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What-You-Know Not Who-You-Know is Key to Promotion


American and British employees share a similar trust in their skills as the key to advancement in the workplace, a poll has showed.

The survey, of more than 1,241 employees, flies in the face of stereotypes of the US being based on a more meritocratic belief, compared to a “who-you-know” attitude in the UK.

Around two-thirds of employees in both countries (61% in the US and 65% in the UK) cited job performance as the most important reason for promotion at their organisation. Nevertheless, sizeable minorities believe who-you-know is crucial: 20% of Americans v. 14% of British employees.

“Employee attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic seem to converge when it comes to this core issue in today’s organisation,” said vice president of Novations Group Paul Terry, who oversaw the research. “Frankly, we expected the British to be less confident that performance would determine promotion. Whatever gap may have existed appears to be superseded by a common commitment to getting the job done, more of an acceptance of achievement -based policies and less on presumed rank or privilege. This would be a healthy development.”

On the other hand, employee mistrust is ever present, warned Terry. “One in five U.S. employees is still pretty cynical about how co-workers get ahead, and the British are only a bit behind. This a classic challenge for management, to motivate and lead in a way that’s seen as fair and based on getting the job done.”

Among the other survey findings:

  • Americans were more than twice as likely as British employees to see seniority as the deciding factor for advancement, by 11% to 4%.

  • In the U.K. social class has an impact on attitudes toward job advancement. Among middle and upper middle class employees 73% trust in job performance, among lower middle class it was 66%, among skilled working class 60% and among working class just 58%.

  • In the U.S. income levels were a good predictor of trust in job performance. Among employees earning $75,000 or more, 67% cited job performance, while among those earning less than $25,000 only 49% trust in job performance. Likewise, the higher employees’ educational level, the more likely they are to trust in job performance.

  • “Organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have improved their development and promotion practices,” said Terry. “And the findings suggest most employees can make the connection between performance and advancement. Nevertheless, those in lower-level positions seem to need more coaching an support in order to feel included.”


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