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Blocking internal transfers and promotions is a bad idea!

Demotivator on Warning Road SignSometimes, managers deliberately and consciously take actions that while logical, create situations that are non-productive and hugely demotivating. Unfortunately, this is more usual than not.  In fact, this was the very topic of a one of my regular The Globe & Mail columns back in November 2014 titled Why do smart managers do stupid things?

I continue to see examples of this dysfunctional behaviour repeatedly in my leadership development practice.  Last week I had a very positive conversation with a group of leaders in one of my client organizations, but it reminded me of this very negative situation that I came across (and blogged about) back in 2016.  In fact, it stirred up such dialogue in this group that I felt it was worth bringing up in the blog again.

I got a call from an employee at a large client company, very upset because his manager had blocked his internal transfer.  This organization has an online internal job bulletin board that permits employees to apply for internal jobs within the company.  This particular employee had, with his manager’s knowledge, applied for a job in another department.  Since he has been in his current role for over three years, he was seeking different challenges and new learning opportunities.  The interview process went well and he was optimistic about getting this new assignment.  Imagine his surprise to learn that he did not get the job because his manager had blocked the transfer.  Turns out that there had been some other recent unexpected personnel changes in the department, and his manager felt that his move would be too much change, too fast.

Blocking an internal transfer or promotion is hugely demotivating

Now I get that the administrative challenges that accompany personnel changes can be disruptive and overwhelming.  But I think that this company, and this manager specifically, made a serious mistake.  As a leader, your job is always to maintain a fine and delicate balance between getting work done and building up your people.  Blocking an internal transfer is hugely demotivating.  Sure, you managed the work side of this tightrope, but you failed the people side!

So what should have happened instead?  The two managers (old and new) should have discussed and negotiated a transition plan to get the employee into his new position without leaving the old department in the lurch.  Would the eventual outcome have been perfect?  Of course not!  Both most of what leaders do isn’t perfect!  It’s reasonable, it’s manageable, it’s a compromise, but it’s usually never perfect.  And a reasonable, manageable compromise is what was needed here.  Instead, the blocked transfer resulted in one upset and highly-demotivated employee, who is now seriously thinking about handing in his resignation.

Bottom line, thwarting your employees’ internal transfer and promotion opportunities is a bad idea!  If your employees can’t achieve their personal and professional goals by getting a new position inside your company, they’ll just find a new position inside another company!

Do you agree with my take on this situation?  Was blocking this internal transfer a prudent management decision or a blow to this organization’s employee motivation levels?  Please share your thoughts by commenting here.

13 thoughts on “Blocking internal transfers and promotions is a bad idea!

  1. I agree with you, it is a managers job to spot and promote talent within a company, even if that means losing someone from the team to a different position.

    People want to feel valued and recognized, not trapped and pigeonholed. That manager just may have cost the company a good person with their short sighted decision, and sent a damaging message to all their other direct reports.

  2. Thanks Lorrie, glad you agree. Ironically, since I posted this, I have heard privately from two other people who have been blocked from internal promotions for this very reason — one chose to leave, and another is still there, but just waiting for the right opportunity to come up. Apparently, this happens more than I even realized!

  3. I have been blocked from advancing in my company in a different way. About 8 years ago I was injured while working for my regular jobs managers brothers business. Since then there has been the threat of termination and since he has been promoted to be in charge of more than a dozen locations within the company he oversees the hiring of the department managers in the locations. The location manager will interview and decide who they want and he has final say and he has twice so far overruled the location managers decision and had them hire people less qualified than I am. I have applied for one more position within the locations he oversees and I am sure that he will do the same thing. What can I do?

  4. I work for the NYC Department of Education and see this happen daily. This practice is terrible and should never be executed. Leaders will continue to complain about the actions of civil service employees but look right past the fact that they created this terrible culture.

  5. This just happened to me today in a large corporation… I was told that there were two recent resignations and they couldn’t afford to let me go.

  6. I was just passed for a promotion because my new supervisor could not get in contact with my current supervisor, so they gave the position to the next applicant. I feel so betrayed and angry right now because I’ve worked so hard and spent years trying to get that promotion. My supervisor says she will “talk” to the other supervisor to clarify. Is there anything I can do? Are there any legal recourse? It’s been few days, and I am still very devastated. Please help.

    1. Oh Tim, I feel your pain! I am not in a position to offer advice from a legal perspective, but given how much this has negatively affected you, I think you need to continue to pursue it with both supervisors, particularly yours. What went wrong? Was your supervisor not available? Did she not receive the query from the new supervisor? If you don’t get satisfactory answers to your questions, you will continue to be upset, and that’s definitely not a good outcome. Please, if you are able, continue to keep us posted.

  7. I had the same issue this week. I was approached by another area and division within the large corporation i work for. They contacted my Director who has then decided to not allow this promotion due to the fact my skill set is too valuable for them. I feel sick to the stomach and so let down that I have no option but to leave the company now. Its such a demoralising thing to experience.

    1. Ugh! So sorry to hear about this Jonathan. Another manager who has “managed” the work side of the tightrope but failed miserably on the people side! I know how demoralizing this must feel. Take a few days to make sure that your decision is not just emotional, and then, yes, look for a place where you will be valued, respected and encouraged to progress and shine. Good luck, and keep us posted on your success.

  8. I am a very new manager (since mid-October) for a group of engineers. I was blindsided yesterday by another manager asking when they could begin the transition to move one of my employees to his group. This employee was on my “list” to be up for a promo during my company’s cycle in March. I have two concerns now, first, there was no communication he was interviewing internally. Second, this move will be a lateral and he will be stuck at his current level for at least another year now. The employee and I had a 1-on-1 about 3 weeks ago, and the general topic around his frustrations of not being promoted and wanting to move was the main topic. I urged him to wait for the standard cycle in March and promised him if we could not make it work, I would support a move. As always in my company, if the move is a promo, I cannot block it, but I can counter with a promo if approved. He is now on vacation for the year and I have scheduled a 1-on-1 on Jan 2nd to sit down and discuss this topic with him. My other point I want to make is, some blocks maybe in the best interest for the employee. In this case, I want to reward the hard work this individual is doing, but there are policies that require me to wait to key times.

    1. Chris, so sorry to hear about your situation, it certainly sounds challenging. I’ll start with your last point – that some blocks may be in the best interest of the employee. I don’t disagree, but the employee needs to think so too. In today’s workplace, being paternalistic and “doing what is right for the employee” without his/her concurrence is a big mistake and one that can only result in negative consequences. I am not sure that is what you were suggesting though. I think you are doing the right thing in planning a one-on-one discussion with your staff member in the new year. However, if s/he has already accepted the new job, then that ship may have sailed. Nevertheless, may I also suggest that the three of you meet to come up with a workable compromise plan for a transition that doesn’t leave you in the lurch.

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