August 08, 2021

It’s time to clear the pathways to promotion at your company

The Great Resignation is happening, leaving many companies asking how to retain their talent. Employees’ values and needs haven’t changed. What’s changed is the opportunity they have to find a company that shares those values and is prepared to meet those needs. When it comes to the values and needs of success and fairness, transparency and consistency as critical as ever.

Clear pathways to promotion increase employee trust and psychological safety, as well as helping to mitigate bias in the promotion process. Dion Bullock, Bravely’s DEIB Strategy Lead, explains: “Without clear and structured ways of engaging in performance evaluation or appraisal, leaders will rely on bias. This is especially problematic when there’s a lack of diversity among the people making these types of decisions.”

First, reflect on your current methods of promoting. Have the expectations for promotion been made explicitly clear to every employee? Does each employee have the opportunity to meet those expectations? Formally defining expectations will aid in an organization’s equity and inclusion efforts and support employee engagement and retention. When employees have access to the metrics for success they’re being measured against, they can more readily advocate for themselves and take ownership of their career growth.

In Bravely sessions centered on career growth, one of the most common themes is feeling stuck, which co-occurs in 8.7% of conversations — more than twice as often as asking for a promotion. Equitable and clear upward mobility practices are about more than promotions; they’re also about giving your people the sense of direction they need to succeed.

Add structure to the performance review process.

Many pathways to promotion include leaning on the data from performance reviews. While performance reviews can provide insight into how a manager experiences their employee’s work, they can also be highly subjective and unreliable. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “in one project, only 15% of women and 24% of men managers had confidence in the performance evaluation process, while most viewed it as subjective and highly ambiguous.” One of the biggest challenges in performance reviews is the open-ended nature of prompts like, “Describe how the employee’s performance compared to your expectations.” This prompt leaves a lot of room for bias and raises its own set of follow-up questions. Have the expectations been clearly defined? Have those expectations been communicated to the employee? What assumptions are the expectations based on? Does everyone have the same opportunity to meet the expectations? All too often, those questions aren’t answered.

Without structure, employers may unconsciously rely on stereotypes related to gender, race, and other identity markers when making decisions. Instead of asking whether or not an employee met the employer’s expectations, a more bias-aware performance review would ask for three specific measurable outcomes and examples of how an employee performed. By creating more structure in performance reviews, organizations can foster trust that equity is, at the very least, an intentional consideration.

Consider ways to mitigate bias in the promotion process.

Evaluations of an individual’s performance and decisions about promotions shouldn’t be made by one person. Cultivate a diverse group of people to review an individual’s performance and consideration for promotion — 360 evaluations and diverse panels for internal interviews are among the ways to bring in multiple perspectives and safeguard against bias.

Create a script for promotion decision-making and stick to it as much as possible. By creating guidelines and safeguards for conversations around performance reviews and promotions, employers can bring uniformity and fairness to their approach.

Address bias in the delegation process.

Bias can impact internal mobility long before the word “promotion” even enters the conversation. Bias in delegation of work can exacerbate inequity in ways that show up through an employee journey. Consider the common scenario in which some employees are frequently trusted with important responsibilities while others are relegated to the sidelines as support. When the chosen few, who are likely benefitting from a decision maker’s affinity bias, go on to succeed, confirmation bias then comes into play: “Of course they did well; that’s why I trusted them in the first place.”

When it comes time for performance reviews or considering a promotion, those who have been entrusted with big projects are likelier to shine, while the employees who not been afforded those opportunities may be critiqued as showing a lack of initiative or failing to step up as leaders.

In conversations about performance on your team, consider these questions, originally shared by Bullock in a February 2021 BenefitsPRO article:

  • How are new projects and tasks currently distributed?
  • If there is ambiguity about where a specific project should land, how do you determine who should receive the project?
  • When faced with a tight deadline, who is trusted to take on those responsibilities?
  • Who is trusted with projects that require navigating organizational politics, or are under heavy scrutiny?

Clearing the pathways to promotion requires organizations to slow down, communicate clearly, and introduce new rigor and uniform standards. The effort’s well worth it, as it allows organizations to become more transparent, increase psychological safety among their employees, and embed diversity and inclusion into the employee experience.

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