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Use encouraging, fair—and honest—appraisals when coaching newly promoted employees

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Performance Reviews

Not every employee who earns a promotion will be successful at the new job. That’s especially true if the new gig is a management position and the employee hasn’t held such a job before. 

While you certainly want to do everything possible to allow the employee to thrive in the new assignment, you’ve also got to be practical. When you conduct those initial performance reviews, it’s a good idea to consider the possibility that the employee will ultimately fail.

Here’s how to encourage success, but plan for potential failure:

Provide positive feedback when it’s earned, and encouragement when needed. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should sugarcoat the evaluation or reflexively hand out excellent reviews. That can backfire if the employee later has to be demoted back to her former position. A review that’s all “outstanding” across the board is useless—it neither encourages growth nor protects the employer in case of a lawsuit.

Instead, highlight the positive while providing honest, constructive feedback on what she isn’t doing as well as you had hoped. Explain that you understand there will be an adjustment period and that you’ll be looking for progress as time goes on.

Highlight particular development goals that will help the employee perform her new job. Make it a specific performance objective to get the necessary training and education.

Follow up on each subsequent performance evaluation. Reassert any longstanding concerns, and restate how you’ve given the employee an opportunity to address those issues. You will then be prepared should she sue when she’s downgraded for poor performance.

Recent case: Barbara Jyachosky worked for the U.S. Navy as a civilian employee until she retired. A few years before, she had been promoted into a supervisory position as a public affairs officer. 

She got several reviews that encouraged her efforts to learn the job, but which also included sharp criticism of her management skills and clearly noted that morale under her leadership had slipped. Reviews noted that Jyachosky’s subordinates complained she treated them poorly. After a few years, she was demoted back into a nonsupervisory role. 

When she retired, she sued, alleging that she had been demoted because of her age. She pointed to her positive performance reviews.

The Navy admitted that the reviews had been largely positive, but showed the court that her supervisors had also pointed out that she wasn’t doing a great job supervising employees. Because the performance reviews included the encouraging positive comments and comments about necessary improvements, the court said the Navy had shown that she wasn’t meeting its reasonable expectations. 

It was fine to encourage her with positive comments, but when she didn’t improve, it was also fine to demote her. (Jyachosky v. Winter, No. 08-1077, 4th Cir., 2009)

Advice: You may also want to consider establishing a mentoring program for newly promoted employees. Pair the employee with a colleague who has clearly succeeded. Such relationships have been proven to help recently promoted employees adjust to their new roles.

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