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“It came down to seniority!”: Improving promotion transparency in corrections

How supervisors can leverage the disappointment of failed promotions to offer constructive feedback and targeted developmental support to their team members

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How do you break the news to someone that they didn’t get the promotion they applied for?

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“Today is the day,” I thought to myself. “Today is the day I find out if I got it or not.”

Over the last six of my eight years in service, I’ve been driven by a hunger for knowledge and responsibility. The more I dedicated myself to this pursuit — arriving early, staying late and working on my days off — the more I sacrificed. I eagerly absorbed every bit of training available and added every tool to my “Toolbox.” All these efforts were aimed at preparing myself for a career in corrections and an eventual promotion to an administrative role where I could truly make a difference.

My cell phone rang. It was my captain. My heart sank as I answered.

“Hello, this is Sgt. Rocque.”

“Sgt. Rocque, this is the captain. I’m calling to inform you that we are going with the other candidate for the staff sergeant position.”

“Oh,” was all I could muster.

“It came down to seniority,” the captain explained.

“Okay, well, thank you for the opportunity,” I responded.

He acknowledged, and we ended the call. That 20-second phone call still impacts me as deeply today as it did four years ago.

Can any of you relate to this story? How many have received a similar phone call? As I delve deeper into understanding leadership, I often reflect on this call and how it could have been handled differently by both sides. Being passed over for a promotion is tough. It’s difficult to hear that you’re not considered the best choice. For me, the pain was especially sharp due to the final words of the call: “It came down to seniority.” This felt like he was really saying, “I did not pay attention to you.”

Best practices in communicating promotion news

How do you break the news to someone that they didn’t get the promotion they applied for? This is a challenge I want to help you navigate. Using phrases like “It came down to seniority” is common not just in corrections, but many fields use it as a catch-all excuse. As leaders, we need to improve. Relying on seniority as a crutch to justify choosing another candidate effectively communicates, “I did not pay attention to you.” We must strive for more thoughtful and transparent communication in these situations.

When informing someone that they were not selected for a promotion, it is best to avoid delivering the news over a phone call whenever possible. Instead, opt for a face-to-face meeting. This meeting should be used to go in-depth on several key points:

  • Identify missing traits: Clearly outline any specific traits or skills the individual lacks that were critical for the promotion. If these traits were not previously communicated through regular performance reviews, this might come as a surprise to the candidate. If the candidate is surprised by the feedback, it suggests a gap in communication from their direct supervisor. Follow up with the supervisor to assess how performance reviews are conducted and provide guidance on improving transparency and constructive feedback in the future.
  • Clarify training gaps: Discuss any specific training or educational qualifications that the candidate may have pursued but were not directly relevant to the promotion. It’s important to explain why these efforts, while commendable, did not align with the requirements of the position. This will help the candidate understand how to better direct their professional development efforts in the future.
  • Provide relevant training recommendations: Offer suggestions on what type of training or education would be more beneficial for advancing their career within the organization. This guidance helps them invest in opportunities that are more likely to impact their career progression positively.
  • Commit to support: Communicate what actions you, as a leader, will take to better equip them for future opportunities. This includes providing access to relevant training programs, suggesting books and other learning materials, and possibly even arranging mentorship or shadowing opportunities with experienced colleagues.
  • Offer continuous engagement: Acknowledge everything they have done to get them to the point where they are. Go into detail. Prove to them that you have been paying attention. Set up a plan for periodic check-ins to discuss their progress and any further assistance they might need. These regular meetings can help keep their goals on track and demonstrate your ongoing commitment to their development.
  • Invest in development: Emphasize your dedication to investing in your team members. Show that you are committed to not just delivering difficult news but also to fostering an environment where continuous improvement and growth are encouraged and supported. Go into detail about what experiences they need to better prepare them for next time. If it is something you can control then provide them with the opportunity. For example, if they need experience coordinating a fire drill then put them in charge of the next fire drill.

By taking these steps, you create a supportive and motivating atmosphere that can help lessen the sting of not receiving a promotion and encourage a positive outlook on future possibilities.

These steps will lay a clear path for the individual, leading to their next opportunity for advancement. By being detailed about the specific objectives that need to be met and providing the necessary resources, you help dispel any notions of favoritism. Although they may still feel disappointed when leaving your office, they will recognize that you are actively involved in their career development.

As leaders, we have a duty to guide our people, particularly when they are feeling discouraged. It’s important to remember that no two people are exactly the same; the value of their experiences varies significantly. For instance, five years of experience behind a desk can impart different skills and insights compared to five years in the field. Recognizing and addressing these differences is crucial in helping each team member develop in a way that aligns with their unique career paths and the needs of the organization. By taking these thoughtful and individualized approaches, we show our commitment to their personal and professional growth, even in challenging times.

Jon Rocque is a First Sergeant for a defense contractor for the Navy and is a former Sergeant for Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department in Augusta, Maine. He is a certified instructor for the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, a member of the Crisis Intervention Team and certified in critical incident debriefing. Sgt. Rocque is a graduate of the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Academy and the Professional Development Academy.