New Employee Promoted Over Longer Term Employees

Is This Fair, Legal, and Good for Employee Morale to Promote a New Employee?

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Reader Question:

"I have been working for a non-profit agency for a year. The job posting, along with job postings for the same job title since that time, stated that a B.S. degree was required. I have a B.S. degree.

"Since I was hired, another person who did not have a B.S. degree was hired for the same job title. This person only has an A.A. degree and has been with the agency approximately four months.

"This person has less education, experience, and qualifications than me and other employees in the agency, however, this person was recently promoted to a supervisor position. There was no notice that a supervisor position was opening and, apparently, no other employees were considered.

"The supervisor who held the position prior to this was promoted to a newly created position. I know the employer does not have to post position openings, but can they legally hire and promote someone who is less qualified than other workers? And let's assume that the other workers do not have any negative performance issues."


Fast answer: Yes. Companies can hire whoever they wish and promote the same way. The only exceptions to this involve licensing (you can't hire a surgeon who isn't a licensed doctor.) or if you have specific contracts, as in a union-represented situation. But, breaking down each of your questions should provide the answers you need. 

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 in a job description that includes the required degrees or certificates. But since you said this job requires a B.S. degree, and not, say a B.S. in chemical engineering, it's highly possible that there isn't a specific skill that is needed and that would manifest itself with a degree.

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 and 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.

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

Why was there 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 already knew who she wanted in the role, it would have been a waste of everyone's time to post the job, 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 you could interview for a job you had no chance of getting?

Why promote the person with the least experience? The reality is this may be a very smart move. Often, employees think promotions to supervisory positions should be a reward for a job well done. There is a lot of logic behind this—after all, you don't want an employee managing a position that they know nothing about.

But managing people is very, very different than doing a task. Smart companies recognize that 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 this type of situation wise? Yes and no. The problem isn't in hiring an employee who has different qualifications than the other people in the department—it's how the existing staff feels. It's really demoralizing when you've worked very 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 and then promoting. Then she could have been introduced as “Jane, who has great management skills, and we're really excited about finding her” instead of “Jane, your new co-worker—now she's your boss.”

What should you do? 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 get there?”

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 a degree.” 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. 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 could just be making an ill-conceived decision. But if any of those things are true, you would notice bad management in all areas of the business, not just in this one new hire.

Regardless, it's important to always approach business issues from the idea that the person making the decision is doing what they think is best. Take opportunities to look for the positive reasons before complaining.