Career advancement and promotions are key to satisfaction & employee retention. To retain your talent you must make the path obvious, easy to follow & fair. Increasing the support for newly promoted managers in particular will also help to address the growing perception that taking on management roles as a means for career advancement is unfulfilling.

Employee turnover rates are rising every year, with the UK hitting 35.6% turnover last year. Hiring new employees takes on average 40 days and costs £7,729 in the UK, and replacing a single employee can take up to 28 weeks and cost over £25K in lost productivity. That’s an enormous cost for businesses, in particular when we’re seeing an increasing difficulty in finding and hiring qualified people, across the country.

There are many factors which contribute to employee retention: Fair pay, flexible working, & good work-life balance are among the most often cited. But one which is often overlooked (and is particularly important for younger workers) is career advancement and learning opportunities.

Younger workers have high expectations for career advancement

Gen Z actually rank career advancement as one of the most important factors when choosing to stay in a job. According to some studies, ⅓ Gen Z expect to be promoted within 6 months of starting a new job, and more than half of recent graduates expect to be promoted within 12 months.

Unlike previous generations, Millennials and Gen Z don’t expect to spend their entire career in one company. Their average tenure in their first job is less than ¼ of what it was for Boomers at just 2 years, and 2 in 5 workers say that they would look for a new job if they didn’t get promoted within 6 – 12 months.

Why not simply apply for promotion?

There are many reasons why people don’t go for promotion, even when career advancement is important to their wellbeing & career satisfaction. Some of the most common include:

  • Lack of clarity on the process for getting promoted
  • Perceived unfairness in allocation of promotions
  • Believing that career advancement should be led by the employer rather than the individual
  • Conflict between work-life balance and more senior roles
  • Not feeling competent or supported in a new role

Given the high cost of employee turnover, addressing these common challenges is a cost effective intervention, and one which HR professionals can easily address.

Not knowing how to progress or to get a promotion

Many employees assume that their career trajectory is planned for them by the company if they intend to stay at the same company. On the other hand, many employers assume that the employee will take command and lead their career development path. This common misunderstanding leads to low satisfaction on both sides – and can be a major cause of job hopping.

To address this, companies need to ensure that there is clear communication with employees and managers about how career progression works. If promotions are based on open applications, making it clear to employees when those roles are likely to be available, and how they can put themselves forward is key.

If promotions are not based on applications and interviews, the process for being considered needs to be explained. For example, publishing clear competency frameworks detailing the skills and knowledge required for each role allows people to make informed choices and plans with their managers about the opportunities they take on, so that they are well equipped to apply or ask for promotions they want.

Perception that promotion is based on connection rather than competence

60 percent of younger workers feel that their career progression has been hampered by the pandemic and remote working, and statistics from the US show that people who work on site are more likely to be promoted than those who work remotely. 41 percent of Brits believe that people who work in the office are more likely to be promoted than those who don’t.

Women perceive that men are more likely to be promoted than they are, and we know that for every 100 men promoted, only 87 women are, which supports the idea that promotion is not exclusively based on competence.

This feeds a feeling that many women have – that they believe that promotions are not given based on who is working hardest or delivering the best results. They perceive that their more well-connected (usually male) colleagues, who are better at self-promotion, are more likely to get rewarded.

Whether that is true or not (and companies should maintain and regularly review their promotion data to see whether people of all genders and ages are progressing at similar rates), the perceived unfairness is damaging for morale and motivation.

By clarifying the criteria & capabilities for advancement, as well as training managers in how to make career advancement plans, HR teams can mitigate the risks – without having to justify promotion decisions – because everyone is aware of the expectations and standards which need to be met.

Waiting to be offered a promotion, rather than actively asking for it

This is particularly common for women, who are more likely to feel uncomfortable asking for recognition. One study found that women apply for promotions at less than 50 per cent of the rate that men do, even though they were more likely to say that they were confident they were performing well at work.

The speed or rate that they can expect to receive promotions is particularly relevant for younger workers as mentioned above. It is important to set expectations realistically to avoid disappointment which leads to disaffected younger workers seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Train managers on how to have conversations about career development and pathways with their staff, and encourage them to have those conversations early and often. Managers should be able to highlight the skills that employees will need to develop so that they are eligible for the next role. Critically, for this to work well, managers who successfully develop their staff should be rewarded for their success – not penalised by having holes in the team making workloads unsustainable.

Not wanting to take on management responsibilities

Not everyone wants to be a manager. While Gen Z are keen for career advancement and to be promoted quickly, they are less likely to be satisfied with promotions that insist on managerial responsibility, which they see as extra work for no real benefit to them. Those constraints notwithstanding, people still want the chance to grow and learn new things in their roles.

Creating career progression pathways that don’t depend on being a people manager will encourage people to stay and to progress within the company. If there are no other opportunities for increased learning, status or pay then many young people (and those who prefer to not manage teams) will leave, costing the company thousands in recruitment & lost productivity. Offering opportunities for progression which don’t require management will be critical in retaining talented individual contributors, and working with staff to craft pathways they find interesting and motivating will increase the chances of success.

Conflict with work-life balance in more senior roles

Nor does it suit everyone – in particular parents of young children – to be promoted to roles which require long hours or increased travel. For 29 percent of women, there is a conflict between their desire to progress in their careers, and how they believe it will affect their ability to be a good parent or carer.

In some cases, the idea that to be a senior leader means that you need to be always available, ready to cancel holidays or personal commitments whenever work calls, or that you must prioritise your work over every other aspect of your life is inaccurate. In those cases, demystifying what more senior roles are like, through shadowing and mentoring, can help to encourage people to stay in the leadership pipeline.

In others, more substantial changes are required, such as creating more opportunities for flexibility and hybrid working models and increasing the support available for new managers and people who have been recently promoted.

Lack of training or support for the new role

The final reason that my clients often express as a barrier to applying for promotions is that they don’t feel competent to perform the new role, and don’t believe that the company provides adequate training or support for them to be successful. This is backed up by research in the US, which shows that one of the key reasons that one third of newly promoted employees quit their jobs is a lack of training & support.

Navigating the changed relationships with former colleagues who are now your subordinates is also challenging, and an area where coaching & mentoring can easily make a difference to the experience of the newly promoted employees. Knowing that they will be supported with the transition increases the likelihood that women and younger workers will put themselves forward. Training managers will also help to address the perception, held by as many as three quarters of employees, that managers show bias in their promotion decisions.


By making the means, criteria and process for getting promoted clear and transparent, HR professionals can help to combat the likelihood that younger workers will look to change jobs when they want to progress in their careers.

Increasing the support & recognition for new managers will not only support them to be more effective but can also make taking on management roles more attractive.

Finally, creating career trajectories which allow for increased learning, status and pay but don’t require everyone to become a manager will help organisations to retain their individual contributor talent by providing advancement opportunities which play into everyone’s strengths, rather than only to those who have a talent or interest in people management.

Charlotte Rooney
Women's Leadership Coach & Mentor at A Half Managed Mind | Website | + posts

Charlotte Rooney is a Women's Leadership Coach, Mentor and Founder of A Half Managed Mind. She helps middle managers stop firefighting and start leading strategically so that they can be empowering, impactful & respected leaders by teaching them how to leverage their team, their strengths and their influence to get things done without being "overbearing", "unlikeable" or resorting to doing it all themselves.