How to Tell Someone They’re Not Getting a Promotion or a Pay Rise

Let’s tackle a tricky situation that you’re likely to encounter as a manager at some point – telling someone that they’re not getting the promotion or pay rise (or both) that they were expecting. 

Don’t take the easy way out

I’ve seen it happen – managers who are afraid to tell a team member that they’re not getting the thing that they wanted. I get it – it’s not a nice conversation to have to carry out. Worse though, the root cause of this can sometimes be that the manager has actually promised the pay rise or promotion without having the authority to do so. We’ll talk more about expectation setting shortly but this is the main reason why it’s so important.

The absolute worst thing that you can do in this kind of situation is to take the easy way out and just award the pay rise or promotion when it’s not deserved. Doing this just because you’re not prepared to tell someone something that they don’t like is irresponsible and will cause problems further down the line – for both of you.

For you as a manager, it means that you’re not equipping yourself to have difficult conversations, meaning that you’re more likely to avoid them in the future too – probably leading to more problems. 

For them as a team member, they will either be on an inflated salary which doesn’t reflect their position or performance, or promoted into a position that they can’t handle. It can also cause disparity amongst different team members when it comes to salary and seniority.

Trust me, it’s just a very bad idea! Don’t do it. 

Set expectations early (and keep setting them)

Okay, now we’ve addressed that and hopefully, you’re not going to avoid the hard conversation, let’s talk about one way that you could avoid the conversation or at least make the conversation easier – setting the right expectations well in advance. 

When you work with your team member, you should always have an eye on their personal development plan and part of this plan should be:

  • Their current job title and the one they are aiming to be promoted to next.
  • Their current salary and the range in which they can move up.

Each should also have time frames attached to them so that the team member knows approximately when they may be able to achieve the promotion. In terms of pay, it’s important to see expectations on how often pay will be reviewed. This may be defined at a company level e.g. everyone gets a pay review every 12 months or so. 

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to be clear about everything as soon as possible and on an ongoing basis. 

When you do this, you’re much less likely to end up in a situation where your team member expects something that is never going to happen. Of course, you may still need to deliver news that they may find disappointing, but if it’s at least a little expected, it’s a far easier conversation for everyone involved. 

Related to this, it’s important to tell someone how they are progressing towards promotions and pay rises. For example, let’s say that you tell someone that in 6 months, you’d expect to be able to promote them and with this, they’d move to a new pay band – then you outline what they need to do in order to get there.

If 3 months go by and they’re not doing the things that they need to do and are falling behind, it’s at this point that you need to have a conversation with them about being behind and the consequences of this. In this case, the conversation is that the promotion and associated pay rise isn’t likely to happen in 3 months unless you see a big change. 

This means that (unless they turn things around) when you get to the 6 month mark and they still have work to do, they at least expect you to tell them that the promotion and pay rise isn’t happening right now. 

How to carry out the conversation

With all of that said, even with expectations being set (or not), the conversation itself is still likely to be a bit tricky and make you nervous. It’s an important one to get right (pay and promotions are very personal to people) so it’s right to think about the conversation and plan it as much as possible so that you do a good job.

We’ve spoken before about the fundamentals of preparing for a difficult conversation, so I won’t repeat those points. But I will give some specific pointers on pay and promotions.

If you’ve over promised or set the wrong expectations – own it

It happens – if you have skipped the step above regarding expectations or haven’t been quite as clear as you could have been, own it. Don’t try and cover up your mistakes here because it will make the conversation even harder. If the team member is surprised at the lack of a pay rise or promotion and they have a right to be because of you, then address that and be honest about it. 

Say you can’t fix it now, but it’s on you and you’ll do better in the future.

Give clear reasons why they’re not getting the promotion or pay rise

This is really, really important and should play a big part in your preparation for the conversation. It’s okay for the team member to be disappointed, but it’s not okay for them to not understand the reason(s) behind the decision.

Within this, it’s important to be clear on reasons that are related to the team member’s own performance e.g. they’ve missed targets or not quite met the mark to get a promotion, vs reasons that are outside of their control e.g. company budget cuts or company-wide policies on pay.

Listen to their response

The emphasis, particularly at the start of the conversation, will be on you and you’ll probably do most of the talking. But at some point, the team member will respond with their thoughts and feedback. At this point, just let them talk. Don’t interrupt if you can at all help it, make notes if you need to come back to address their points, but just let them be heard. 

Again, disappointment is fine, but it’s going to feel even worse if they don’t feel like they’ve had the chance to respond and share their feelings. 

Give clear next steps

It’s highly likely that if you tell someone that they’re not getting a promotion or a pay rise, that you’re not saying it’s a no forever. It’s actually likely that you’re saying “not right now”. You need to be clear on this and to give them a clear path towards the pay and / or promotion that they want.

Tell them the reasons why they’ve missed out this time, but close the loop by giving them a plan and timeline for when they can now get there. 

This won’t remove the disappointment, but it will give them a point of focus and some hope that they can get there. They may well not care about it at the moment, but it’s still important to tell them what’s next for them. You can’t leave the conversation with them not being clear on what they can do next or thinking that the decision is made and is made forever. 

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