Don’t Let a Race for a Promotion Get Awkward

Don’t Let a Race for a Promotion Get Awkward
Photo: Rob Shepperson

If career planning at your office is starting to resemble an episode of “Survivor,” you’re not alone.

More employers are sparking internal competitions by posting job openings online and encouraging interested employees to apply. The internal horse races that ensue open up new career opportunities for many, but also risk leaving angry, dispirited runners-up in their wake.

“It’s a really great thing” if these rivalries give employees fairer, faster access to new opportunities, says Minneapolis executive coach Kevin Cashman. “But they create a bit of a monster” if employers fail to provide career-planning help and support for those who lose out, says Mr. Cashman, global head of Korn Ferry’s CEO development practice.

It’s possible to emerge a winner from one of these bake-offs even if you don’t get the job. But it requires some careful career planning and social skill.

Pitting insiders against each other can give rise to destructive tension. Kristen J. Zavo and several hundred other consultants in her division at a previous employer vied annually for a handful of openings for new director positions. Politicking among candidates seeking to align themselves with the most powerful internal allies led to backbiting and undermined co-workers’ trust in each other, Ms. Zavo says.

The rivalry intensified the pressure consultants already felt to work 80-hour weeks. And those who lost out were left seething over the outcome, she says. She resigned after the stress began harming her health. Ms. Zavo is a Cincinnati career coach and author of “Job Joy,” a book about finding meaning and satisfaction in work.

The takeaway for her: Employees shouldn’t join such battles without first figuring out what they’ll do if they don’t get the job. They also should size up each opportunity based on how well it fits into their own long-term career and personal plans.

Employers tapped current employees to fill 21% of all 2017 job openings, up from 11% the previous year, according to a survey of more than 700 employers by SilkRoad, a Chicago-based talent-management technology company.

Kristen J. Zavo, a Cincinnati career coach and author, says intense competition for promotions on a previous job sparked tension and overwork.
Kristen J. Zavo, a Cincinnati career coach and author, says intense competition for promotions on a previous job sparked tension and overwork. Photo: Jess Summers/SAY YES TO JESS

Posting jobs internally attracts a larger pool of highly qualified applicants for hiring managers to choose from, compared with allowing managers to handpick candidates on their own, according to a 2017 study of 8,107 internal hires at a large health-insurance company.

It found that employees who win the job are 17% more likely to stay with the company for at least two additional years, and 28% more likely to be promoted within three years, compared with managers’ handpicked candidates. JR Keller, an assistant professor of human resources studies at Cornell University, conducted the study.

Many employers also hope internal postings will attract a more diverse applicant pool and help address concerns over racial, ethnic or gender bias.

But internal postings risk driving losers out the door. Also-rans in Dr. Keller’s study were 2½ times more likely than the average employee to quit the company in the ensuing six to 12 months, according to unpublished follow-up research.

As employers replace old career ladders and predictable promotion schedules with more flexible internal postings, career-planning responsibility is falling to employees. And many of them aren’t ready. “People just don’t know how to build careers within organizations,” Dr. Keller says. Without some career-planning help, “the only way to figure out what your opportunities are is to actually apply,” he says.

Bake-Off Best Practices

Seven tips on how to behave when competing with co-workers for a promotion:

  • Avoid allowing a rivalry to damage your relationships with co-workers.
  • Acknowledge your rivals’ applications in a friendly way and wish them well.
  • Avoid efforts to undermine or sabotage other candidates.
  • Don’t let applying for internal openings substitute for making your own long-term career plans.
  • Plan in advance what you will do if you lose.
  • If you win, don’t flaunt it. Respect others’ feelings and celebrate away from the office.
  • Be gracious if you lose. Congratulate the winner and talk about what you gained from the process.

Without thoughtful oversight, internal competitions can devolve into a Darwinian struggle. Heather Taylor was dismayed when a new employer pitted her against a co-worker in a head-to-head battle for an editing job several years ago. The hiring manager didn’t reveal until after Ms. Taylor accepted the job that she’d hired another new editor at the same time.

Neither the manager nor the other editor ever openly acknowledged the horse race, but the company was so small that there clearly wasn’t room for more than one person in an editor role. From their first day, “we were sizing each other up. I think we knew from the start that only one of us would make it out alive,” says Ms. Taylor, of Calabasas, Calif.

Ms. Taylor did her best, but soon felt herself losing traction. Her boss began excluding her from meetings and huddling with her rival. “I felt like I was in limbo,” Ms. Taylor says. She left the company after only a few weeks, when her boss chose her rival over her. Although she rebounded quickly, losing that battle was so discouraging that she briefly considered changing careers.

“It really shakes your confidence in your ability and makes you second-guess everything you’re doing,” says Ms. Taylor, who is currently communications coordinator for MyCorporation, a provider of business document-filing services.

Internal bake-offs can work well if the losers get something out of the competition. Runners-up in Dr. Keller’s study were far more likely to stay with the company if hiring managers took the time to interview them, show interest in their candidacy and encourage them, Dr. Keller says.

CEO coach John Mattone says some employers offer all contenders for top jobs executive coaching, skills assessments and interviewing experience. “Even if they aren’t the winner, they still benefit greatly,” says Mr. Mattone, an author and speaker based in Orlando, Fla.

The most profitable companies teach employees to manage their own careers, according to a recent study of 1,220 employers by Bersin by Deloitte. Some 76% of more profitable companies emphasized promoting from within. They also set up training programs encouraging employees to sell themselves internally, network with colleagues outside their teams and explore potential paths to advancement.

Candidates shouldn’t allow an internal horse race to undermine their relationships with colleagues. They have to continue working with them. Also, decision makers tend to see candidates who appear likable and friendly as more competent, says Jack Nasher, author of “Convinced!” a forthcoming book about proving competence. That means showing respect for colleagues at all levels. If you find yourself shoulder to shoulder with a rival at happy hour, say you’ve heard they applied for the job and buy them a round.

If you lose, “don’t focus on losing. Talk about the future with optimism,” Dr. Nasher says. Frame the outcome in a positive way that emphasizes the upside, such as what you learned or new relationships you gained. And make your last comment to decision makers a positive one. That’s the one they’re most likely to remember.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

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