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Managing Disappointed Employees

What to say to an employee who’s been passed up for a new job or promotion

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Hiring employees is one of the most important tasks of feed and grain firm managers. The success of your organization is determined by the quality of your team. In addition to hiring talent, growing talent (helping employees get better in their current job and helping prepare them for a future role), is another essential task for any good manager.

If you’re growing people and your succession plan is working, you should have a steady stream of inside applicants for jobs available within your feed or grain firm. Given this, you may find yourself in a situation where you go through the screening and interview process, the selection and hire is made, and it turns out the hire is not your inside applicant.

Or, you may have multiple internal applicants for a single job and you will only be hiring one of them. In another version of the same issue, you are making the decision on promotions within your firm, and decide that you will not promote a particular employee, and ‘pass over’ that employee for another in your organization.

Now you are faced with the unpleasant task of breaking the news to your unsuccessful applicant, who also happens to be a current employee.
How you handle these situations is important as these employees are likely an important part of your team, may have a very bright future with you, and you don’t want to lose them.

Handle these situations poorly, and employee morale may suffer, and you may lose an employee.

Handle them thoughtfully and with empathy, and you can likely keep a strong employee and use the situation to help that person grow so they will be even better positioned for the job or promotion next time. Let’s explore some ideas for managing these challenging situations.

The path to the decision

How you have handled employee performance reviews, coaching and professional development with an employee has everything to do with how you manage the specific situation where the employee gets bad news about a new role/promotion.

If you have been objective, honest, clear, fair and candid in performance reviews and in coaching, you help an employee have realistic expectations about their chances for the new job or the promotion.

If you have not, you are setting them up for disappointment. Some firms just don’t do a very good job with performance evaluations and coaching.
Good performance evaluations and coaching can help an employee know what they need to do to move up and to have an honest opinion of where they are in the organization.

Internal vs. external hires

We feel compelled to add a few comments on hiring externally vs. hiring internally. Passing over an internal candidate to go outside may well be the right thing for your firm. Sometimes you are looking to take things in a new direction. Sometimes you want a fresh perspective, or you want to shake things up.

In these cases, going outside may be exactly what your feed and grain firm needs. It is also easy to be wowed by someone from the outside, however, someone whom you only have a superficial knowledge of and no idea of their performance. Internal candidates always have the disadvantage and the advantage of being “known.”

Our main point here is to make sure you give the internal candidate a “fair shake.” Do your due diligence on any external candidate. Make sure you dive deep into their record, check references — references provided by the candidate and references the candidate did not provide.

In the interview, explore the candidate’s fit for the position in every way you can, looking for explicit evidence of prior experience and success in that experience that would fit the position you are looking for.

For your internal candidate, give them a chance to show that they are qualified for the new role.

Plan what you will say

The time may come that you have to have the conversation with an employee who didn’t get the job or the promotion they were looking for. Our assumption throughout is that we are talking about an employee you want to keep in your organization.

Timing is important here. You really must discuss this with your employee as soon as you can after you have confirmation that you will hire or promote another. You don’t want them to find out through the proverbial grapevine. Don’t wait to share the news.

Heidi Gran, author of “No One Understands You and What to Do About It” and “9 Things Successful People Do Differently” says, “When you’re doling out negative feedback, you’re in fight-or-flight mode — you want to get it over with.”

She suggests writing what you want to say and how you want to say it, perhaps even rehearsing it out loud. Many experts find this planning invaluable in order to get the message right.

Share this news personally, not through email or some other indirect form of communication. While such a meeting may not be pleasant, in our experience employees appreciate the fact that you were willing to take the time to talk in person.

You also can better manage the situation if you can respond to questions/read body language, and in general are more likely to maintain a relationship with the employee as opposed to some impersonal form of notification.

Give some thought to possible reactions from the employee. In some situations, the reaction may be quite modest/positive/professional — here the employee really did not expect to get the job and/or has a healthy respect for you and your decision process.

At the other extreme and much less frequently, some employees may be very angry and take the news personally. While such an unprofessional response likely tells you that you made the right choice, you still should think through how to handle it.

In all cases, you should offer to discuss the situation in more detail later — many individuals receiving disappointing news don’t want to truly unpack it at the moment it is delivered. They may be ready for a productive conversation at a later date, however, after they have internalized the news.

Be honest

Honesty is always the best policy, even if being honest makes for a difficult conversation. You can explain that not everyone who applies for a job will get the job or the promotion. You might review the process you and/or your hiring committee used.

It is also helpful for you to describe the “organizational context” and the factors that went into the decision. Here we are talking about restating the key criteria/experiences that you were looking for in a successful candidate. This helps to create a sense of “procedural justice,” so that your employee knows that the process was fair and the proper steps were followed.

Emphasize that they can use this experience to grow. Encourage them to use their emotions constructively. It can be a very tough situation for an employee given that they’ve just been rejected, and they are hurt and upset. Encourage them to get feedback from others they work with. This may prove to be useful and valuable insight.

They need to accept the fact they did not receive the promotion. This acceptance can show maturity and grace, useful traits that can also be valuable for future jobs or promotions. Strongly encourage them to move on from their disappointment. Lingering disappointment can eat away at them, affecting both them, those around them and your firm.

Encourage them to reflect on the situation and personally explore what they learned. Upon reflection, they may well realize they know the answer as to why they did not get the job offer or promotion (if they are indeed honest with themselves).

If the conversation is likely to be contentious, you will want to talk through what you are going to say with your attorney. Obviously, you can’t discriminate in any way against employees when making these kinds of decisions. You want to make sure what you say to the employee communicates that fact and does not bring in factors (age, gender, race, etc.) that cannot be a part of the decision process.

Show empathy

It probably goes without saying that it is helpful to be mindful of your employee’s self-esteem in these situations. Getting passed over hurts personally and professionally. Explain that you know they feel hurt or that you understand this was not the news they wanted to hear.

Thank the employee for applying and going through the process. Let them know they are a valued and an important part of the business.

Recap why they are important but don’t go overboard — again, they did’t get the position. If it was a difficult decision, tell them so — for most, knowing they were competitive for the role sends a positive message.

Understand that internal candidates take a risk when applying for positions inside your organization. Not getting a role they had aspired too may embarrass them with peers, and potentially undermine their position with those they lead.

Discuss performance separately

A job interview is not a performance review. So, this is not the time for you to go over what they do and don’t do well in their current role. Rather, the focus here is how they did or did not fit the qualifications for the position/promotion.

There is also room for a coaching conversation on steps they can take to be ready for the next position when it comes up. As we mentioned earlier, all of this is much easier if you have been conducting quality annual reviews. If you haven’t, you might use one of these situations to motivate yourself to improve your employee review process.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

The heat of these situations can get the best of you. Especially in situations when you have an employee who you really want to keep, really like, is really hurt, etc. It’s too easy to make promises that you may not be able to keep.
“You will get the next open position” or “You will be promoted within a year” – any of these promises may make things better at the time, but may be hard to keep.
Once you have made such statements, the employee likely feels better, but the clock is also ticking on when the new job or the promotion is going to happen, and they believe it is going to happen, that it is only a matter of time. It is far, far worse to set up an employee with false expectations than it is to provide them with an honest, candid assessment of where things are, which helps them be realistic with their expectations.

Manage the ripples

For many hiring decisions, the effects that need your attention are direct with the employee. In some cases, however, you will need to think more broadly about communications inside your organization.

If an appointment will come as a surprise to your team or it’s not obvious why the candidate got the job, you will have more work to do. You will likely need to communicate some of the reasons the person was chosen to help the organization understand the decision and to get behind the person.

Such communications will also help the internal person “save face” as the rationale for the decision is clear. Note here that the way you handle the announcement of the new hire can carry this message, reemphasizing the reasons you hired the person.

You also may need to have some conversations with other employees who take the external hire as a sign that their prospects are somehow more limited than they were.

Again, this is where a strong review/coaching process can help high potential talent understand that their future remains bright and that every hiring decision you make is aimed at building an even stronger organization for the future.


Picking the right candidate for a position or a promotion is job number one. How you manage that choice with internal candidates who were not chosen and with your organization is also important and can have a big impact on your future talent pool as well as your organization’s morale.

Think through how you will communicate with the unsuccessful candidates and how you will coach them in a way that they see a future in your organization and a path to that future. Help your broader organization understand your choice and why they should get behind their new leader.

Assuming you made the right call, the new employee and their results will prove your decision over time. Your deliberate approach to managing the transition and communicating appropriately with all will help everyone get there that much more quickly. ❚

Dr. Jay Akridge is Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Diversity and Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University.

Dr. John Foltz is Chair, Department of Animal Sciences, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, and Dean Emeritus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Professor, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.

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