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How to Spot That Promotable Employee

Employers and the human resources department in any organization are always worried and under continuous pressure to spot talented employees within a quick time frame – not years or months, but in weeks. However, the task is immensely complex and could lead to mistakes affecting the bottom lines of businesses.

How to spot that promotable employeeThe big question before every employer is “How do you correctly recognize an individual with the potential to be promoted?” This article does its best to succinctly answer that question.

Even in 2010, Rothwell said that “About 60 percent of U.S. companies have no specific way, beyond performance management systems, to rate an individual's current work performance or assess an individual's potential for promotion. Managers in these organizations assume that if workers can perform successfully in their current jobs, they are guaranteed to be successful in higher level jobs” (Rothwell 37).

The situation hasn't advanced very much in the last few years, and the practice continues even though everyone in the world of business knows that past performance is no guarantee of future success. Past success can predict future success only if all other conditions remain equal - a situation where promotion would be meaningless.

Blindly assuming that powerful performance at one level of a business organization deserves the reward of promotion to a higher level of responsibility, inevitably leads to employees experiencing job burnout or reaching a career plateau and high levels of dissatisfaction.

The usual result is underperformance, poor human resources optimization, and possible loss of talented employees. Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull describe the phenomenon in The Peter Principle (1968).

Essentially, the Peter Principle states that in any industry, blindly rewarding past performance at one level of the organization with promotion to higher levels of responsibility leads to employees ultimately reaching a level where they cannot perform any more at their optimal skill/time v. output ratio.

Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties" and adds that [most real] "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

In promotion decisions, the levels of work and responsibility are usually quite different than what the promoted employee used to do. It is extremely difficult to know how individuals will perform at a certain level, unless they are observed working at that level for a time sufficient to assess their potential.

However, many organizations seek the easy way out by depending upon manager nominations. But, manager nominations run the significant risk of being influenced by the “cloning” or “he's-like-me” bias. Another way, very commonly used is the ‘mentoring' framework, where the ‘promotable' employee is put under the supervisor according to replacement strategy to do part of the work of the supervisor. The problem with this method is that the supervisor has to meet his/her own targets and it becomes difficult to know how much of the work was actually done by the ‘promotable' employee and how much by the supervisor. This method too, runs the risk of being influenced by supervisor bias.

The only way out of the situation is to create an intelligent replacement strategy, where multiple employees on a possible promotion list are tested out by tasking them with the responsibilities they would have to carry in the future every day, if promoted. No feedback is sufficient to gauge an employee's future performance at a different level, except putting the employee at that level for short-term duration and observing the results.


William J. Rothwell, The Manager's Guide to Maximizing Employee Potential: Quick and Easy Strategies to Develop Talent Every Day (New York: American Management Association, 2010)