Human Resources News & Insights

What would you do: Supervisor promoted the wrong person

Periodically, we present a real-life workplace problem and ask three HR managers to provide a solution. This week’s problem: A supervisor has “buyer’s remorse” over the selection of an employee for promotion.

The scenario
“Sandy, you gotta help me,” said supervisor Tom Bartley. “I really screwed up.”

“What’s the deal?” asked HR manager Sandy Gomez, motioning for Tom to take a seat. “Problems in the department?”

“Yeah, you could say that. It all boils down to this: I promoted the wrong person, and I can’t think of a good way to fix the situation.”

Things didn’t go as planned
“I remember when you were agonizing over who to choose – Rebecca or Trish,” Sandy recalled. “I guess Rebecca hasn’t worked out as well as you’d hoped.”

“Boy, that’s an understatement,” said Tom. “She just can’t seem to get the hang of her new responsibilities. And the more she screws up, the more defensive she gets. And then everybody in the department starts getting an attitude. It’s a mess.”

“What’s Trish’s reaction been?” Sandy asked.

“She hasn’t said a word,” Tom answered, “but I’ve caught some of her facial expressions when things have gone wrong.

“She knows we can’t continue to operate like this. And the other employees know it, too.

“I’m going to have a revolt on my hands if I don’t do something soon,” Tom concluded. “The question is, just how am I going to finesse this? I’d hate to lose Rebecca, but she’s making everybody’s life miserable.”

If you were Sandy, what would you advise Tom to do next?

Ron Wolfgang, HR manager, South Bend, IN
What Ron would do: I’d have Tom set up a 30-day performance plan for Rebecca. It’ll need to be clear and concise, so Rebecca understands what she needs to improve on. She also needs to understand that if she doesn’t make improvements by the end of 30 days, there will be some changes.
Reason: I hate to not give employees an opportunity to improve their productivity. So giving Rebecca a month to turn around her efforts is the best remedy. But after that, we can’t afford to have her continue performing poorly.

John Steepy, HR manager, Rochester, NY
What John would do: I’d make sure that Tom has documented all of Rebecca’s shortcomings. If so, either demotion (if she agrees) or termination would be my recommendation.
Reason: As long as there’s documentation, a demotion or termination is the natural response to an employee not pulling his or her weight. Morale and productivity can’t be sacrificed.

Jean Yarger, HR manager, Grafton, WI
What Jean would do: First, I’d have Tom ask Rebecca how she thinks she’s performing. If she admits to her poor job performance, I’d suggest either handing Rebecca her old job back or lightening her duties in favor of more work for Trish. If Rebecca doesn’t realize she’s performing poorly, I’d advise Tom to set specific performance goals for her.
Reason: It’s always wise to see how an employee rates his or her own production before taking drastic measures. It’s a safeguard against a possible lawsuit. After that, you look for a solution that’s in the best interests of the company.

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  • Jeanette Owens

    I agree with Ron Wolfgang’s approach. I feel that by giving the employee a clear plan with expectations and results outlined, you give the employee an opportunity to step up and make improvements. It has been my experience that employees who are promoted often times feel over-whelmed. So an outline will often help them to focus.


    Jean and Ron – I agree. Nobody really hit on the fact that TALKING to Trish and having a follow up to see if the job is even what she expected. Does she really “know” that things are going bad? I think a very clear and direct conversation needs to happen and then I agree wholeheartedly that a PIP is the best route AFTER the groundwork conversation is done.

  • I agree with Ron, that a 30 day performance plan be put in place. This would include a discussion about the position with the employee. If additional training is needed, I would have the manager outline, implement and document the additional training. At the end, if performance is below expectations, I would strongly recommend demotion or termination.

  • Melissa

    All three options are valid, but I like Ron’s solution the best.
    John’s seems a bit to harsh on an employee that has performed well enough to warrant a promotion.
    The first part of Jean’s solution is great, but removing responsibility and duties from Rebecca and giving them to Trish could be in my opinion a very big mistake.
    Reason: Not only did Trish get passed over for a promotion, her workload is increased. This would not seem like a good deal to most employees. You would in essence be telling Trish that Rebecca could not do as good a job as she could. The end result would be that she gets more work and no additional recognition because someone was promoted above her that couldn’t do the job. It seems to me that you would be taking a chance on losing one or both of the employees in this case which is exactly what the supervisor is trying to avoid.

  • Melissa

    Of course, all of this is just my opinion.

  • DS

    I agree with Jean and Ron but there are 2 other things, 1 is that i would have put in the new promotion agreement that there was a probationary period just as with a new hire (we do this all the time) and 2, i would look and see if Tom is laying out expectations and if Rebecca has all the tools and support she needs to do the job. Also, what was the process for the promotion, was it just given or was there a formal interview process? Next time, they may want to go back and review the process.

  • I would follow Jean and Ron’s comments. It’s always difficult when this type of scenerio presents itself, but over the years I have had to be very careful to avoid the ‘Peter Principle” so that we’re not ruining a good employee. This is a good opportunity to put an escape clause in future promotions. Always give a 30-60 day review. The employee will be glad, too.

  • Carolyn

    Hey Ron!! I agree with your answer! Hope all is well with you!

    Carolyn in Chattanooga

  • Ron W,

    I like Ron’s solution (and not because of his name). But in the past I also like to evaluate how the manager transitioned the newly promoted associate. I have found that a lot of times they are just thrown to the fire and are expected to perform. If that is the case, I put it upon the manager to formally train the associate. After that, then you can put in a probationary period.

  • NJ

    I am a retired HR Manager. This type of situation always frustrates me when I hear about it. I have so many questions about what’s really going on. Most companies are not clear what’s expected and too many employees flounder in their jobs. The manager isn’t clear what is expected by the company, therefore, doesn’t clearly explain what’s expected from the employee. Does the company have a strategic plan? Does the employee know what the goals are and when they are expected to complete them? Is the job description up to date? Too often the manager is not skilled and does a poor job managing the performance of employees they supervise from day one.

    Whenever I was in the process of interviewing employees for a promotional position I gave them a copy of the job description and discussed each job responsibility in detail. I also made sure the job description was updated. How can an employee perform well when they do not know specifically what the job responsibilities are. I would ask what they knew about the specific tasks and what they thought they had to bring to the job, how would they perform the tasks, what assistance they thought they would require, how they felt about the additional responsibility, what they needed from me as a supervisor, what areas they thought were most important to focus on, what timeframes they thought were realistic, who they felt would be able to contribute (if relevant), etc., etc. I also ask why they are interested in additional responsibilities. The responses I got were very often not the response I “assumed” I would get.

    I have found that people typically don’t set themselves up to fail. After the interview very often they realized they could not do the job, therefore, they indicate they are no longer interested. There are always a few who “think” they can do anything, but those individuals should have been weeded out long before a promotion interview was done. Managers should know who their strong employees are by the time they are looking to fill a position. I wonder if the company has a performance management process at all. If they do, I wonder how effective it is if this particular employee was promoted yet seems to be failing so miserably.

    A good performance management plan starts with clear goals and objectives generated from the top down.

    A good performance management (PM) process involves many things too numerous to mention here. To start with it involves honest discussion of:
    a) current job – specific discussion of what they do right and what they do that needs improvement
    (refer to weak areas as “opportunities for improvement”
    b) specifically established goals with deadlines for completion of those goals with employee’s input
    c) ideas for how to achieve goals (who, what, when, where)
    d) potential opportunities for advancement if any – also ask what career goals the employee has if any
    e) give constant honest feedback to the employee
    f) ask for honest feedback from the employee about your performance as a supervisor

    Quite often employees have supervisors that are not clear or do not support the employee in the way the employee needs to be supported, yet the supervisor is not open to that type of discussion. Those supervisors are detrimental to the organization.

    Much too often, leaders who are expected to do PM for their employees, do not know what they are doing wrong and don’t understand how their shortcomings affect the employees they manage. Most managers are not clear when they establish goals, nor do they set realistic or time based goals. The employee also needs to have input into the PM process.

    Managers need to be honest with the employees they are doing PM with. I did a lot of coaching with managers who did not want to “hurt the employees feelings” when they had to talk about performance. They would make statements such as “he’s a nice guy”, or “she is such a nice person”. Make sure you tell the employee they are nice.

    When you have to deliver an uncomfortable message it’s very helpful to set up the discussion before you deliver the message. It eases the discomfort anyone feels when hearing someone critique us. Say something such as “you are a nice person and because I trust and respect you I want to do everything I can to help you be successful.” “In order to be successful these are the areas that need improvement.

    NOTE: Be very sure that whatever you say to the employee is honest and accurate. If you don’t trust and respect the person do not tell them you do.

    It’s the age old story of “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Very often I would ask the employee how they felt they were doing. If they said they thought they were doing great I would ask them “how would you feel if you knew I felt different about your performance?” If they worked on a project that did not have good results, discuss the project.

    There is a process called “chunking” that is very helpful to learn when doing any employee evaluation, or when giving honest feedback.

    Ask questions such as:
    What would you have done different now that you know the results?
    Why do you feel that would have been helpful?
    Did you get all the support you needed at the time?
    What support did you need that you did not get? Did you ask for assistance?
    Etc., etc., etc.

    Performance Management is about an entire coaching experience. Done correctly it is very effective. I have seen dramatic results in two very different businesses.

    Remember, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you will keep getting what you’re getting. If you don’t know what to do different, make sure you learn. It will benefit you and the employees you supervise. Most importantly the company you will for will benefit dramatically.

    If you need assistance I would be happy to help. Email me at

  • j

    Very well put NJ:

  • RW


  • Rick

    Every day top sales reps are pushed to management positions and frequently fail miserably. They are often pushy, ego-filled, and ironically tend to forget that they are selling ideas and themselves to their co-workers, one or more of whom may be mad that they did not get the job. The team loses a top salesperson, as well, so it starts out weaker.

    My experience is that smaller companies don’t take the time to send these people to training and can’t afford to lose someone who can produce, so they stay too long with a manager who they are reluctant to demote or fire, because of product knowledge and past performance in sales. In start-ups, this person might be the sales rep who has been there the longest, despite potentially less experience in the real world, less training, less management experience, etc. This creates tensions where reps with more skill have no place to go and have to suffer under a new boss they could outperform in any capacity if given a chance.