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It’s often assumed that the goal of every professional is to get promoted at work until they reach the highest level possible within their organisation. But is promotion the primary goal of all employees? And for those who do seek promotion, how confident are they that it will help them in their careers?

To investigate further, Michael Page surveyed 527 candidates in South Africa. We asked how important it was for them to climb the ranks in their company, what they valued most about being promoted and how clearly they perceived their career paths.

We were also interested in how proactive candidates were about getting ahead. Had they asked for a promotion, or did they prefer to wait for their manager to put them forward? Relatedly, should companies do more to encourage people to raise their hands and ask for a promotion?

Let’s dig deeper into the survey results to learn more about candidate sentiment regarding promotions.

Applicants in South Africa mention that promotions are important.

Bottom line? People want to get promoted

An overwhelming 88% of survey respondents said that promotions were either “very important” (29%) or “important” (59%) to them. Indeed, 5% said they would consider resigning if they did not receive an expected promotion. 

This data speaks to how ambitious employees are these days — and how willing they are to switch jobs to pursue those ambitions.

Workers are also impressively clear-eyed about their career goals. 81% of our interviewees say they know where they want to be in their careers. Working in a company having an established career path for its employees is also a critical component of feeling engaged at work — “very important” for 58% of respondents and “important” for 40%. Naturally, it helps to have a manager who prioritizes helping employees advance their careers. About 51% of respondents said that they have a mentor to help them figure out a career progression plan.  

Salary isn't the only motivator for promotion candidates

No prizes for guessing the most important factor for employees when assessing a promotion. 88% of survey respondents put salary at the top of their list. Furthermore, more than half of our interviewees (52%) said they would prefer a salary raise without any change in the job title.

Still, money isn’t everything. Nine in ten respondents also thought having more responsibilities and accessing advanced training were crucial incentives when pursuing a promotion.

Nearly 71% of the candidates named public recognition (internal and/or external communications announcing the employee’s new status) as a promotion perk. Recognition is seemingly more important for older employees, with 73% of over-40s naming it as a critical factor.

Whom should employers promote?

About 99% of survey respondents thought promotions should be offered based on performance.

However, while employees may have clear opinions regarding promotion criteria, they believe employers aren’t always transparent about these criteria. The vast majority (94%) of respondents said that companies should be completely upfront about promotion criteria. However, our survey data suggests this desire often clashes with reality. Around 47% of candidates said that their company offered no official information about promotion criteria. Furthermore, only 30% of candidates said their employer told them everything they needed to know about promotions, while 20% said the information offered was incomplete.

It’s a similar story with career paths. Around 35% of interviewees said their companies offer no clear criteria or information on this topic. That’s against 37% who said their employer provided the relevant information but only for certain positions. Just 25% of candidates thought their company told workers everything they needed to know about career paths.

Bottom line? Candidates clearly believe employers could and should do more to promote transparency around promotion criteria.

To ask or not to ask

Strikingly, more than half (64%) of our interviewees said they had never asked for a promotion. Why not?

First and foremost, there’s a perception among candidates that employers should make the first move. About 1 in 10 (13%) of interviewees believed that their managers should be the ones to raise the subject. The question was moot for more than a fourth of respondents (38%) since they had always received promotions without asking.

Most interesting is the 16% of candidates who thought themselves ineligible for promotion and had, therefore, never asked for one. The gender gap is notable here, with women (17% of respondents) more likely than men (9%) to rule themselves out for a promotion. Employers must consider the possibility that women and less self-confident employees, however talented, are being unfairly overlooked for advancement. Read our article on how to get a promotion or negotiating a salary raise

Companies have their work cut out

We noted above that candidates considered access to advanced training as one of the most desirable promotion perks. The bad news is that 28% of survey respondents said their employers offered little or no chances for promotion, and 38% of companies provide regular training to help employees develop their skills. 
In the absence of formal training, candidates would at least like someone to guide them and offer career advice. However, 42% of interviewees said they lacked a mentor who could play this role — another shortcoming that companies would do well to address. 

In the end, many of the missed opportunities we’ve noted come down to a lack of communication. Candidates are excited about getting promoted, advancing their careers and, in some cases, changing careers altogether.

Yet employers often fail to tell workers what they need to do to achieve these goals. And in work cultures that don’t promote transparency, it’s not surprising that many employees feel nervous about proactively seeking a promotion. Employers that offer upskilling programs, mentorship pairings and transparent information on promotion criteria will be well-positioned to attract and retain the talent they need.  

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