How to Offer Development Knowing a Promotion Isn't Possible

Promotions are a tremendous motivating factor for employees. They typically bring more pay, job security, autonomy, responsibility, and perks – it’s no wonder employees pursue them. But you have a finite number of promotions to offer, and employees usually aren’t as ready for a promotion as they think.

It’s important not to box in your career development conversations with talk of promotions. For the select few for which promotions make sense, you’ll discuss the plan, timing, and next steps when the promotion occurs. For the majority, you need a plan to discuss other types of opportunities that align with their career trajectory.

Through continual manager ratings, our Talent Reviews tool assigns employees into four groups based on growth potential and performance. This is how we recommend you conduct career development conversations with each group.

Stretch and Cultivate

Top performers with room to grow.

  • Move on up: Consider individuals from this group first when a promotion arises.
  • Grow their skills: If a promotion isn’t available, identify stretch assignments or development opportunities to progress these individuals’ skills and abilities.

Recognize and Retain

Well-suited for current position; not prime for a promotion.

  • Shake things up: Add to their core skills by offering training in other areas that expand current expertise.
  • Broaden their scope: Test leadership abilities by having these individuals lead a new initiative, head up a special project, or act as an advocate for the team (i.e. cross-team liaison).
  • Have the hard conversation: Ask employees if they really want to be promoted. Promotions seem great on the surface, but they bring new responsibilities and pressures. Have employees consider the long-term ramifications of the move. Many are content with their current position, and others may realize they don’t desire or aren’t ready to move up.
  • Look for mentorship opportunities: Use these employees’ skills and knowledge to impact new employees. Discuss opportunities to train or mentor new hires, joining the interviewing/hiring process, and showcase their work as an example to other teams.

Reset and Align

Show signs of potential, but aren’t the right fit for their current position.

  • Discuss job fit: Have an honest conversation about how they feel about their role. Do they feel the fit is right? What are their career aspirations, and how do those aspirations align with their current career path?
  • Identify obstacles: Uncover what’s holding the employee from reaching their potential.
  • Consider new opportunities: Ask what career paths in the organization intrigue them. What parts of their job excite them? Which don’t? There may be some lateral job shifts in the organization that provide a better long-term fit.

Coach and Guide

Performing below expectations; future in organization is murky.

  • Dig into past performance: Get to the root of why the employee isn’t succeeding. Is their performance related to a work-life balance issue? Skills? Work ethic? Personal issue?
  • Construct an educational plan: Decide what education or skills the employee must undergo to stay with the organization. Remedial training or other skill development may be options.
  • Discuss an exit from the organization: Outline why this decision was made and discuss next steps. Offer to help the employee in any way you can.


Understand the possibilities. Enter each career development conversation with the knowledge of what promotions, lateral moves, and portion of the development budget are available. This gives you something to offer when employees desire additional opportunities, but also keeps you from over-promising.

Understand where the employee’s head is at. Try to get a sense of everything that’s impacting performance. It’s very possible something in their personal life is bleeding into work. Talk to employees about their mood and what they might be going through.

Keep an open mind. Don’t make assumptions or have a set-in-stone plan when you the meeting. Allow the employee to add color and insight to their performance, and be ready to adjust your opinion if need be.