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How to Structure Employee Promotion and Advancement

December 05, 2019

Employees want to improve at their jobs and advance at work. Companies should provide clear direction for job advancement to promote employee growth, according to our survey of 505 full-time U.S. employees. Businesses must understand worker concerns about advancement and consistently raise employees’ level of responsibility to help them improve and advance.

In a tight labor market, companies are focused on improving all aspects of their employee experience. A satisfying employee experience is more than flashy perks and benefits, however.

Another important part of an employee’s experience is the opportunity to take on more responsibility and advance at their job.

We surveyed 505 full-time employees to learn about their experience adding responsibilities and receiving promotions.

We found that the expectations employees hold for career growth depend on whether the advancement is “hard” or “soft.”

Employees anticipate occasional “hard” advancements, such as formal promotions or pay raises. They expect “soft” advancements, represented by gradual increases in tasks and responsibilities, more frequently.

Employee attitudes about advancement also are largely affected by age. Younger employees are far more likely to expect yearly promotions.

To provide employees with the support to advance, companies should:

  • Provide high-performing employees more responsibility every year
  • Understand that yearly employee promotions are not always necessary for career growth
  • Provide younger workers clear promotion and job advancement opportunities
  • Understand young workers’ concerns about advancement

Our Findings

  • Companies must do a better job of consistently providing employees new tasks and responsibilities: Two-thirds of employees (67%) expect to receive more responsibility at their job each year, but only 46% actually receive more responsibility.
  • Fewer than half (40%) of employees expect to receive a pay raise or title change each year. Companies should not plan to offer pay raises and promotions each year and should anticipate young workers leaving jobs more frequently to create their own hard advancements.
  • Only 12% of baby boomer workers expect hard job advancement every year, compared to roughly half of workers between 18 and 34 (49%) and 35 to 54 (55%). To attract and retain talented young workers, companies must establish a timeline for career advancement and understand the careers their workers want.
  • Despite initiatives to help young workers advance at work, just 17% of workers between 18 and 34 believe all of their company’s employees have a fair chance to advance. Companies need to have strong, fair employee growth opportunities. Fair advancement is as important to young workers as being offered health insurance and paid time off.

Provide High-Performing Employees More Responsibility Every Year

Businesses should give successful workers additional tasks and responsibilities each year. This shows employees that they are improving and reduces the chances they will leave the company for a job with more learning opportunities.

Two-thirds of employees (67%) expect to add tasks and responsibilities to their workload every year they are employed at their company.

67% of employees expect to receive soft advancement such as gradual increases of responsibility every year

Meanwhile, fewer than half of employees (46%) say workers at their company actually achieve gradual increases in responsibility every year.

46% of employees actually receive soft advancements such as gradual increases of responsibility every year

Gradual increases in the amount of work and supervision an employee is responsible for is called “soft advancement.”

Soft advancement is integral to employee satisfaction and performance. Consider the experience of two different employees, both of whom have had their job for one year:

  • Suzanne completes the same tasks she did during her first month of work. She has not assumed any additional responsibilities and has not had the opportunity to get involved with new projects.
  • Joe’s boss has given him more tasks and responsibilities over the course of the year. He has become involved with new business processes and has been granted the ability to join new projects if his workload allows. Joe can recognize specific, measurable professional progress in his first year of work.

Which employee is likely to feel more fulfilled? Which is likely to show long-term loyalty to the company they work for?

Joe is more likely to feel excited about his work and his position within his company. He has now seen firsthand that at his company, hard work is rewarded. Suzanne will likely feel bored and neglected. She may look aggressively for a new job where she is granted opportunities to develop and improve.

Understand That Yearly Employee Promotions Are not Necessary for Career Growth

Companies should provide workers with frequent soft advancements by increasing their responsibilities. Offering yearly pay raises, promotions, and “hard” advancements, however, aren’t always necessary for employee morale and success. Companies should also anticipate young workers leaving jobs more frequently to create their own hard advancements.

Only 40% of employees say that workers at their company achieve hard advancements such as pay raises or official promotions every year.

40% of employees receive hard advancements such as pay raises or official promotions every year

Providing employees hard advancements each year is difficult because companies rarely have the need for employees to assume entirely new roles or the funds to provide pay bumps to every employee.

Instead, companies should understand that young workers are what Norhanie Pangulmia, content marketing executive at SIA Enterprises, a boutique marketing agency for startups, calls “driving job-hoppers.” A substantial portion of millennials will create their own hard advancement by leaving for a new role at a different company – even if their company offers clear opportunities to advance and improve.

Companies can craft intelligent and effective employee advancement policies by understanding that yearly promotions are not a sustainable way to manage a workforce and that employee turnover is a natural part of running a 21st century business.

Provide Younger Workers Clear Promotion and Job Advancement Opportunities

Companies must provide early and mid-career workers clear, regular opportunities to earn hard advancements such as pay raises.

Regular advancement is especially important to employees between 18 and 54. Only 12% of workers 55 and over expect to receive hard advancements every year, compared to roughly half of workers between 18 and 34 (49%) and 35 to 54 (55%).

which generations expect annual pay raises or promotions?

In comparison, roughly half of workers between 18 and 34 (49%) and 35 to 54 (55%) expect pay raises and promotions each year.

3 Ways to Make Advancement Clear

Experts say that employees in their prime working years will be more loyal and productive if they have a clear understanding of what it takes to receive promotions and pay bumps.

Tim Toterhi, author of “The HR Guide to Getting and Crushing Your Dream Job,” offers steps that companies can take to make the process of hard advancements clear.

1. Establish a Timeline for Employee Advancement

Every company should have a planned timeline of promotion and growth for employees.

For example, a company can explain to new hires that promotions are granted about every two years. This way, an employee knows how much time he or she has to perform at a level worthy of promotion.

2. Understand Employees’ Career Desires

How can a company structure a plan for employee growth without knowing what employees want? Companies must take time to learn employee preferences.

Regularly meet with workers and understand how often they expect to be promoted, the additional responsibilities they are most enthusiastic about, and how they envision their future careers.

3. Consider Using a “Pay-for-Performance” Advancement Model

A “pay-for-performance” advancement model provides employees clear metrics to meet to be promoted. Instead of being promoted after a certain amount of time, employees are promoted when they meet specific objectives.

For example, an outbound sales professional may be promoted when he or she has converted a set number of clients. This way, employees have clear expectations and will feel that high performers are rewarded.

Understand Young Workers’ Concerns About Ability to Advance

To fully support employee career growth, companies must understand the concerns that young employees hold about fair workplace advancement.

While young employees expect to advance regularly, fewer than 1 in 5 workers between 18 and 34 actually believe that all of their company’s employees have a chance to earn additional responsibilities, projects, promotions, and pay raises.

do different generations think everyone has a fair chance to advance at work?

In comparison, more than one-third (36%) of employees 55 and over believe that all employees have a fair chance to advance at work.

Why Are Young Workers Concerned About Career Growth?

Young workers have multiple reasons to be concerned about their ability to advance:

1. Changing Job Market

Younger workers need to demonstrate professional growth in order to remain competitive.

Compared to baby boomers, Gen X and millennial workers are more likely to have established careers through freelancing and job-hopping, not staying with one employer for decades. In fact, close to half of working-age millennials (43%) plan to leave their current job in the next two years.

2. Rise of Startup Culture

Adrienne Cooper, chief people officer at FitSmallBusiness.com, says that the rise of startups has changed worker expectations: Employees once expected slow, deliberate additions to their workloads. Now, they are accustomed to receiving additional responsibilities, promotions, and pay raises more quickly as the company they work for expands.

Cooper says that millennial and Gen X workers' attitudes on advancing at work are represented by one quote: “Fair equals fast.”

3. Raised Expectations for Workplace Fairness

Young workers are more likely to place importance in working for a diverse, non-discriminatory business. Compared to older people, millennials and Gen Z workers are likely to judge their company on whether employees of all races, ethnicities, and sexes can advance.

Working for a business that demonstrates a commitment to fair advancement is as important to young employees as being offered health insurance and vacation time: They simply expect it.

Structure Employee Advancement Fairly and Effectively

Advancing at work is important to employees and the companies they work for.

Fair and effective employee advancement improves workers’ morale and productivity and reduces employee turnover.

To achieve such an advancement policy, companies must understand the differences between:

  • “Hard” advancement, such as pay raises and formal promotions
  • “Soft” advancement, which is a gradual increase in the tasks, responsibilities, and projects employees complete

Companies will improve their workforce and their business by recognizing employees’ concerns about advancement, consistently providing them more responsibility, and making clear what they need to do to advance.

About the Survey

Clutch surveyed 505 full-time employees in the U.S.

Thirty-one percent (31%) work at organizations with 1 to 50 employees; 25% with 51 to 500 employees; 19% with 501 to 5,000 employees; and 25% with more than 5,000 employees.

More than half of respondents (55%) are female, and 45% are male.

Fourteen percent (14%) of respondents are ages 18-34; 54% are ages 35-54; and 31% are 55 years old and above.