Why didn't I get a promotion?

Aside from “I quit”, the worst thing a manager can hear from someone on their team is: “Why didn’t I get a promotion?”
This is something I’ve run into a few times in my management career, and it’s always a tough one to explain. It’s a tough one for someone to understand (notably if you’re the one asking why you weren’t promoted). That one question exposes all sorts of issues, not the least of which are communication, transparency, process, skill, value/worth, responsibility, and objectivity.
The problem, as a manager, is that you have a decidedly different view on these things than your employee. It’s a point of view that you’ve learned over years of managing, often going through the same pains that you’re now seeing from someone else. You’d think it would be easier to explain.  
You’d think that, right?  
Sadly, it doesn’t. There’s no way to account for the different ways people think. And whatever reasons you have will not resonate with them. Even if you could tell them the exact reasons why there was no promotion (which you can’t always do), those are your reasons — not their’s.  
I’ve run into this scenario a few times. First as a developer myself, back when I started at the bottom. I didn’t understand what took so long for me to get to the next level. Every time there was a round of promotions, I felt like I was being left behind. I even argued my way into a promotion (sort of) when I debated a decision to hire from outside when I saw perfectly valid candidates in the company (I hadn’t even be arguing for myself ).  I got what I wanted, and an internal person was promoted — me. Along with a good dressing-down for my behaviour and disrespect (and rightfully so).
I also watched as a co-worker while others were passed over for (what appeared to be) unknown reasons. While not directly connected, I sometimes found it really hard to comprehend the reasons why a promotion wasn’t being given.  
When the day came that I had to tell someone else why they weren’t being promoted, I suddenly began to understand. It wasn’t so much an epiphany so much as it was a moment to see the remainder of the picture I’d struggled so long to see. While I still didn’t have access to the full set of details, there was more than enough information — and history through experience — that taught me what I needed to know.  
For me, a promotion is not a title. A promotion is a change in role. It’s addition of responsibility and additional tasks and duties that are bestowed upon the newly-promoted individual. Their job changes, and they need to start showing more leadership towards others than they had before. (Mind you, in most cases, they already act as that next level, and the promotion recognises those abilities.)  
My mentor, Allard Losier, helped me come to understand what goes into a successful promotion, and those points are absolutely critical to ensuring a good promotion path not just for the person, but for the team as a whole. And it really boils down to two words:
Appropriateness and  Availability.  
To promote someone, thus giving them more responsibility, they need to be the right person for the job. That means you need to trust them to handle the work you’re about to give them. (Would you promote someone you didn’t trust to do the job?) You need to know that they’ll not just do the job, but back you up as their manager, and ensure that the team is supported. That means an ability to lead, to work well with others, to communicate clearly and effectively, to teach their skills to others, and to accept responsibility when things don’t go according to plan.  
And even if they’re the right person, you need a place to put them. Promoting someone without an available position for them to fill conveys absolutely no meaning. The title becomes pointless and their contribution to the team is minimised. I know companies that bestow titles like prizes in a box of Cracker Jacks. I’m glad I don’t work for them. Having a pointless title that doesn’t add to the holistic view of a team serves no actual purpose.  
Okay, sure, you can give a title as a reward, and I’ve seen that happen. But I’ll also argue that a promotion that misses one (or both) of Appropriateness and Availability is irresponsible. You do a disservice to the team by demonstrating that you don’t pay enough attention to their needs or care enough to put the right person in place. You also do a disservice to the person, since you’ve just set them up to do a job they might not even be prepared to handle — you’re setting them up to fail.  
And even these points, when explained in detail, will never account for disappointment. Everyone passed over for a promotion — real or perceived — will feel that sense of rejection. That they were somehow not good enough, or that you were unable to see a quality that made them ideal for a given role.  
It’s a hard thing to tell someone that they weren’t promoted. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to tell someone that it’s not their time. But being human, we expect more. Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. That way, you see what people are hoping for, how they think, and know whether or not they’re actually ready.  
So that one day, you can tell them differently.

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  1. Of course there is always that option to the employee asking “why didn’t I get promoted” in finding that other job elsewhere that includes that promotion – case in point 😉

  2. Oh, of course. Anyone who disagrees enough (either rightly or wrongly) will look elsewhere to get what they want. It can be a loss to the company if that happens, too. (Obviously, depends on that person’s value.)
    Sadly, that’s something the company will sometimes have to contend with. You don’t always have a choice, and those are the consequences.

  3. Great post, Geoff…
    – “Promoting someone without an available position for them to fill conveys absolutely no meaning. The title becomes pointless and their contribution to the team is minimised.”
    Have seen that too… very sad.

  4. Good point on the title issue. Good analysis overall.
    Titles are not only overblown in our world – they are also often misunderstood. Not only can a title be misleading and not really appropriate for the role but titles carry different meaning for different places within organizations and different functions across different organizations.
    For example, a manager in a retail shop / store is a different role from a corporate manager in a large multi-national organization but yet may not be so much different from a VP role in a a client facing role within a branch of the multi-national. Ambiguity at its best.
    All this to say that titles are just that. Words.
    What really matters in the organization is the power and authority to influence and make the necessary changes to drive the business forward and grow economic value for the organization. They can call you whatever they want. But do you have the ability to actually affect change in the organization?

  5. Hi guys so today I talked to the general manager regarding getting promoted. The interview was a month ago and today she told me that I was the best employee who interviewed and told me that I was the best candidate for the position but since I didn’t had a car she couldn’t promote me. She kept mentioning “reliable transportation”, when I have never been late to work and never called out. I work at a retail store and I have a bicicle. The ride is only 10mins from my apartment to the store. Please give me some advice because I feel like I am being discriminated when the job description doesn’t mention having a car or anything about transportation. I believe it all comes down to how responsible I am and how comitted I am to my job. PLEASE GIVE ME SOME ADVICES.

  6. Hey Ricky,
    That’s a doozy of a scenario. Sadly, based on what you’ve mentioned, it does sound like discrimination. However, I don’t know of any statutes that would defend you from it — “transportation” does seem a bit odd.
    Here’s a thought — why not ask how she defines “reliable transportation”. And “a car” isn’t enough — what makes a car more reliable than a bike? (I ride, too — at least in the summer — so I totally see where you’re coming from.)
    Frankly, this could be a case of favouritism … and not in your favour.
    If it matters that much to you, could you consider moving to a competitor? Retail tends to be more flexible than desk jobs.

  7. I have an interesting scenerio for you that I’m really unsure as how to approach. I’ve been with my company for a year and a half. First off, I came into the company being promoted so that was a great step in my career. In my tenure with the company my boss has put all types of additional projects on my plate I’ve received high regards for the work that I put into them, in addition, while working on these projects I still excelled in my every day responsibilites. I have also been assigned as a “mentor” to the rest of my team who have been with the company for 2 to 5 years longer than I have. I cover for my boss when he is on vacation and I received an “exceeds expectations” on my last review. Within the last two months my boss has approached me and spoke of a promotional position that would be coming up. My boss stated that not only did he think I was qualified for it, but it was recommended by his boss that I should get it too. So for two months I’ve been getting asked strange questions such as, are you relocatable?, can you travel?, etc. I’ve answered yes to every one of these questions. Now , keep in mind not once have I asked for a promotion, they just keep feeding me this information and asking these random questions. Well come to find out, I didn’t get promoted, yet I’ve had additional responsibilites put upon me with everything else. And the thing that bothers me is, they’ve spent all of this time asking me these questions and eluding the possibility of a promotion, but when I don’t get it they didn’t say anything. It almost seems that they think I’ll forget all about it. I don’t understand where I went wrong. I “played the game”, displayed my flexibility, did my work, and expressed a lot of gratitude and interest in a promotion. I feel like I’ve signed on to another one of those companies that likes to “dangle the carrot”. How should I approach this?

  8. Hey Steven,
    Far be it for me to become a career counsellor (goodness knows I’ve made a few doozy mistakes in my day), but I’m thinking there’s likely a reason for this.
    I’d ask to have a chat with your boss, casual, and inquire about all the notes about promotion, and the questions about relocation and so forth. See if the company is/was interested in moving you into bigger responsibility, and what the company sees as your long-term growth.
    Was anyone else promoted? It could simply be that they were looking at options and while you might be really good at what you do, someone else might have been more appropriate for their needs. (That doesn’t necessarily mean *better* than you, just that they were easier to move.)
    If you come out of that meeting with the “carrot dangle” feeling, you might even want to consider moving on to another company, if that’s an option for you. It’s not something you necessarily want to consider, but remember that this is your career — not the company’s — and the only one who can defend it is you.

  9. can you answer why experience people where given promotion than a fresher from a good management collage with number of qualification.

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