Senior management breaks promises

argumentI was having lunch with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. After picking at his salad for nearly an hour, he dropped his fork, looked at me and said, “They promised.” Nothing more. After some probing, I came to learn that senior management at his firm had recruited him with the promise of a hefty raise after year one. When it came time to honor their promise, senior management suddenly had amnesia. “I don’t remember that we promised you THAT,” was the statement his boss made in response. Stuck, my friend looked across the table at me and said, “what should I do?” No pressure, Brandon.

Senior management breaking promises is nasty any time it happens. However, this particular dysfunction has risen up the charts over the past four or five years. I hear it from every walk of life from the fresh recruit to the long-time manager in the firm. And I hear it in any and every industry you could imagine ranging from non-profitst to banking. Senior leaders make lofty promises to keep star players and when the time comes to make due on their promises, they run the other way. No one in this economy seems immune.

Ways Senior Management Breaks Promises Today

THE LOST PROMOTION – Like the hunt for lost treasure, you’re given a map (typically at the conclusion of your annual performance review) with an X that marks the promotion spot. You work diligently throughout the year charting your course.  When you finally arrive at the X after a year of hard work, you see someone else standing on what should be your spot. The promise of a promotion if you hold out for one more year is tantalizing to resist and frequently broken. Note: the more severe case of this particular dysfunction in the U.S. rests with our friends who are looking for green card sponsorship from the organization on their path to citizenship. They are often dragged for years with the promise that it will be “next year.” Cruel and unacceptable treatment to say the least.

THE DISAPPEARING RAISE – This one is particularly troublesome. An employee is promised a raise if they take on (or continue to take on) an excessive workload complete with challenging workplace fires. After one year, the firefighting employee comes out on the other side successful (although slightly singed) and senior management suddenly forgets their promise of more benjamins. As the discussion heats up, senior management commonly defaults to any of several arguments:

  • “I don’t know what you are talking about. We would never have promised something like that.”
  • “If we do that for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone.”
  • “If we did that, you would be making too much money (and/or more money than your boss, etc…).”
  • “Things have changed. We can no longer afford to do that.”

Why Senior Management Breaks Promises

“But Brandon, why is this happening?  Didn’t senior management get the ‘ethics memo’ that the last economic cycle taught us?”  I couldn’t agree more, but unfortunately the answer is to the question is quite simple. Senior management breaks promises more today than I have ever seen in my career simply because they can. What do I mean by that? Consider the following reasons:

Reason #1: Talent isn’t going anywhere – Senior management knows that there is no real competition for talent today. Sure, some jobs and some players are hot commodities, but broadly speaking, most of us can’t quit a job today and land a similar or better one tomorrow without some real work. It is a buyer’s market and we are all sellers. Senior management knows this and so their choice is to either take advantage of their people or do the right thing.

Reason #2: Do more with less – Senior management is operating under the mantra of “do more with less.” Whether it’s their personal leadership mantra or they have a Board dictating “leanness” and “efficiency,” they want to squeeze every last drop out of every last employee for as little as possible. That means no raises, promotions or hiring if they can avoid it.

Reason #3: Fear of adding headcount – Let me be clear. Cash is not the problem with the majority of for-profit organizations today. The issue is that most senior managers fear adding additional people and overall headcount. To them, more people equates to more on-going expenses and headaches related to selection, on-boarding, managing and ultimately downsizing if necessary. And don’t forget the messiness and confusion surrounding benefits packages today (insurance, pensions, etc…). As a result, new roles are not getting created easily so there is nowhere to move existing players regardless of their performance.

Your Prescription

This particular dysfunction grows in dark, damp places. Your best strategy is to shine a bright light everywhere you can to keep it from rooting.

If you are an employee, consider the following:

two_menIf you are agreeing to any promotion or salary increases, PUT IT IN WRITING. Get the promise down on paper so it looks and feels like a contract.  Assume that if you don’t spell it out what everyone is agreeing to, the other party will take advantage of the fuzziness and of you. Have your manager sign it and consider “cc’ing” HR and/or have them present to sign it as well. If it is spelled out clearly and signed by multiple players, you are preventing senior management amnesia.

If it’s too late and you have already had promises broken, your best strategy is to form a coalition of others who have suffered a similar fate and bring your collective complaints to the attention of senior management and HR. To pull this off, you will need to be prepared to quit if the commitments made to you and your colleagues are not fulfilled. Why do this as a group? One vocal voice is almost always written off as a troublemaker, but a group is usually taken seriously. Not to mention, a mass resignation is a fire that senior management does not want to have to address.

If you are a senior leader, consider the following:

Rx3As a leader, you are as good as your word. If you make a promise, you should do everything in your power to keep it. And if for some reason you cannot (there may be legitimate reasons), have the managerial courage to address the broken promise prior to the time of the agreed upon time of “payment.” Your integrity, honesty and concern for the people working for you will serve you well today and tomorrow. 

The time of reckoning is coming. I can see the clouds on the horizon and I can smell the change in the air like the smell of an approaching thunderstorm. Companies will soon begin to open up the hiring floodgates as they have no other choice in order to achieve their grand plans. Couple that with Boomers beginning the transition into retirement and you’ve got a storm of sorts. Real leaders will be revealed over night as employees have the choice to stay or to go. Real leaders will lose no one.  And with a stable of committed employees aboard, organizations led by true leaders will rise to the top quickly as their competition loses employees at a record pace.  Crewless, ships with dysfunctional captains will crash into the rocks amidst the crashing waves of a new economy.

Which will you be? The choice is yours and starts with the simple promises you make today.


A note from Brandon
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7 replies
  1. Tracy Palma says:


    I attended the WIT forum this morning that you spoke at. I was very intrigued by a lot of your comments. I definitely wanted to hear more from you!! I work for Manheim ( under the Cox Communications umbrella). I would be interested in scheduling you for a lunch and learn at our office. What are your rates and what does your calendar look like?

    I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Tracy Palma
    Project Manager

  2. midsummer says:

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  3. Logan Cervantes says:


    I made the mistake of not getting any of the verbal promises on paper and signed. $40k+ in student loans later, I was left holding the bag and suddenly all the promises of tuition reimbursement, promotions, money and career moves vanished. Seriously, they still talked about it up until a month before I went off to walk across the stage to accept my degree.

    Upon returning with my degree in hand, there was suddenly lots of angst around me moving into the position I’d been seeking for a while, even though less qualified and inexperienced people were hired for into that area often. It could be that they played favorites or maybe someone in management/HR just didn’t like me. Though I was too dumb to see the games at the beginning, I quickly found a new firm and got the pay and bonus schedule in writing. So far, my boss has come through on everything I signed onto.

  4. Brandon Smith says:

    I totally get it. I can’t tell you how many times I see employers drag along a graduate student, promising them riches and then when they graduate… poof. Nada. Nothing. It’s even worse if you are looking for green card sponsorship. Then the drag out, broken-promises process takes years. Awful.

    The good news is that not all employers and bosses are like that. Get clear on what you want up front (just like you did! You rock!), and hold them accountable. Well done my friend!

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