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How to promote and demote employees

Whether you are rewarding them, or preparing them for a fall, do it with sensitivity

Every employee - male and female, young and old, educated and uneducated, bright and dim - is entitled to say "MeToo" for respect and politeness.

THINK of how you reward your children. When they are young, you give them something to eat, maybe a visit to somewhere they like. You pat them on the back and tell them you are very proud of them. Alas, the mood changes when they are in their troublesome teens - sulky, grudging, greedy and potentially bulimic. The nightmare of puberty makes catastrophic storms seem mild. Your praise becomes grudging and so does their response.

First impressions matter

Where is work in all this? To a newcomer, it often seems like he is being admitted to something like a secret society. Initiation rites are hideous, primitive and hostile. The honeyed words in your offer letter might have come from Mars for all the relationship they have with the business you join. The cupboard they call your space, should you be fortunate enough to have one, is already occupied - by cockroach poison. First impressions are important. And they are bad to the point of disaster.

Everything an employee does after a poor introduction to your business, is coloured by the pain and scars of his or her first impressions. They can lead to loathing that is almost impossible to remove. By the same token, if you get it right you win support, diligence, dedication and loyalty for a long time, possibly for ever. Never underestimate the importance of your first smile. It is worth a thousand bouquets of flowers.

Obviously, I am writing this from the employees' point of view. As an employer, you need to know this view to the point of being immersed in it. Keep it in mind every time you see your employees. They are more important than a new top-class computer. Study them, nurture them, cosset them. Above all, understand them. They may appear spoilt - they may, indeed, have been spoilt. That's the goods as received. Your job is to unspoil them while motivating, mentoring and re-educating them and teaching them humility. You were a newcomer once, too.

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A little nudging helps

Once new employees are firmly established, they will expect promotion. For doing so, make it a condition that they sit in on operations, meetings, sales pitches, outward and inward. On The Job (OTJ) training is still the best but only if you involve them as members of the team and not as coffee fetchers. Observe how they begin to feel their feet. Encourage them to contribute their ideas - initially after the session, later in the session itself.

Remember the Nudge & Shove Rule. If you really need to encourage them, nudge a little. Don't use shove unless you are at such a desperate point that you cannot get them to speak. If you reach this point, send them for some private coaching which should put their confidence back in place. Everything you do that shows your employees that you want them to shine is going to help develop them. Search for people in your organisation who can be informal mentors. They can be invaluable. You can send them for some training, too. Doing so will give you a priceless asset you cannot obtain anywhere else.

Quarterly reviews

How often should you review the work of your newcomers and your existing employees? Regardless of their experience, age and qualifications, I suggest an informal chat about every three months - just an hour or so, preferably over lunch. Don't make a heavy thing of it, but consider having a pre-meeting list of points they might like to explore and you might like to know about. This will include their attitude towards the company, the department they have been working in and their boss(es). This sort of information can be obtained by direct questions and also, as a check, by questions about what they would do if they were in charge. Attitude is the key to their potential progress.

A vital part of this quarterly chat is education. We must now be spending about 25 per cent of our time - more in some industries - staying up to date. This involves reading, practice and advice from those who are more experienced. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this, regardless of age and length of service. You may speak about it and recommend it but what you do with your employees will be the truth. Don't get HR to set up a course. Make a proper job of it. It is your infusion. If you get it right, you will stay ahead of the competition.

Promoting employees

Before you promote someone, you must have a special review. If you are not careful, this can turn out to be a fault-finding exercise or even a blame distribution job. Don't let it be either of those, but do make it a full review. Now is the time to set the terms and conditions for your employee to fulfil his new role.

As they go up the promotion ladder, the tone of these reviews will change. Initially, it will be about the person and his ability to deliver. Later, they will understand your talking more about the business, inviting their comments on the next stage of development, learning about their ambitions for the company as well as for themselves. CEOs should talk mostly about the business.

When you promote someone, make a fuss of them. A stark announcement sent round the office by e-mail is not enough. Have a small party. If you really cannot do that, write something decent, add a picture of the person and present him with a small printed reminder that this is a milestone for both the business and the person. Honour your employee by including all the colleagues that know him well. Show that you mean what you said in the promo.

Demoting employees

Demoting people is painful and needs a sensitive touch to mitigate the inevitable sense of failure. When I had to do it, which was rare, I tried to find a "special project" basis for their move. Of course nobody was fooled, but there was a certain amount of face-saving. Privately, I described the project as a cushion to break the fall from employed to out of work. Inevitably, they ended up looking for a job and I always tried to help them. People who have worked for you deserve respect even if they have not lived up to your expectations.

Every employee - male and female, young and old, educated and uneducated, bright and dim - is entitled to say "MeToo" for respect and politeness. Gender equality and diversity I take for granted now, even though there is some way to go.

Our neighbours are our future. And that includes those we work with.

  • John Bittleston is founder and chair, Terrific Mentors International.

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