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Unrealistic job promotion expectations

Study by two IFTM researchers says entry-level Macau hospitality staff often have unrealistic expectations of being promoted quickly

Research Corner | A partnership between Macau Business and the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies (IFTM)


A research paper involving two scholars from the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies (IFTM) suggests there is a mismatch between how rapidly entry-level hospitality workers in Macau expect to be promoted, and the actual average time needed for such a promotion to occur. According to IFTM assistant professors Dr. Henrique Fátima Boyol Ngan and Dr. Louis Vong Tze Ngai, hospitality businesses should improve human-resource practices to address such a discrepancy.

Hospitality organisations “are advised to establish realistic promotion expectations and goals for their staff,” – especially for those people at “lower job levels,” wrote the IFTM scholars. “This can be achieved in different ways such as identifying key performance indicators against which promotion decisions will be based,” or “outlining the prerequisite skills and abilities necessary to qualify for a job promotion.”

“Regardless of the criteria used to determine promotion eligibility, an organisation needs to foster a culture of transparency so that its career-progression practice is well understood by all employees,” the researchers said. “This means continued efforts are needed to ensure that the organisation’s job-promotion policy along with other career information is accessible to anyone” that needs such information for individual career planning.

The comments were featured in the paper “Hospitality employees’ unrealistic optimism in promotion perception: myth or reality?”, published last year in the Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality and Tourism.

The paper was based on a questionnaire answered by 548 hospitality workers in Macau. It adopted a wide definition of hospitality: most of the respondents reported working in retailing. Other respondents worked in either gaming and casinos, hotels and resorts, food and beverage services, or travel agencies and tour companies. “Because these businesses work together to support the proper functioning of Macau’s larger tourism and hospitality industry, workers affiliated to these types of businesses are generally considered as hospitality workers,” the IFTM researchers explained.

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Modest experience, high expectations

The study results showed, according to Dr. Boyol Ngan and Dr. Vong, that there was “a general tendency among hospitality workers holding entry-level job positions to be optimistically biased about their promotion prospects”. The study did not find evidence of such optimism bias among people in mid-level management posts or above.

A “plausible explanation” was that “rank-and-file employees generally lack extensive work experience to fathom what it takes to be in senior positions and therefore to critically and realistically assess their readiness and suitability – vis-a-vis other colleagues – for additional duties and responsibilities,” the IFTM scholars wrote. “The inability to see beyond one’s blind spots causes some entry-level employees to think of job promotion as something that should come naturally.”

The researchers added: “Employees already holding senior positions are less inclined to have unrealistic promotion expectations. Most probably, these employees have accumulated sufficient work and life experience to recognise that there are many factors contributing to job promotion.”

More seasoned workers “may also see themselves as at the peak of their careers where further upward mobility seems unlikely, if not impossible”.

Dr. Boyol Ngan and Dr. Vong said that informing hospitality employees of the “time it normally takes for any promotion to happen” could be a useful way to manage staff expectations.

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Improving performance appraisal practices was another way suggested by the IFTM scholars to address the situation. Dr. Boyol Ngan and Dr. Vong said that, during their study, they had found a number of cases of staff with unrealistic job-promotion expectations linked to what the scholars labelled as “inadequate performance-appraisal procedure”. That included “infrequent performance appraisals and infrequent feedback sessions”.

The two authors advised hospitality businesses to conduct performance appraisals “more regularly”, while ensuring employees “receive sufficient and timely feedback” after each round of appraisal.

“When performance appraisal is used wisely it can help employees increase self-awareness” on performance and “develop realistic work/career goals,” the IFTM scholars wrote. A lack of, or “inadequate”, performance appraisal, “deprives employees of access to information necessary to make realistic assessments of their work performance,” they added.

The study also concluded that “employees with overly-optimistic expectations about job promotion demonstrated less desire to remain” with their current employer. “A plausible explanation for this finding is that optimistically-biased employees may overestimate their work performance,” said the IFTM researchers. “This false sense of competence, coupled with overconfidence, may entice them into thinking they would be equally successful in their careers with other companies.”

Another finding of the study was that “optimistically-biased employees” exhibited lower levels of job satisfaction. “One can always argue that it is not easy for any person find pleasure in the process of waiting for something dear to happen, particularly if it takes them more time than they think necessary,” Dr. Boyol Ngan and Dr. Vong suggested.


– The researchers

Dr. Henrique Fátima Boyol Ngan is an assistant professor at the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies. He specialises in psychology. He holds a Ph.D. in that field from Macau’s University of Saint Joseph. Prior to joining IFTM, Dr. Boyol Ngan worked on projects related to training and organisational culture in the gaming industry.

Dr. Louis Vong Tze Ngai is an assistant professor at IFTM. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong. Dr. Vong has been a faculty member of IFTM for more than 20 years and teaches courses related to human resources management and organisational behaviour.


– The paper

Henrique Fátima Boyol Ngan and Louis Tze-Ngai Vong: “Hospitality employees’ unrealistic optimism in promotion perception: myth or reality?”, Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality and Tourism, Volume 18, Issue 2, pages 172-193, 2019.

https://doi.org/10.1080/15332845.2019.1558480