New York TimesYou’re the Boss blog recently tackled this question, and it is a good one because it’s a common situation that lots of managers struggle with.

3 options when a promotion goes bad

A reader of You’re the Boss put it this way:

What do you do when someone is high-performing happy in one area of the company and wants to do more, wants to learn more, and wants more responsibility, but then struggles in the new role? The way I see it, I have three options:

  1. If we keep them in that new spot, we have suddenly shifted from a high performance HR into a phony happy HR place.
  2. If we fire them, we send out a message contrary to “work hard and you’ll be rewarded.”
  3. If we return them to their original position, we risk turning a formerly high-performance happy employee into an unhappy employee.

Which option would you suggest?”

This is a great question, and the reader was sharp enough to quickly come to the three basic options available when this kind of situation presents itself.

Is moving them back to their old job best?

Here’s the answer the blog came back with, from one of the small business owners who authors You’re the Boss:

My response was that choosing option No. 1 would turn the employee into a loser. And option No. 2 would turn the company into a loser. I think option No. 3 is the best choice — but don’t forget this hard-knocks reality: I don’t know of a lot of examples in the real world of fast growth where going back ends well.

I would suggest giving the employee an opportunity to go back and perform and be high-performance happy again. But don’t try to overmanage the situation. No big announcements to the company, no welcome back parties to the old job, and let the person keep the raise that came with the new position. Explain that the success of the move is entirely up to the employee. If the person goes back and mopes and complains, you’ll work out an exit package. Treat the person like a leader — not like a loser who needs pity. The chief executive sets the message: We need winners in every role.”

What I find interesting about this answer is that it is right on the money in its very pragmatic, common sense advice, but absolutely misses the boat when it comes to what I have observed in the workplace.

As much as Option No. 3 IS the best choice, my experience is that most organizations don’t do that, instead going with option No. 2 (get rid of the person), or sticking with option No. 1 that eventually turns into No. 2 (keep the promoted person in the new spot until they succeed, or, fail enough times to make you revert to option No. 2).

What I’ve seen organizations do

I’ve rarely seen organizations choose to return someone who is not working out in their new position to their original  job. Some of that is pragmatic — the former job has someone else in it now and you don’t want to punish them —  but more often, it is not done because it makes everyone — the returning employee, the manager, and the organization — feel like a failure. And, no one does very well when they feel like that.

A few years ago, I worked at a media company that owned a lot of newspapers, and top editors were always getting promoted and moved here and there. Invariably, some of these promoted editors stumbled in their new role as they tried to adjust. When this happened, the company was pretty decisive (some might say brutal) in getting rid of the stumbling editor.

I groused about this one time to a guy I respected who had been a top editor with this company for years before leaving for greener pastures.

Why, I wondered, was the organization so cavalier with people’s careers? Why did people who had succeeded for many years in all sorts of different positions get canned when they had one little stumble?  Didn’t they still have value? Didn’t the organization have a lot invested in them? And, why didn’t long-time successful performers, at least, get three strikes?

Are we even less tolerant in today’s workplace?

His answer sticks with me to this day.

“John,” he said, “There’s no such thing as three strikes. People here today don’t get even one strike. There used to be a time when top management took care  of people who had been long-time successful performers, and they found them something if someone who was promoted struggled, but that time is gone. Now, you get one chance and only one chance. If you don’t succeed, and succeed quickly, you get dumped and they find someone else instead.

This was tough to hear, but it made me wonder: what kind of company summarily tosses people with a long and successful track record just because they have a little stumble?

I wish I had an answer to that but I don’t. And to reinforce my confusion, this company has gotten even more arbitrary and capricious with its people in the years since I left.

But, maybe there is hope put there. Maybe this advice in The Times’ You’re the Boss blog just shows how far we’ve come and how much better organizations are in managing their talent and recognizing that yes, the path isn’t always going up and that people aren’t always perfect.

I hope that’s the case, but I fear it’s not, because everything I see and hear from today’s talent managers tells me that, if anything, we are even less tolerant of people who get promoted and struggle than we were when I groused about it so many years ago.

Right or wrong, that’s one of the trends I see in today’s workplace. Here’s hoping you see it differently. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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