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When Employees Do the Bare Minimum and Want a Promotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

Do you have any tips for talking with employees who do the bare minimum but still expect to be promoted and given high performance appraisals?


Dear Noble Manager,

I am going to start with what I see as a fairly safe assumption: you are a manager of people. Because of that assumption, I want to share an idea with you before I answer your question. One of my favorite quotes on management is from one of my favorite management scholars, the esteemed Clayton Christensen (1952-2022).

“Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility, and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team… Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.”

Your role is noble indeed! And yet sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. If you are at all like many of the managers I have heard from over the past few years, you are exhausted, frustrated, burned out, and just hanging on. Management is hard. Really hard. And just as you are digging deep into your own reserves to do your job, here comes one of your employees, asking for more. Maybe they’re young, maybe they’re new. Hopefully they’re eager. Possibly they’re demanding. At their best, they are ambitious. At their worst, they are entitled.

So, how do you talk with an employee who is doing the bare minimum and expecting great rewards? Based on my conversations with other managers, I wonder if it’d be more accurate to say your question is this: How do I tell them that they aren’t ready, that they need to do more, that their expectations are unrealistic? All fair questions. But in light of the quote from Dr. Christensen above, I suggest a reframe of your question.

How can you help an unready or underserving employee learn and grow into the promotion or appraisal they seek? If you are in the business of helping people learn and grow, then this moment (when someone asks for a promotion they don’t deserve) is a crucial moment, a moment with the potential for great learning and growth.

Here are four tips to help navigate that moment.

Reframe How You See Them

Let me assume that you have worked long and hard to get where you are today. You may therefore find it mildly irritating (or even downright infuriating) to have someone younger and newer come along and blithely expect to be given what you have earned. You may judge that person as entitled, foolish, or ungrateful. If this is even close to the story you are telling yourself about your employee, stop.

In any conversation, our perspective of others reveals more about us than them. You need to reframe how you are seeing this person. Advocating for yourself, speaking up, and asking for career opportunities are all incredibly good things. Reframed, here is a person who is asking for career development and mentorship. Think of them as someone who is leaning in. Seeing them differently will change how you show up in the conversation. Seeing them in a positive light will increase the likelihood of having a positive conversation.

Be Specific about Expectations

It sounds like there is a clear gap between what this person does and what they need to do in order to be promoted. Describe that gap with specificity. What are you now seeing from them? What do you need to see before you could promote them? Describe both of these in a way that makes it clear to your employee what the gap is.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of saying “You need more experience” or “You need to be here for X amount of time before you can be considered for a promotion.” That is a cop-out. If they need more experience, explain why. What kind of experience do they need? Can you help them gain that experience?

Compare and Contrast

Sometimes, even when we are explicit about expectations, the other person may still not understand what “good” looks like. You may need to show them what good or great performance is. Identify someone on your team or in your organization who is a top performer, ideally in the role your employee wants to move into. Create an opportunity for your employee to observe that person. What does he or she do differently than others? Why does it matter? Ask your employee to compare their own behaviors, interactions, and deliverables to this top performer. Let your employee know how you see their performance compared to that of this top performer.

Be Candid about Limitations

Organizations and industries have different opportunities for growth. In a high-growth industry during the boom times, it may be very easy to do the bare minimum and still get promoted simply because of the organization’s rapid growth. In slower growth industries or times, it may be much harder to get that next promotion. Be honest about this. Your employee likely has friends or former colleagues working in different organizations who are getting promoted without doing anything particularly exceptional. So they may think they should be promoted too. If you are not in a rapid growth organization, say so. Help your employee understand what a career path looks like at your organization and how that might be different from their “roommate’s sister’s best friend’s company.”

As you do that, be sure to help them understand the value of working for your organization. Perhaps you don’t have a promotion to offer them, but is there anything else you can offer them? Remember, as we reframed our perspective, this is not necessarily an entitled brat looking for the easy path up. Think of them as an eager climber who wants to grow and contribute. Helping them do that is the true job of a people manager.

Good luck!

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9 thoughts on “When Employees Do the Bare Minimum and Want a Promotion”

  1. Thomas Fons

    This is a very timely article since we are having performance conversations and this exact situation is happening. Appreciate the idea of stepping back and outlining the competencies/expectations. And not getting personally anxious. This is why it’s important to have clear competencies that you can go back to – as well as of course pointing to top performers. However, my caution about that is that you do not want to pit one person against another. I tend to talk more about our clear competencies than a top performer for that reason.

  2. Amanda

    Excellent response. I remember when I was a few years into the workforce and I received my first ever bad performance review. My boss explained “It was because you didn’t do X,Y and Z.” And I responded with “You never asked me to do X,Y and Z. I am happy to do X,Y and Z but I didn’t do them before now because nobody ever asked or told me to.” It felt SO unfair to have a bad review on my record because a manager never verbalized his expectations. Don’t know if it was inexperience, naïveté or if he was just a bad manager, or perhaps some combination of the three, but I can honestly say that if my manager had told me to do X,Y and Z I would have done it.

    1. Thomas

      Amanda – you mentioned “Don’t know if it was inexperience, naïveté or if he was just a bad manager, or perhaps some combination of the three…” and I would add to that a company that is not clearly defining its expectations (job descriptions) for its people. A manager may or may not be “bad”, however if they do not have the tools to be successful a lot of them are not sure how to be successful leaders.😒 A seasoned employee might know to ask for this – but many do not and are taken aback when they are less than successful.

    2. Jeff Grigg

      Yes: Let’s not ignore the contributions of the employee’s manager, and of the organization itself.

      Probably, in most cases, most individual performance problems are an issue with that person and need to be addressed mostly with changes that that person makes.

      But, as W. Edwards Deming so compellingly pointed out, if your “people problems” are similar across a number of people in your organization, then you should look up to the common boss that they share, and you will often find the problem there.

      And some organizations have organization-wide problems. And some are just in industries where opportunities are limited. (But we do exceptional organizations that shine, even in the most restricted of industries.)

      So while it’s not usually the first place to look, we must keep our minds open to the contributions made by *all* of the actors involved — not just the isolated individual employee.

  3. Hank Epstein

    A useful response & I think there is also some preventive action to be taken as well in the form of a role description that specifies the outcomes to be accomplished & the metrics that determine how the quality of the accomplishments will be measured. This is distinguished from a job description which is used for hiring & describes the criteria to be met by candidates who aspire to that position. In my 33 years of experience as an executive coach job descriptions are almost always missing. Isn’t this performance management 101?

    1. Wes

      “What gets measured gets done” is often a two-edged sword. What is easy to measure is often the less important part of a person’s or company’s output. Safety comes to mind; it is easy to measure how many people are reminded to wear hardhats and gloves while missing the hard-to-measure attitude of making decisions to meet a deadline (see the events earlier in the day before the Deepwater Horizon explosion).
      The output of some employee positions are easy to measure, some are difficult, and some are too expensive or too difficult to measure (juice not worth the squeeze). Easily measured metrics make a manager’s job easier. Not having measurable metrics makes it imperative that managers be well-trained in the art of management.

  4. Wes

    Thre are other parameters that are possibly in play. One is initial pay when starting the job. An employee hired in at a considerablely lower rate of pay, for the same position in the same group, will naturally want that to be corrected ASAP by the manager. When it is not, the employee may decide to work at the level of pay that they are receiving – you pay me less, you will get less. It appears self defeating, but quite reasonable for the employee’s mental health.
    Another is ‘what is considered par for good performance’? If it is the amount of time spent at the office every day (very easy to observe) vs the output of work performed (in many jobs not nearly as easy to measure), the efficeint employee with a life outside of work may look less deserving than the workaholic employee who arrives early and/or stays late (while usually appearing busy).
    A third parameter, as Jeff mentioned, may be long-held instutional policies such as tenure and date-of-hire that can lead to a feeing of entitlement by seasoned employees (“I get raises and promotions independant of performance”), which greatly diminshes the pot of money for raises to newer employees in the same positions, who then tend to emulate the seasoned employee’s work level without the necessary political capitol/savvy to go with it – thereby appearing to be doing the bare minimum while expecting a raise.
    Each of these parameters essentially boil down to management decisions – but at what level?

  5. BocaExecuSpace

    I like your response in that situation, and I learned a lot from this blog. I am grateful that I have a boss that helps me grow, and I know someday I can get the promotion, but for now, I am focusing on gaining more skills. Thanks for posting!

  6. BocaExecuSpace

    It’s nice to read this again. Being promoted is great, but we should understand that new skills, excellent knowledge, and effort are necessary.

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