Surrey Police and Sussex Police are separate police forces that share a joint HR function. Together they employ about 4,500 police officers and 4,000 police staff.

The two forces identified a need to review selection processes for promoting police officers. They wanted a process that was less time-consuming, more aligned with the forces’ values of ‘learn, guide, trust and deliver’ and, in particular, more supportive of organisational justice, fairness and work engagement. This led to a drive to ensure that internal job promotions were fair, objective and valid.

This case study demonstrates how evidence gathered from multiple sources gave insight into the challenges of the current promotions process, and how this was used to overhaul several core aspects to create a more efficient and supportive approach.

What evidence was used?

  • Stakeholder views: discussion with senior stakeholders to guide the investigation and later to sense-check and approve the final recommendations.
  • Organisational data: a survey of approximately 800 employees’ views on the promotion process, which measured perceptions of fairness, among other things. Results confirmed that this was an important subject to address.
  • Scientific literature: an evidence review of the scientific research, conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and the CIPD. The core question was: “What influences candidate perceptions of fairness in selection and promotion?”
  • Professional expertise: joint workshops with HR leaders in the two forces and CIPD and IES researchers, first to shape the review and later to develop practical recommendations. 

What insights did the evidence provide?

Organisational data

Stakeholder views and the employee survey identified two main challenges with the promotions process:

  1. People often perceived the process to be unfair: for example, fewer women applied than men and the quality of feedback was inconsistent.
  2. The process was regarded as overly time-consuming, due to high numbers of shortlisted candidates and the candidates not often being well prepared (for example, focusing on their operational successes but neglecting aspects of leadership and skills).

Scientific literature

The evidence review found a lack of fairness research specifically on internal promotion, so was expanded to include recruitment. Key insights included the following:

  • Transparent selection criteria and processes are usually more revealing and useful, as well as fair. This tends to outweigh any risks of candidates ‘gaming’ the process.
  • Candidates find certain criteria threatening because they feel their personal characteristics disadvantage them. Not highlighting this information may help to limit such ‘stereotype threat’.
  • Small changes, such as giving explanations and targeting messages, can have sizeable impacts.
  • Quality feedback is hugely important. Things that help include specific instead of sweeping statements and focusing on responsibilities and performance standards. A practical checklist is likely to help hiring managers with this.
  • A wider organisational climate of supportiveness helps perceptions of fairness in general, which may frame how people feel about the selection process.

What action was taken?

The forces overhauled several core aspects of the promotion process. A major change was to remove the application forms for promotions and instead identify potential future leaders through one-to-ones and performance and development reviews with line managers. This gives an integrated approach to succession planning. Other changes included the following:

  • More clarity is given about the selection process, for example on the competencies expected at each rank. This has helped in both guiding candidates and moderating promotion decisions.
  • The selection process has been made less stressful for candidates, for example by giving the opportunity to ask questions and making interviews more conversational.
  • Some of the language describing the process has been changed, to avoid triggering ‘stereotype threat’, especially to encourage more women to go for promotion.
  • More feedback is encouraged – both for successful and unsuccessful candidates – and this is guided so that it is more evidenced, informative and developmental.

The overall process is both more efficient and supportive, in giving officers a clearer idea of when they are ready for promotion and better preparing people for the selection process.

How did an evidence-based approach help?

Gathering the above evidence helped Surrey Police and Sussex Police to reflect thoroughly on their current practices and identify potential changes that were likely to enhance their promotions processes. It gave the HR leaders a strong platform from which to engage with stakeholders, identifying priority areas and potential adjustments that could have a significant impact.

Laura Knowles, Workforce and Organisational Development Lead at Surrey Police and Sussex Police, described the value of taking an evidence-based approach:

“It would have been very easy for us to just come in, design something really quickly, and implement it. But without that evidence base, I don’t think we would have had the traction we had and it wouldn’t have stuck. I would certainly recommend [an evidence-based approach] for anyone who’s looking to make any kind of cultural or organisational change. It does take time. You wouldn’t do it on small decisions because you wouldn’t have the resource, but for something which is crucial from a strategic point of view, it’s worthwhile and interesting.”

She also added that it was important to combine all four sources of evidence. For example:

“If you just did one without the others, it wouldn’t work as effectively. It’s so important that you look broadly across the area that you’re wanting to review and take all of the evidence into account. It’s important that you get the views of stakeholders and that you get people on board with what it is you’re trying to achieve and why you’re doing it. Hopefully our professional expertise and qualifications have stood us in good stead. And I think that’s then backed up by the scientific literature – what we’re saying is made more credible by an external source that suggests that, yes, this is the right way to go. It’s so important that you know you have that current knowledge, otherwise you can be viewed as being a bit out of touch.” 


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