I promoted one employee instead of her coworker, and now my whole team is upset — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a long-time manager, but promotions are a rarity on my team. When an unexpected opportunity for a promotion arose earlier this year, there were two obvious candidates: Annie and Beth. Annie was more of a star individual contributor than Beth, and also had more experience covering the open position. But Annie can be volatile, and in particular has a history of butting heads with Jane, who would be her direct supervisor in the new role. So I chose to promote Beth, who has better soft skills and an excellent relationship with Jane (they’re good friends outside work). When I gave Annie the bad news, she said that she had determined that she was not a good fit for the role anyway and did not want the “drama” of the higher level position.

Since then, Annie has continued her excellent work and been scrupulously polite. She does, however, avoid Beth and Jane when she can. She has also stopped going “above and beyond.” She no longer volunteers for the hardest assignments when we’re in a pinch, and has opted out of all social gatherings. The gatherings are not technically required, but I do think that they’re important for team-building purposes. I’m disappointed, although not really surprised, that Annie seems to be boycotting them.

The problem is that a tense unhappiness has settled over the rest of the team. General consensus seems to be that I used Annie to cover the position without a promotion and screwed her over by promoting Beth instead because Beth is Jane’s friend. Beth and Annie’s respective relationships with Jane were absolutely a factor in my decision, but Beth is more than qualified for her new role even setting that aside.

Is there any way I can ask Annie to smooth things over with her colleagues? Can I ask her to tell them that she didn’t want the promotion anyway, or at least encourage her to stop boycotting happy hour? Beth does not deserve the team’s extreme lack of enthusiasm during what should be an exciting and celebratory time for her.

The fact that Beth and Jane are good friends outside of work makes this a real clusterfudge — because of course it looks to your team like that’s why Beth got the promotion despite not being strong of a performer as Annie, but also because you really can’t have someone manage their “good friend.” It’s rife for bias and lack of objectivity, and for the appearance of those things.

Even without the other issues, Beth and Jane’s close friendship should have given you serious pause about moving Beth into that role — at least without a very serious conversation about how their relationship would need to change, and assurance from each of them that they agreed and were bought into that, and even then it would be tricky (depending on exactly what “good friends outside of work” means). That doesn’t necessarily mean Annie should have gotten the job instead (volatility and a history of butting heads with Jane might also be prohibitive), but it might mean you needed to look at external candidates.

As for what to do now … don’t ask Annie to tell her coworkers she didn’t want the promotion. Based on her behavior since she said that, it’s unlikely that’s really true (and it’s significant that she only said that after she knew she wasn’t getting it). And don’t ask her to resume coming to optional happy hours; she’s entitled to decide she doesn’t want to socialize outside of work. She’s also entitled to stop going above and beyond — and I suspect that if you really think about it, you can understand why she has: she’s gotten the message that doing that doesn’t pay off, and she’s not in a place where she’s inclined to do extra favors at the moment. That’s fair. None of that means Annie is a saint, or even that you should have promoted her instead. But it does mean that the way you want to handle this isn’t the way to go.

I’m hopeful that you were transparent with Annie’s about your concerns about her volatility and relationship with Beth, enough for her to understand why those things were an obstacle in promoting her. But you’ve still got this Beth/Jane friendship landmine to sort out, not to mention your team’s reaction to everything that went down. Those aren’t problems that Annie created, and it’s not fair to look to her to solve them for you.

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