Criteria to decide employee eligibility to promotion : which ones do you use ?

Criteria to decide employee eligibility to promotion

As year-end is approaching, in many organisations, HR starts to receive the usual questions around promotion criteria : what shall we take into account when deciding which employees can be eligible for promotion?

First let me clarify : by eligibility, I mean that the employee can be proposed by the manager for a promotion, not that the employee will be promoted. The employee meets the minimum requirements for being considered for promotion, but the manager may decide that the employee is not ready yet, or that there isn’t a position available at a higher grade etc.

The answer to criteria for promotion eligibility is actually a bit more complex than meets the eye. Many things can influence what may be the main factor for being eligible for promotion.

Seniority as criteria for promotion eligibility

One of the primary drivers may be seniority / tenure in the company : stay in your job long enough and eventually you will be promoted to the next level up, provided you don’t mess up badly in the mean time. This kind of model based on tenure usually works :

  • in certain parts of the world (I’ve heard it is pretty common in India for example, but don’t have personal experience of this topic in India – so if you do know, please share your views in the comments)
  • in heavily unionised environments such as some specific industries in Europe (steel industry, car manufacturing etc)
  • or in companies where job holders are all paid the same for the same job and don’t really evolve in terms of job content, for example cashier I, cashier II, cashier III… in supermarkets. I would call these promotions “job progression”.

Promotions in professional service firms

In other company cultures, for example consulting companies and similar professional service firms, you will encounter a mix of performance assessment and job progression. At the end of each year, every employee will be considered for promotion, for example from junior consultant I to junior consultant II. This is in effect job progression, but contrary to the previous example, this job progression will be based on performance.

The system is commonly called “up or out” and the “real” promotions happen every 2 or 3 years when the job content significantly increases if the employee is performing. The major differentiator in the consulting industry is that every employee is promotable each year, while in the majority of companies outside the consulting industry, only a few employees are reviewed for promotion each year. 

Performance as driver for promotion eligibility

Of course performance is an obvious factor to see if an employee should be eligible for a promotion or not. After all, you want to reward performance while at the same time, strong performance is a good indicator to maximise your chances that the employee will continue to deliver great results in the new role.

For most organisations though, it may be quite difficult to base promotion eligibility purely on performance. Not all managers are reasonable, willing to differentiate or able to have a conversation with their employees who expect a promotion and tell them that they’re not ready yet. So if you don’t put some other control criteria, you may end promoting people for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time.

So what to do ?

The case for using multiple factors when deciding criteria for promotion eligibility

In most cases, companies will base promotion eligibility on multiple factors.

Time/ tenure in current job or grade will be a hurdle, which means it’s a pre-requisite that has to be met before the employee can be considered for promotion. For example : “minimum 3 years in the current position in order to be eligible / make the list for consideration”.

Then, performance usually comes into play. It can be the most recent assessment, or based on a longer period. For example : “be rated at Expected Level or higher”, or “no rating Under Expectations in the past 2 years”.

Some organisations push the criteria further to make an employee eligible and may use one or a combination of other factors such as :

  • Potential for progression. Many organisations will have an informal filter for that, based on the manager’s and his peers assessment of capacity. Other companies have formal processes to rate the potential of employees and use a 9-box grid to position them in a matrix of performance and potential. Only employees who still have room to grow will be considered for promotion.
  • Fit for the new role. Of course, all companies will consider if the employee is a good fit at the time of deciding the promotion. But I am talking about using “fit” as a criterion to decide if the employee can be proposed for submission (ie the step before making the decision to promote or not). This requires the company to have a strongly developed competency framework to compare the employee’s current abilities to those required to perform the proposed job. The GCC has a typically transient population and fluid organisations that adapt quickly to rapidly emerging opportunities. As a result, strong competency models are often less frequent than in the developed, established economies.
  • Manpower plan. We tend to forget sometimes, but is there a job available at the new level ? Was it planned ? If we promote the employee without needing an open position, it means that the promotion reflects recognition for the increased competencies and the achievements of the employee, and maybe also a few additional responsibilities. The promotion is essentially one of job progression. A more significant promotion would happen when an employee takes on a new role with significantly higher responsibilities and has to be replaced in his/her old role, hopefully by promoting someone else. In that case you need an open position and the manpower plan, succession plan and /or reorganisation plan will be useful for deciding eligibility for promotion.

Once you have established your list of eligible employees, the hard work starts : who will you really propose for promotion ? And, even harder: who will actually be promoted ?

I’ll be interested to hear which criteria your organisation uses for deciding promotion eligibility – feel free to share in the Comments section !


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  1. Who will be promoted first:
    1. One with longer experience. or
    2. One with required amount of experience, less than the first one , BUT with higher qualification mentioned in the salary scale and crossing the qualification bar mentioned in the salary scale..

    Note that there is a qualification inserted in the salary scale. Those with the qualificateion crosses the salary scale and those less qualified do not. Scheme of service says that promotion will be on the basis of experience and merit.


    • Dear Sowdagur,

      I’m not sure I fully understand your question, but I’ll try to share my views.

      From what you’ve written, it seems that the qualification is one of the criteria used for selecting the grade and related salary scale. This is typically used when recruiting from outside the company, or when a professional certification is required by law in order to exercise (for example, lawyers vs para-legals).

      Hopefully, qualification is not the only criteria used for determining the grade though ! Qualification should be used as a “hurdle” or minimum criteria for certain jobs, but it should also be possible for someone to demonstrate that through their experience and the projects they’ve worked on, they have acquired at least the same level of knowledge as someone who has studied formally. There’s actually a whole system in France called “Validation des Acquis de l’Experience” (Proof of the validity of knowledge acquired through work experience) which allows for such a formal recognition to take place. And trust me, those who go through this, in my opinion, are often better at their job than a graduate with a few years of experience would be – because they have seen the real-life impact and aspects of all the situations studied during formal education.

      In the case you describe, you don’t mention the performance of the 2 employees (which is suppose is what “merit” means). Supposing they have the same performance, then if applying strictly the criteria you mentioned, then the one with longer experience should be promoted first, because “promotion will be on the basis of experience and merit”.

      However in a case like that, I would recommend also exploring further criteria, such as the potential of the employees, as well as an evaluation of their competencies for practising the job at the promoted level. You could also look into 360 degrees feedback on their behaviour and how it fits with the values of the organisation. This might help to differentiate between them and see who has more “merit”.

      Thanks for your question, and I hope this clarifies !

  2. Angela Nguyen says:

    I was declined a promotion due to absenteeism due to family obligations and personality.i have more seniority and more education and experience than the employee who was awarded the position. Is this a valid argument of discrimination

    • Hi Angela,

      Thanks for your question. Arguments for or against discrimination vary in each country so I cannot make an answer in your specific case.

      However, if I put myself in the shoes of your manager and HR :

      * you were absent for a while (you don’t say if the family obligations were on an exceptional basis, for example someone passing away in your family, or permanent, for example having to take care of a chronically ill child or parent). This means that you were not able to fulfill all the duties of your role, and this has impacted your results and performance, at least in one fiscal year, or maybe on a permanent basis. Output and performance, as well as ability to perform duties by being present, are usually criteria for being considered for promotion. For example it is very rare for someone who is very ill and has to go to hospital, or for a lady who takes a maternity leave, to be promoted in that year. I am not passing judgement on whether this is fair or not, but it is nonetheless a reality in today’s organisations.

      * your “personality” was quoted as an argument against your promotion. If I were you, this is something I would investigate with my manager. “Personality” usually means “behaviour”, which is something which can be changed so you may be able to work on it.
      So, what does your manager mean by “personality”? For example, are you refusing to do some of your work assignments or cooperate with other people on the team ? Are you always complaining or making negative comments ? Are you arguing frequently with your customers or coworkers ? Once you know which behaviours are seen as problematic and you understand how that can block you from being promoted, you can work on these aspects and align your behaviour with what is expected, not only for your current job, but also for the one you would like to be promoted to.

      Your seniority, education and experience are good elements in your favour, but for many organisations, they are only the minimum which is required for you to even be considered for a promotion.

      If your younger, less experienced colleague has performed excellent work, has potential to grow, has exhibited the right behaviours, and if there was only one promotion available at the same time that you were absent and exhibited “personality” issues, then the organisation chose your colleague for the promotion as a way to reward her hard work, great results and impeccable behaviour.

      The good news is, being denied a promotion once does not mean that you will never be promoted :-). Once you understand what is important for your organisation in terms of deciding promotions, and if you are willing and capable to work on your behaviour and productivity, then you should have a chance again at being promoted.

      All the best !

  3. Dr. Amal Mohamaed says:

    Thank you for your interesting topic. well, in my country organizations consider two things to make a decision about a promotion:
    – Educational background and qualifications: the higher the educational degree the staff has the more opportunity she/he has to be promoted.
    -Number of years of experience in the job proposed for promotion.

    • Thanks a lot for sharing the practice in your country. I find these are useful criteria, but they can be applied in different ways. I would personally use them as secondary source of information, and would focus more on readiness, potential and performance of the employee as the primary driver for deciding if they should be promoted or not.

      Education can be a good proxy for potential to learn and therefore grow, which is required for promotion. However :
      * sometimes circumstances prevent someone from studying but that doesn’t mean they are not bright or capable of learning and doing more than what their official qualification implies
      * when we read about education, we realise that even today, for example, a good portion of what IT engineers learn in their studies is obsolete by the time they graduate. The focus should therefore be on continuing education, whether it is formal ie through the workplace training plan or through acquiring another degree while working, or informal ie attending conferences, learning on the job, participating to webinars or other online forums etc

      I also agree that numbers of years on the job should be a criteria for promotion, but in my opinion it should be seen as a “minimum requirement” for being considered for promotion: you cannot be promoted unless you have spent at least XX years or months on your current job. I don’t think that saying “You WILL be promoted after XX years on the job” is very good for business. Promotion tied to seniority was a typical practice in government organisations in the West for many years, but this led to some people being promoted to jobs which they were totally not adequate for, with terrible consequences for the output of the organisation and the morale of the people who would eventually report into someone who is overwhelmed by their responsibilities but has no way of backing out.

      Like for many things in HR, the solution lies in using good sense when defining criteria and, just as importantly, HOW they are applied. All criteria can have a good reason for being in place, but blindly applying them can sometimes lead to mistakes.

  4. Hi Sandine,
    Some great points made in the discussion above. We also consider the plan of the employees on the potential promotable list. Do they plan to stay on in the company or have other plans. How long are they considering remaining with the employer would have an impact on the employer’s business and say in their promotion. I think you had covered this under ‘fit’ for the promotion.

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