A New Promotion Guidelines: A Road To Fairness

Shailvi Wakhlu

ex-Head of Data at Strava



Transparency and a perception of fairness have a huge impact on the motivation and engagement of employees. That being said, any notion of arbitrariness or favoritism can have a detrimental effect on the morale and productivity of people involved. At that time, our team was expressing a lot of frustration over the promotion process that they found to be biased and confusing. There was a lot of growing resentment around it in the team. Therefore, I had to create guidelines that would remote any arbitrariness and bias from promotion and ensure that promotions are handled fairly.

Actions taken

For starters, I had to ensure that the engineering leadership team was on the same page about how transparent we wanted to be since promotions are closely tied to raises and compensations. We had to agree on what we were comfortable sharing. For example, we were comfortable sharing that we had different bands for each level but we were not comfortable sharing the exact amount of dollars for each band. We would be happy to tell an individual that s/he was on the lower or higher end of the band but not the exact amount where the band started/ended compensation-wise.

There was a clear goal-setting process taking place at the beginning of every quarter when a person would have an opportunity to stretch beyond their regular responsibilities. Those stretch goals should be well defined and easily measurable and a person should consistently meet them over an extended period of time to showcase they are performing at the next level.

Before I created our new guidelines people couldn’t understand the rationale behind the promotion. They would be thinking, Bob got a promotion, so I had to do like Bob and then everyone would take their own understanding of what Bob was doing to be promoted. Bob was working on one cool project that was presented at the company blog or Bob was staying overtime -- people were making guesses as to what it took Bob to get to the next level. However, if you clearly define a set of skills that employees had to demonstrate consistently then there was something tangible to refer to and the process became more transparent. Consequently, all the resentment around the promotion would vanish because a person could discuss with their manager measurable and actionable items that s/he had to fulfill in order to be considered for promotion.

Before I came up with new guidelines, we had very vague and general guidelines that were describing what we expected from people at different levels but without any concrete actions tied to them. People would be left on their own to figure out what they should be doing to accomplish those expectations. This was particularly hard for junior people who would come up with the first pass of what it would mean for them to meet stretch goals, but it was still largely intangible and uncertain. For example, our past guidelines would state that a person should be advising a team on the direction it should take -- a fairly vague expectation when compared to our new actionable item “come up with three initiatives your team should take on”. This exemplified how new guidelines included a very measurable outcome instead of a vague description of what an ideal person should look like.

People tremendously appreciated the transparency and the opportunity to agree with their manager on the stretch goals. Also, new guidelines allowed managers to objectively evaluate the goals that have been clearly defined in advance and thus ensure fairness of the process. If someone had been consistently hitting their goals and still not being put up for promotion, s/he would have had a very persuasive argument that the process was biased.

Lessons learned

  • If the engineering leadership wasn’t aligned on the values we wanted to follow through and didn’t want that much scrutiny on who they would promote, it would be very hard to implement new guidelines. If the leadership team is not on the same page, you will end up with confusing and double-edge standards.
  • When your team is unhappy and frustrated by promotion-related issues all your roadmap priorities should come second to that because you will lose people or at least their trust will be eroded. If we had prioritized our promotion process two quarters before, we would have cut off many issues that were the result of people’s demotivation and disengagement.

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Shailvi Wakhlu

ex-Head of Data at Strava

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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