Research shows when employees believe promotions practices are fair, companies thrive despite economic recession.
By Ted Kitterman & Ruby Storm Green
It’s hard to make the workplace fair — especially when it comes to job promotions.
Even for the best of the best, fairness is one of the components of workplace culture that can suffer. And at the typical workplace, less than half of U.S. workers feel that promotions are awarded fairly.
However, fair promotions are a key differentiator between an average workplace and the best workplaces in the country.
Are promotion decisions heavily influenced by seniority? That’s a problem if all of your traditionally underrepresented employees are newer additions to the company.
At companies on the 2023 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® list, 78% of employees say promotions are fair. That’s a 59% increase from the average workplace, where only 49% report fair promotions.
The impact of fair job promotions
For companies worried about a potential recession, it’s crucial to pay attention to promotions and employees’ perceptions of fairness.
When companies can deliver five critical employee experiences — including offering fair promotions — they are more likely to thrive during a recession, according to Great Place To Work® research. In particular, these employee experiences must be felt by five key groups:
- Frontline workers
- Male hourly workers
- Long-tenured employees
- Non-white employees
The bad news? Employees at typical U.S. companies do not think their employees offer fair promotions — particularly when looking at these key demographic groups. Less than half (45%) of women at the typical U.S. workplace report fair promotions, compared to 53% of men.
That 8-percentage-point gap disappears at the Best Workplaces for Women, where 83% of women report fair promotions at their organization
Closing the Gap
These seven management practices protect the promotions process and promote a sense of fairness among employees:
1. Establish clear expectations for advancement.
Explicit and available criteria for promotion decisions help create shared expectations and a sense of fairness around career advancement. For any given job, employees from across the company must understand what skills are required and how management evaluates applicants.
When someone is promoted, leaders should be able to cite the criteria that drove their decision-making process. These criteria must be established well in advance of making a promotion and leaders must be equipped to communicate about how they made their decision.
One example of how to do this is a “career path matrix” — a grid that maps out basic responsibilities, educational criteria, and differentiating factors for every job in the organization. This tool enables employees to work with their manager or a career coach to identify next steps in their career journey that are measurable and attainable.
2. Audit the ‘path to promotion.’
It’s not enough to have clear criteria for a promotion. It’s important to look at how those criteria may cause promotions to skew toward certain demographics and employee groups over others.
Are promotion decisions heavily influenced by seniority? That’s a problem if all of your traditionally underrepresented employees are newer additions to the company. Rather than rewarding hours logged, think about how you can recognize contributions and results.
Be sure to also measure promotion rates across demographics like gender and race. If you aren’t promoting women at the same rate as men, or Black employees at the same rate as white ones, there could be structural issues in how people move through your company.
3. Create robust mentorship programs for traditionally marginalized employees.
If you want to improve representation for women, minorities, and other demographics on your leadership team, you have to be intentional about developing those future leaders.
Learn which employees are interested in becoming leaders and create a development plan for them, either with internal resource and programming or by reimbursing their learning from external programs.
It’s also beneficial to create opportunities for employees to connect with top leaders across the organization. This enables employees to showcase their unique talents to everyone, not just their direct supervisors. Face time with leaders outside of the confines of their direct team helps an employee’s reputation as a strategic thinker spread throughout the whole business.
One of the best tools for building visibility with leaders is the employee resource group (ERG). When these employee assets are seen as essential business operations, they can dramatically increase access to leaders for often marginalized employees.
4. Communicate transparently about open job roles.
When a promotion is awarded before some people are even aware of an opening, employees may feel the process to fill that role was unfair.
When you share job opportunities with the full team at the same time, giving everyone who is interested an opportunity to apply, employees are more likely to see the promotion as fair and deserved. It also helps to follow a clearly defined process centered around your established criteria for the role.
Picking a winner ahead of time will only undermine your attempts to create a fair process.
Less than half (45%) of women at the typical U.S. workplace report fair promotions, compared to 53% of men.
5. Offer promotions that don’t require people management.
Some of your best performers don’t want to manage other employees. They are excellent at their job, and they deserve to be celebrated and elevated.
If the only way to get ahead is to take on the role of a people leader, you will incentivize people to become managers who don’t have the passion required. Instead, map a career path where people can advance in other ways.
6. Be willing to take a chance on people.
If projects are only ever given to people who are guaranteed to “get the job done,” the organization isn’t helping junior employees learn on the job. For employees who aren’t given a project, take the time to map out how they can develop so they can take on such work in the future.
It’s also a mistake to limit your workforce by sticking rigidly to your org chart or previous work experience and credentials. Be willing to train workers to do new things, and focus on employees’ potential rather than what might go on a résumé.
7. Make sure promotions align with pay equity initiatives.
As you work to make promotions equitable and fair, make sure any job changes are matched with fair compensation. If you’re giving out more responsibility, it should come with a commensurate pay increase.
Pay equity initiatives should also be considered. HR leaders can play a vital role as a voice for employees who don’t have leverage to advocate for themselves.
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