How to announce promotions fairly
This post originally appeared on Lead Dev.
If you’ve just made it through the toughest part of performance review season, congratulations! You’ve delivered fair, motivating, and unsurprising feedback and helped your teammates crystalize their path forward. Congrats!
But there’s one more thing to do before you call this performance season a wrap.
If you’ve promoted a teammate, or someone on your team has a new title or role, now is the time to announce it. Promotion announcements are a great way to equitably recognize someone’s hard work, and they’re also an opportunity for managers to highlight the leadership behaviors you’d like to reward on your team going forward.
The importance of promotion announcements
Promotion announcements are easy to forget to send. The act of writing an announcement can get lost in the admin shuffle; the HR software change has already been made, the person’s compensation has already clocked in for the next pay cycle, and their title in the staff directory has been updated, so it might feel like everything’s been checked off the list. But don’t skip this step: it’s still critical to communicate this change to the rest of the team!
Imagine how a lack of promotion announcement can feel to the person being promoted. Their hard work has been recognized in private, but for some folks, public recognition is key to feel a sense of improvement and progress, or to feel valued by you and the organization.
Having a new title can also give a person access to new kinds of information and meeting invites. When a promotion hasn’t been announced but the change has officially been made, this person is left to wonder how they can get that access without being awkward about it. Formalizing the promotion with an internal announcement can remind those who are sending meeting invites and communicating confidential information to update their distribution lists. It can also give implicit permission to the person promoted to formally ask for that access; they can just forward your announcement email to the relevant folks.
When the person being promoted is a member of a minoritized group, or is in some way different from the majority of other folks with their new title (e.g. they’re the first product engineer promoted to Staff Engineer, or they’re the first leader with a QA background promoted to Director), their promotion probably won’t go unnoticed. But a lack of official acknowledgment may leave this person feeling uncertain about how to relate to other folks at their new level. Official internal promotion announcements can give them a better sense of belonging to this new group.
Imagine, too, how the rest of the team would feel when they find out about their teammate’s promotion in a circuitous or accidental way. They’ll wonder why it wasn’t announced, and maybe they’ll begin to speculate. They’ll wonder what this means for their own future promotions. They might imagine reasons why their teammate’s promotion was “hidden”—even though the lack of announcement was simply an oversight.
And last but not least, if some promotions are announced, but other promotions aren’t (accidentally or otherwise), it’s unfair. Even when all promotions are announced, leaders might highlight different things in the announcement itself: managers might call out examples of this person’s great work, or peer feedback, or tie their approach and behavior to the description of their new role on the career ladder.
Do your part as a leader to ensure promotions are handled equitably by sending the announcement for everyone who receives a new title or role, and including the same kinds of information in every announcement. But how do you know what information to include?
What you recognize is what you reward
People tend to pattern-match. What are the leadership skills or approaches you’d like more people within the team to adopt, or hone? What you recognize is what you reward, and what you reward is what folks aim to replicate in the future.
Let’s say that, historically, the loudest voices at your company are the ones that get promoted. The folks who are the squeakiest wheels, or the people who emphatically state their point of view (perhaps by steamrolling other folks’ opinions) tend to take the spotlight, and that spotlight is in itself a reward for the behavior.
If you’re interested in diversifying what it looks like to be a leader within your organization, consider which other behaviors or approaches you want to encourage. Maybe you’d like to encourage folks to do more mentorship, or give better feedback, or create more psychological safety within the team.
When you promote someone to a new level or role, ask yourself: by recognizing them and their work, what am I rewarding? What message will this send to others? What leadership behaviors do I want to recognize, so that others will see those behaviors as valued and rewarded (and potentially begin to mirror them as they work towards their own promotions)?
Consistency is key
I shared an example in my book, Resilient Management, of a time at Etsy when promotions were announced in an ad hoc way. It was chaos; there was no consistency around when a promotion would be announced (if it was announced at all), who it was announced to, what medium the announcement would take place in, and what kinds of information were included. Some announcements included a description of how this person had earned the promotion, or skills they’d demonstrated, or quotes from peer feedback. Some included no additional context at all!
This inconsistency bred frustration and assertions of unfairness. People began watching for which folks would get a thorough, timely announcement, and which would have no announcement at all. They’d watch for what kinds of work or skills were celebrated for members of different demographics (which is, of course, a rich opportunity for bias on the part of the manager!).
The inequity and inconsistency became increasingly obvious to leaders and the internal communications team. Eventually, they decided to create consistency around promotion announcements to create more fairness and predictability for all involved. Here’s a fragment from the book:
“They listed out, for each level in a company, who was the right audience to receive a promotion announcement. If the person being promoted was more junior, their promotion would be announced internally to their team. A more senior person’s promotion would warrant an announcement at a larger group meeting, or even an All Hands meeting. This level of clarity made it less scary for individuals to nudge their manager if an announcement had been accidentally skipped over, and it was easier for managers to understand what was expected of them at the time of their teammates’ promotion.”
I recommend you develop standards that cover who needs to know what (and in what format), but also go one step further: develop guidelines around what context or details should be included within announcements. Note examples of failure modes like bias creeping in (e.g. how women are promoted based on past experience, while men are promoted based on their potential).
Work with other folks who are announcing promotions internally to create consistency around which skills and leadership traits are lauded. Create a few example announcements that follow these guidelines so that more managers can see what a solid, equitable promotion announcement looks like.
Remember: what you recognize is what you reward. By creating consistency around the medium, audience, and content of promotion announcements, you’ll be treating your teammates more equitably, and underscoring the behaviors you’d like to see in leaders going forward.