How to turn a conversation about a promotion increase into a negative


  • Based on a real-life example, this episode is a story to remind everyone to treat employees fairly, even more so if they are in a position to fully understand if they have been handled differently from other employees.
  • In order to save 500 euros per year, my friend’s boss ended up losing one of the rare female talent in this male-dominated organization… by frustrating her upon her promotion.
  • This is ironic of you take a step back to consider that organisations typically *want* to keep employees they just promoted !
  • Watch the video to see the full situation, or read the transcript below.




Hello, and welcome to this episode of Compensation Insider. Today, I want to talk to you about a story which happened to one of my very good friends a few years back.

The background – where expectations are set

She was the HR Director for a business line of a very large French organization. She was a member of the executive leadership team, reporting dotted line to the general manager of the business unit, and direct to the HR Director for the overall business unit. (There were multiple business lines within the business unit).

Her organisation was not very liberal with salary increases, even for promotions. Raises were always managed on the basis of percentages, not absolute numbers. So they always announce “You received 3.12% increase this year”, not “Your new salary is X euros”.

They would write a letter which said, “Congratulations, dear employee, thanks to your good work and your great performance last year, you have been eligible to a 3.12% salary increase.” They were not saying, “Your new salary is going to be €85,000,” for example. They just mentioned the percentage.

My friend received a call from her boss who told her, “We want to promote you, and we will give you a good 5% salary increase. But as you know, I need a little bit of time to implement that. So can you please take the job and the promotion before I can give you the salary increase? We will backdate it.”

The reality – when reality doesn’t meet expectations

She accepted, very happy that she was told that she would get a good 5%, because in those years, the company was struggling a little bit financially and was quite tight with money.

5% for a promotion, I know it’s a bit low, but in that context, that wasn’t so bad. She calculated 5% on her current salary : that meant that she would now be making €100,493. It was taking her over that €100,000 mental threshold, so she was very happy.

You have to remember, at the time she was the HR Director of the business line and had been managing promotions and salary increases for the past 5 or 6 years in that organization. She was used to how the salary negotiations were taking place with the trade unions. She knew how things were dealt with in the company. As a result, her expectations were rooted in those years of managing other employees’ increases, and it was quite realistic and adapted to the company culture.

Two months passed by and she eventually received her next pay slip with the salary increase, and she found out that she had been increased by 4.48% to exactly 100,000 euros.

4.48% ??? That was “a good 5%”” in her manager’s view ?

My friend couldn’t hide her disappointment and her feeling of not being treated fairly. As she explained to me :

“It’s not about the 493 euros, or  even 1,000 euros per year. I don’t really care about that amount, it won’t change my life.

But my boss did not set the proper expectations with me.

If he had said “I’ll bring you to 100,000”, I would have been happy. But don’t tell me you’ll give me a good 5% and then give me 90% of that amount. 5% was bringing me just above the 100k threshold, and this is what I should have gotten. Not less than 5% so that the overall amount is a round number.

I feel this is not fair as my pay increase has been managed as an absolute amount, not like for other employees. Is this because I am a woman and they don’t want to follow the same rules for me ? So now, I am disappointed and this has killed the enthusiasm and motivation I felt upon my nomination. Isn’t that stupid ? Loosing employee engagement on a promotion, just to save 500 euros !”

And she was right.

Where the manager failed to assess the impact of treating her different from the others

At the time, she was working in this highly male-dominated industry with lots of engineers, very complex systems and so on. She could see immediately that she hadn’t been treated like the other employees, of course. She felt that she was being discriminated against because she was a female. She got upset, she got angry, she got de-motivated.

This was an easily avoidable mistake. Not applying the same rules to her than to the hundreds of employees in the company might have seen harmless and without consequences. But the boss should have known that my friend would immediately figure out that she was not being treated like the others, especially as she was the HR Director of the business line and it was her job to enforce the rules.

Once she confronted her manager, the manager said, “Well, you’re always complaining”

However, think about it : put 4.48% into any spreadsheet and try to round it down, and it will run to 4%, not to 5%, because it’s not even in the upper half between 4% and 5%.

So, all this for less than €500 ! Her manager had to work really hard to bring her back to her previous motivation levels.

By the way, I just want to tell you that within five months, my friend had found another job, worked her notice period and left the company. That’s entirely due to her being disappointed based on how she had been treated, compared to the expectation that had been set. In the end, who’s the real loser there?

Don’t do the same mistake : set proper expectations

The moral of the story here: don’t do the same to your employees.

Try to put yourself in their shoes, to understand what they know and how they will think. If you want to make an exception to a situation, but that’s an exception downwards or backwards (so it’s less than what would be the normal expectation), you should assess if your gain is going to be real and if it’s going to be long-term, or if it’s just an apparent one, which in reality will cost you more in terms of the negative impact on engagement and motivation, and therefore the output from all the team members.

Because guess what? My friend was a line manager. Obviously, when she got upset, her team members could feel that something was wrong.

So I think it’s important that if you are going to implement a downward exception, you should set the expectations properly. Don’t try to make it look good by saying, “You’re going to get a good “something”” and then cut it short. People are not stupid, they can see it. In the end, it will be costing you more than the small saving that you’re trying to make.

I hope you’ve never had to face this situation, but if you’d like to share some stories, please don’t hesitate to share in the comments.

I hope to see you next week. Thank you very much. Bye.

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