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Clarify that promotions are based on business need

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

There are only so many rungs on the corporate ladder, and it goes without saying that not everyone will make it to the top. But many companies have well-publicized promotion-from-within policies that encourage hard work, additional training and preparation to move up.

If that’s the case at your organization, make sure you aren’t promising too much. Otherwise, you run the risk that employees will come to expect promotions whether or not you need more people at the next level. And if they are disappointed, they just may sue.

Advice: Tell employees that business necessity—not employee readiness—dictates promotions. Controlling expectations can lower the risk of litigation.

Recent case: Monticello Austin, who is black, complained that he was not promoted to the next level at Progressive, an insurance company. He sued, alleging race discrimination.

Progressive demonstrated that it had promoted no one to the level Austin thought he deserved during the time frame he was complaining about. The company said that there were no openings, and it had no need for employees who were prepared for higher-level jobs.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate Austin’s lawsuit. It reasoned that Austin had done nothing to refute the legitimate business reason Progressive had put forth for blocking his promotion: It had no business need for a higher-level employee during the relevant time. (Austin v. Progressive, No. 07-12242, 11th Cir., 2008)

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