The Double-Edged Sword of Promotions: What Employers Need to Know

Workplace promotions are a staple in the career narrative. They signify growth, appreciation, and achievement. It’s not uncommon to envision hard-working employees climbing the corporate ladder with glee, wearing their new title like a badge of honor.

However, a recent piece titled “One way employers drive workers to quit? Promote them.” by Megan Cerullo sheds light on a somewhat unexpected perspective: promotions may be pushing employees away.

To begin, let’s dive into a significant snippet from the article:

“Although employers tend to elevate high-functioning workers to enhance operations and as a way to retain valuable team members, that can make top performers more desirable to other firms and lead them to jump ship, according to payroll provider ADP’s Research Institute.”

This piece of information is both surprising and counterintuitive. If promotions are meant to reward and retain, how do they end up achieving the opposite? The same study indicates that within one month of their first promotion, 29% of employees had left their jobs. That’s almost a third of the promoted employees!

My insights on this are threefold:

  • The Power of Self-Worth: When an employee is promoted, it does more than just add a few extra dollars to their paycheck or a fancier title to their business card. It confirms their capabilities. This newfound confidence might make them wonder if they’re settling for less and could get better offers elsewhere. As Ben Hanowell aptly pointed out, the promotion might “improve their confidence in their job prospects.”
  • The Weight of Responsibility: A promotion isn’t just about prestige; it comes with added responsibilities. Not everyone is prepared for the added workload, the potential longer hours, or the nuanced challenges that come with a higher position. For some, the stress and pressure might make the grass seem greener on the other side.
  • Barriers to Entry: It’s worth noting that the article highlighted how workers in jobs with the lowest barriers to entry were most inclined to leave post-promotion. It makes sense. If an industry has low entry requirements, it’s easier for employees to transition to new roles or different companies.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for employers. Only a minor percentage (4.5%) of workers earn promotions within their first two years. This statistic indicates that the “promotion exodus” might not be as widespread as one might think from the initial data. However, it also raises questions about employee growth and how companies are fostering talent.

Rethinking the Traditional Promotion Model

Historically, promotions have been symbolic of an employee’s growth, dedication, and value within a company. It’s an age-old tradition, but as the modern workplace evolves, it may be time to reconsider the one-size-fits-all approach to promotions.

1. A More Holistic Reward System: Instead of solely focusing on hierarchical promotions, companies could adopt a more holistic reward system. This can include skill-based certifications, sponsored learning opportunities, or even horizontal moves that allow employees to explore different facets of the business. Such a system not only boosts morale but also equips employees with diverse skills, making them valuable assets.

2. Mentorship Programs: Often, the fear of newfound responsibilities can deter recently promoted employees. Implementing a mentorship program, where seasoned professionals guide and support those recently promoted, can help bridge the gap. This would not only ensure smoother transitions but also forge deeper bonds within the company, reinforcing loyalty.

3. Open Dialogue: Transparency is key in the modern workplace. Regular check-ins with employees, especially post-promotion, can help companies identify and address any concerns or grievances. When employees feel heard and supported, they are less likely to look elsewhere for opportunities.

4. Flexibility and Work-Life Balance: One overlooked aspect of promotions is the potential encroachment on personal time. If employees feel that their new roles are overwhelming their personal lives, they may seek roles elsewhere that offer a better balance. Companies need to ensure that promotions don’t inadvertently lead to burnout.

5. Celebrate and Publicize Success Stories: Companies should make an effort to spotlight employees who have thrived post-promotion, serving as an inspiration to others. Such stories can showcase the potential growth trajectory within the company and inspire confidence in the organizational structure.

6. External Competition: Employers need to be aware of the market rates and benefits other companies are offering. If a promotion still leaves an employee’s compensation below the market average, they are more likely to jump ship. Regular compensation reviews, especially post-promotion, can mitigate this risk.

In essence, while the ADP Research Institute’s findings are an eye-opener, they also present an opportunity. An opportunity for companies to innovate, rethink traditional norms, and adopt strategies that not only retain talent but also foster an environment where employees feel valued, supported, and motivated to stay. The ball is in the court of employers. The question now is, how will they play it?

About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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