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I was recently hired to be a manager at a new company and during my onboarding I was told that there isn't really a promotion process here and it is expected that worthwhile employees will figure it out.

Is this an accurate perception? Do companies do better if they have promotion policies or do they do better if they have a more organic approach?

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    The question in your body can't be answered by us, we weren't there. What exactly do you want to know?
    – Erik
    Jun 15 at 7:24
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    Pros and cons are often considered to invite opinion here, which is off topic. Maybe "Is letting people figure out how to progress in the company by themselves considered as a profesional way to reward capable employe ?" I can't find a better way to phrase it (my english is rough).
    – Walfrat
    Jun 15 at 7:37
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    I suspect that promotion policies just encourage people to chase KPIs, and hamstring the company from deciding to elevate the best people for the job. Jun 15 at 7:48
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    While I do agree that this could be argued to be opinion-based, this is actually a really good question, though ideally any given answer would need to be backed up by some concrete data. I'm of the opinion that we should err on the side of not prematurely closing this question.
    – Flater
    Jun 15 at 7:57
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    The edit improved it already, still you should be more specific about the goal. Better in which regard? E.g better for employee satisfaction, revenue, HR costs, ...?
    – Chris
    Jun 15 at 9:35
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Pros and cons of having a workplace promotion policy vs just having employees figure it out?

Just figure it out - Pros:

  • (Employer) Can give employees more responsibility without giving them a promotion or pay rise
  • (Employer) Save money by hiring less staff and overworking current employees
  • (Employer) Don't need to waste time with performance review meetings
  • (Employer) Don't have to promote anyone
  • (Employer) Can choose who to promote on a whim

There isn't a single pro for the employee. Lack of career progression opportunities is one of the common reasons employees leave a company.

Just figure it out - Cons:

  • (Employer) Higher staff turnover
  • (Employer) Harder to find good employees that care about their career and improving
  • (Employee) Doesn't matter how hard you work, promotions seem due to chance or social popularity
  • (Employee) Demotivating when a colleague is promoted over you for no apparent reason
  • (Employee) The wrong people can be promoted over those who really deserve it
  • (Employee) Nothing to aim for

Career Progression Policy - Pros:

  • (Employer) Higher staff retention
  • (Employee) Something to work towards. Keeps you motivated to improve
  • (Employee) Almost guaranteed promotion when requirements are met
  • (Employee) No resentment when others are promoted
  • (Employee) You know what is required if you want a promotion

Career Progression Policy - Cons:

  • (Employer) Have to give promotion if employees meet the requirement
  • (Employer) Have to spend time writing policies
  • (Employer) Have to spend time with performance reviews
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    "There isn't a single pro for the employee." What about: Managers can promote people who are actually best for the job instead of those who successfully game the system? Might be relevant for some industries. I can't find the link right now, but I remember a question here or on one of the sister SE sites recently which basically concluded that there are no metrics that can successfully and reliably measure software developer performance.
    – Heinzi
    Jun 15 at 15:49
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    One thing to look out for with progression policies: Some companies put minimum/maximum tenures on promotions. Depending on the policy, you might excel in all other areas but be denied a promotion due to a lack of "hours on the clock", or you might put in the bare minimum effort and be promoted simply due to company loyalty. This could be either a pro or a con depending on your work ethic, but I would be wary of such policies because it can have a big impact on company culture.
    – 0x5453
    Jun 15 at 15:51
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    You have clearly never seen the promotion policies in German government positions. There's a lot of pros of no policy vs. a bad policy. Actually, you are comparing a bad implementation of "no policy" to a good implementation of "policy" to reach your conclusion. That's foul play.
    – DonQuiKong
    Jun 15 at 16:18
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    "There isn't a single pro for the employee" seems to be contradicted by "Doesn't matter how hard you work, promotions seem due to [...] social popularity". If you are the popular type of employee, this is clearly an advantage since it means you can get a promotion by selling your work internally. Sure not good for all employees, but if the opposite is a negative for some then this is a positive for some others. Jun 15 at 16:42
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    By this logic, unionized companies with a rigid promotion system, especially public sector promotion-grid type of arrangements are the best ever place to work. This seems rather one-sided, doesn't it? Jun 15 at 18:08
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Flexi has a great answer that covers most things. I just wanted to add this.

There is always a promotion policy.

Companies do not exist in a vacuum, as much as many think they do for the purposes of employment. The generalized promotion policy varies by industry, but at least in tech, it is generate a resume, pass a technical interview, pass a behavioral interview, and maybe pass another technical interview.

Left to their own devices, you can expect a lot of employees to take the default option.

You basically need to bet that employees would rather "figure it out" instead of taking the defined path (which always exists in one form or another). That to me is the largest con, albeit with the bias that as an engineer, I much prefer a process I can break down to one that is messy and not rule based.

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    I've red this question a few times and don't understand "There is always a promotion policy". It seems to contradict the other answers and the premise of the question. How do you mean it, is it in the sense "our policy is no policy"?
    – finjjj
    Jun 20 at 10:57
  • @finjjj it depends on the industry, but employees effectively work in an industry, not for one particular company. If I have no idea how to get a promotion at my current company, I can just go to a different one. Jun 21 at 1:01
  • @finjjj, it means that the middle and upper managers know what gets people promoted, but it is not written down. Jul 7 at 20:06
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I was recently hired to be a manager at a new company and during my onboarding I was told that there isn't really a promotion process here and it is expected that worthwhile employees will figure it out.

Let me translate that for you:

We don't know how to properly promote people so it is easier to not even try. We think this has worked so far. The people who fight tooth and nail will eventually get recognized, I think; err at least they will once somebody higher up quits.

Filling your position with an external candidate should be enough evidence as to how well our "organic" approach works.


Is this an accurate perception?

It's their perception, yes.


Do companies do better if they have promotion policies or do they do better if they have a more organic approach?

See flexi's excellent answer.

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I would say that there is always a policy; this one is based on the secret whims of middle and upper managers, combined with the clout of each manager.

That's the current policy, and should be the baseline for comparisons.

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I was recently hired to be a manager at a new company and during my onboarding I was told that there isn't really a promotion process here and it is expected that worthwhile employees will figure it out.

I would question the implicit assumption that the skills required to figure out the workings of an undocumented, informal promotion process are closely correlated with the skills required to be a valuable employee. There might be some workplaces where this is true due to the nature of the work, but there's no obvious reason to believe this as a general principle. To be blunt, it sounds like optimism.

There's also a question about how much time you want employees to spend trying to figure out that process, vs. just being able to point them at the documentation. This one comes down partly to elements of scale - for a small business that only needs to deal with these issues occasionally, an ad-hoc process might be less effort, but for a large one there's more benefit in standardisation.

(There is also an issue of whether a candidate's ability to game the process correlates well with their value as an employee, but that's an issue for both formal and informal processes, albeit in different ways.)

I will note that a formal promotion process doesn't automatically mean depending on KPIs or other such gameable metrics.

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I would argue that whether companies “do better” or not has less to do with the specific binary bit of “promotion policy/no promotion policy”, and a lot more to do with whether the company is well-managed overall and has a healthy company culture.

Now, in particular, “well-managed” and “healthy culture” mean a company where management doesn’t give BS explanations to employees and middle managers for why it does things. And the explanation “it is expected that worthwhile employees figure it out” that you were given sounds like just that — BS. To believe that it was offered in good faith, you have to believe that the person who told you this thinks that the set of skills that makes a good employee who is deserving of promotion coincides with the ability to “figure it out” and manage to get a promotion by being savvy about company politics, knowing who are the right people to impress/suck up to, and assert yourself as being worthy of promoting. But this is an obvious fallacy. And as @flexi’s answer illustrates (notwithstanding some of the valid criticisms against it offered in the comments), the overwhelmingly more plausible explanation for why the company doesn’t have a promotion policy are that either management is too lazy or incompetent to come up with such a policy, or they believe that not having a policy stacks the deck in their favor and allows them to underpay good employees. As @flexi explained, this is short-termist thinking.

TLDR: there are probably some decent or even good arguments in favor of not having a promotion policy — assuming that decision was made on a rational basis in a way that’s consistent with many other rational decisions and in the context of the company’s specific culture/industry/situation — but the one you were offered is quite clearly not one of them.

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