New Employee Promoted Over Longer Term Employees

Is Promoting a New Employee Fair, Legal, and Good for Employee Morale?

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An employee who has worked for a non-profit agency for a year wonders about the fairness, legality, and impact on employee morale of an agency decision to promote a new employee over longer-term employees.

He says that the job posting, along with job postings for the same job title since that time, stated that a bachelor’s degree was required. The employee asking the question has a bachelor’s degree.

The employee adds that since he was hired, another person who did not have a bachelor’s degree was hired to perform the same job title. This person only has an associate in arts degree and has been with the agency for approximately four months. This person has less education, experience, and qualifications than the other employees in the agency, however, this employee was recently promoted to a supervisor position.

No notice was posted that a supervisor position was opening and, apparently, no other employees were considered for the promotion. The supervisor who held the position prior to this was promoted to a newly created position.

Recognizing that the employer does not have to post position openings, but can they legally hire and promote an employee who is less qualified than other workers? Aso, in case you were wondering, you can assume that the other workers do not have any negative performance issues.

Companies May Hire and Promote Employees Without Oversight

The fast answer to this person's question is: Yes. Companies can hire whomever they wish to hire and promote employees in the same way. The only exceptions to this involve professions that involve licensing (you can't hire a surgeon who isn't a licensed doctor) or if you have specific contractual requirements, as in a union-represented workplace.

But, breaking down each of your additional questions should provide the answers you need. 

Assumptions to Make While Reviewing Each Response

First, you said the assumption should be made that the other workers don't have any negative performance issues, and that's fair.

But, you need to pause a minute and assume that the decision makers at your agency are rational people who want to get the job done and the clients served well. So, with these two assumptions in mind. Here are your questions and the answers.

Why did they hire a person who wasn't qualified? 

Employers and employees all have a strange vision of what the word qualified means. Often it's a list of tasks and duties in a job description that includes the required degrees or certificates.

But since you said that this job requires a bachelor's degree, and not, say, a bachelor of science in chemical engineering, it's highly likely that no specific skill is needed for the job that would manifest itself in the degree required.

Often people use the required degree as a proxy for general characteristics, such as exhibiting the maturity to stick to a task or process, having the ability to write coherent reports, and having an understanding of how to do research. If the local state university hands you a degree, the employer can check those items off the requirements list. The degree says that you have them.

If you don't have the degree, they have to dig a little deeper to find out if you can do those required duties. So it's entirely possible that this new hire has all of those skills that a degree would rubber stamp and just lacks the degree.

Why was no notice given of an open position? 

As you said, no other people were considered for this role, so why post? If the hiring manager had already decided who she wanted in the role, posting the position would have been a waste of everyone's time. If the employer knows who will get the job, why go through applications and interview people who never had a chance at the job.

If you were applying from outside, wouldn't you be unhappy that you'd taken a day off work (or if you were unemployed, gotten your hopes up and paid for a babysitter) so that you could interview for a job you had no chance of getting?

In this situation, no opening really exists for internal or external candidates.

Why promote the person who has the least experience?

The reality is that the employer may be making a very smart move. Often, employees think promotions to supervisory positions are a reward for a job well done. Logic exists for this employee belief—after all, you don't want an employee managing a position in a situation in which they know nothing about the job duties and challenges.

But managing people requires a very, very different skill set than doing a task. Smart companies recognize this and put people who have supervisory skills and talent into management roles instead of just promoting the person who is best at doing the work. It's quite possible that this person was hired precisely because she had the aptitude to manage and possibly experience about which you know nothing.

Is promoting a new employee over existing employees wise?

Yes and no. The problem isn't that the employer hired an employee who has different qualifications than the other people in the department—it's how the existing staff feels about the new colleague's promotion. It's really demoralizing when you've worked hard, and the person who has been there for four months gets the promotion.

For this (and other) reasons, companies often have a minimum length of time you have to work in a position before you can receive a promotion or transfer—in many cases six months.

Your organization would have been wiser to hire this new person directly into the supervisory role rather than first hiring her and then promoting her. The senior managers could have introduced her as “Jane, who has great management skills, and we're really excited about finding her” instead of “Jane, your new coworker—now she's your new boss.”

What should the other employees do about the new coworker's promotion?

Well, if you're happy in your job, just keep working. Support your new supervisor in her new role. Remember, she didn't choose to put herself in that position, so don't blame her. If you really want to move up in your organization, it's time to ask what you need to work on.

It is recommended that you go to your former supervisor (not the newly promoted one) and say, “I'm really interested in moving into a management role. Can you help me figure out what skills I need to work on to earn a promotion into a management role?”

Notice, you do not say, “Why did you promote Jane? I've been here three years and my reviews are awesome. She doesn't even have the degree required.” Focus on your own skills. You may find out that you really need to learn better communication skills or that your organizational skills need to become stronger.

Your manager may be surprised that you want to move up into a management role. Remember, bosses aren't mind-readers and they often draw conclusions that are false. 

And, what if your leadership team isn't rational?

Unfortunately, this is a possibility as well. Your new supervisor could be the big boss's niece, or she could have been on the same cheerleading squad in high school, or the senior leadership team could be making an ill-conceived, poor decision. But if any of those situations are true, you would notice bad management in all areas of the business, not just in this one new hire.

Regardless of the circumstances of the current promotion decision, it's important for an employee to always approach business issues from the idea that the person making the decision is doing what they think is best. Take the time to look for the positive reasons for your employer's actions before complaining.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insider and Yahoo.