Ask LH: What Should I Do If I’ve Been Passed Over For A Promotion?

Ask LH: What Should I Do If I’ve Been Passed Over For A Promotion?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve been in my job for a long time now, I’m good at what I do, and I get great reviews from my boss and my coworkers, so when a senior-level opening appeared in our group, I figured I would get it when our boss picked the person for the job. He picked someone else, and I’m kind of angry about it. Should I be? Should I take this as a message and quit? How should I react? Sincerely, Ruffled Feathers

Picture by Leremy (Shutterstock), Rachael Arnott (Shutterstock), Lara Schneider, Katy Warner, Blend Images (Shutterstock), Robert Sheie

Dear Ruffled Feathers,

Being passed over for a promotion that you think you deserve is tough. It’s completely normal to be angry about it, especially if you’re in a position where you’ve been there the longest or you already have some informal seniority on your team. That said, how you react and whether or not it’s justified is another story. Let’s break down why this might have happened and what your best course of action should be.

It’s OK to Be Angry, Just Watch How You React Openly

Ask LH: What Should I Do If I’ve Been Passed Over For A Promotion?

First things first: It’s OK to be angry and upset, especially if you know you deserved the job. Vent about it to someone you trust — preferably someone you don’t work with (you don’t want your venting to come around to bite you out of context), such as a mentor or someone else in your professional network who can offer you genuine feedback.

After you have that conversation, hang your ego on the hook with your coat and go back to work as normal. There’s nothing for you to gain by moping around the office or being snarky with your colleagues — or the boss who passed you over. They probably already figured you would be upset when they made their decision. Don’t give them a reason to single you out or to think that they were right all along. No one likes an office whiner.

Not All Promotions are Good Things

Ask LH: What Should I Do If I’ve Been Passed Over For A Promotion?

Even though promotions at work are associated with higher pay and better career standing, not every promotion is a good thing. Being passed over could have been a blessing in disguise. For example, not every great engineer is destined to be a manager of engineers, nor would that be a good use of their skills. One thing I struggled with when I managed people was the idea that because someone is good at a thing doesn’t necessarily make them good at managing people who do it — it just makes them good at doing the thing they know all about. It also doesn’t necessarily make them a good leader.

Of course, a person’s career goals should be taken into account before deciding to promote them, along with what’s best for the team. People often forget that managing people is more than just being “the boss” and directing people’s work. You also have to care for their career goals, their growth, and spend time dealing with people and issues that may take you away from the actual job you used to be so good at doing.

Consider the car salesman who rakes in sales and has a good rapport with customers. He loves what he does, and he makes great money. He does so well he’s promoted to floor manager, and now he’s behind a desk approving financing requests, sending back counter-proposals to floor salesmen, and generally being miserable. He’s likely to stumble professionally, because he’s doing something he doesn’t enjoy and isn’t good at. Think about whether the job you were passed over actually fits with your career goals, or whether you wanted it because it represents seniority (or just more money.) If that’s confusing, think about why Captain Kirk never wanted to be an Admiral and you’ll understand.

Talk To Your Boss, Openly and Honestly

Ask LH: What Should I Do If I’ve Been Passed Over For A Promotion?

If you have a good relationship with your boss, just ask them about their decision. Don’t approach it like “Why did [Joe] get the [Senior Basketweaver] position instead of me”, ask “I had hoped I’d be considered for the [Senior Basketweaver] opening. Is there a specific reason I was passed over for the job?” Ultimately, you want to know what your boss’s rationale for the decision was, in terms that matter to you, not to the other person. You’re looking for feedback you can grow from, and you don’t want to come off vindictive and jealous, as if you’re questioning their decision. Of course, you are, but you’re doing it diplomatically, and that makes all the difference.

Depending on what your boss says, you’ll learn a lot about where you stand. If they give you a bunch of wishy-washy answers, maybe there’s something else at play. Listen closely and read between the lines. If they’re clear, they should let you know that it came down to experience, seniority, tenure or something else. Maybe they need you in the role you’re in because you’re just too good at it (again, a blessing or a curse), or because they just don’t think you’d thrive in the senior position because of what it entails. Whatever their reason, try not to take it personally and think critically about it. Besides, if what you really wanted was seniority or more money, it’s possible those things are available without taking a new job — you can always negotiate for more money or other worthwhile perks.

If You’re Still Angry, Update Your Resume and Start Looking

Ask LH: What Should I Do If I’ve Been Passed Over For A Promotion?

If the answers you get from your boss don’t help, or you’re getting the impression that you’re stuck in your current role with nowhere to go, it might be time to update your resume and look for somewhere with more opportunity for growth. After all, saying that you’re “looking for somewhere you can grow” or “a job with new and interesting challenges” is a common and generally well-accepted response when you’re asked why you’re leaving your current job in an interview. Plus, if you’re not on particularly bad terms with your boss, they will probably know and understand that if you’re going to be pigeonholed in your current role, you’ll probably look elsewhere for career growth.

That said, don’t burn your bridges before you’ve found something new. There’s no reason to tell your employer that you’re looking for something else just because you didn’t get the promotion, and don’t just lash out and tell potential employers that you want to quit because of the promotion issue. It won’t do you any favours on either end. However, it’s good to have your options open, and it really might be time to move on. Just do it with both eyes open, not simply as a response to being passed over.

Of course, we’re offering this advice assuming that you were passed over for a promotion you deserved, in favour of an equally deserving person, and we’re not assuming malice or other unfair or preferential behaviour on the part of your employer. If you think that something untoward is at play here, you have other options, starting with a discussion with your internal HR department. But if you think something like that is happening, like you’ve been passed over for the boss’s nephew or a former intern is now your boss, it might be easier to just leave and look for work elsewhere.

We hope that helps you out a bit, Ruffled Feathers. Sorry to hear you didn’t get the promotion, but make sure it’s not a blessing in disguise — and even if it’s not, it may be a great time to polish up your resume and find something better.


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