Ask HR: What to do when a promotion goes awry

There are hazards in picking the wrong person or mismanaging the changeover

Q. Our top software developer is now struggling in his new role as supervisor. His team is in an uproar ever since he was promoted from a peer to their supervisor. All the while client work is suffering. What happened? Is this supervisor salvageable?

A. We see situations like this on a regular basis when working with clients. Management thinks, the best doer = supervisor material. And why not? This is much more logical than promoting a poor performer to a supervisory role or bringing in someone in from the outside, isn’t it? So what went wrong for your developer turned supervisor? Our experience has shown that employers miss some critical steps before promoting that top performer:

 • Test the waters with the employee before offering the promotion. While working with a biotech company I was getting a lot of complaints about a particular supervisor. He was a scientist who excelled in the lab, but was struggling in his new role as supervisor. When I met with him, I learned that he never wanted to be a supervisor. He took the job because he wanted more money but was now miserable in this role and thinking of quitting. Having a pre-promotion conversation to evaluate the employee’s interest in the management track is critical.

 • Groom them. Thoughtful succession planning is critical. Plunking someone into a role they are not ready for can mean disaster. There are many companies that have management training programs. You do not need to develop an overly formal process, but having them do some homework to learn what being a supervisor means, including how to deal with things like supervising those who used to be their peers, can save you a headache down the line.

 • Before the supervisory promotion, talk about expectations. This includes a new job description, and most importantly, written and realistic performance expectations on which you will be measuring them. Set goals with the employee to help them achieve milestones in this new role and check in regularly.

 • Ongoing support. Many companies do not give the new supervisors the training and support for them to be successful in their new role. Coaching and mentoring this person is essential. Also, finding a training class for new supervisors can be useful. It’s important to understand when sending the employee to an outside training that it will not be customized to your organization and its unique needs. Take time to research the topics that will be covered prior to sending the newly-minted supervisor for training. Consider setting up a confidential supervisory peer group. They can be a valuable resource for supervisors. The group shares ideas and learns from one another and along the way it helps build the team.

Remember, there are hazards in promoting the wrong person or mismanaging the promotion:

 • Employee turnover. Those they supervise as well as the employee who was promoted are all at risk for leaving your business. Turnover is costly and a time-consuming distraction. Do what you need to in order to prevent it.

 • Your culture and core values. When people are unhappy at work, their negative feelings can creep in and affect your workplace with actions that do not align with your culture and core values.

 • Decreased productivity. Those who work for this supervisor are likely spending wasted energy and time on talking to one another about their shared misery.

“Sink or swim” is the old-school approach to managing employees. Setting your employees up for success will have a positive effect on your workplace and ultimately your bottom line.

Delise West, founder of HR outsourcing firm Human Resource Partners, with offices in Concord and Dover, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or through

“Ask HR” is the first of a quarterly column focusing on human resources issues. We’d like to hear from you – what HR topics would you like answers to? Submit your questions to with the subject line “Ask HR.”

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice