Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Got Passed Up for Promotion - Now What?

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail question from one of my readers. The reader felt that she was unjustly passed up for promotion, and was wondering what her next steps should be. Here is the full, unedited text of the e-mail:

"First of all, I just want to say that I really love your blog and the topics that you talk about, your posts are always very practical and applicable.From your blog I know that you are in management and I was wondering if you might be able to give me some insights on a situation at my company.

I am an engineer in my 20s at a company with recent layoffs. After the layoffs, all but one of the senior engineers within my group were laid off. This made me the person with the longest tenure at the company within my group. At this time, our direct manager also resigned from the company.

During goal setting discussions with management, I have been consistently told that I was the best engineer on the team. There are metrics to back this up. I also received a company award for outstanding performance from management. During the performance review we had around May, I also received the highest performance rating number. So it really surprised me when two individuals from my group were recently promoted to senior engineer over me. I have longer tenure at the company than they do, perform better on all levels, and actually know more about the company's processes etc. It is not even strange for these individuals to ask me questions on how to do things during the course of the job week. One is probably in the late 30s and the other is in the 20s.

I thought that promotion was the reward for performance but I'm starting to smell a rat here...so to speak. My performance is documented and it definitely exceeds theirs, so could it be that I am being passed over based on my race, age or gender? Do you think that it would be reasonable for me to go to our group Vice President to inquire what was the criteria for these promotions and why was I not considered given my performance etc? Thanks for your time."

Interesting situation. I responded to the reader directly shortly after receiving her e-mail, but I think that my answer may be of general interest to my readers. Here is what I suggested:

"Thank you for the e-mail and for the kind words.

I understand from your e-mail that you are concerned that you may have been discriminated against. There is really no way for me to know whether this is the case, however, if your assessment of your performance and of the performance level, experience and skill sets of the engineers that were promoted is correct, it seems that you may have a reasonable basis for concern. I have a few of suggestions:

1. Understand the risks - generally speaking, if your company suspects that you may looking into possible grounds for discrimination based legal action, it will immediately re-trench and develop a story to cover itself from a legal perspective. This might go as far as creating documentation to show that you were not an appropriate candidate for promotion, or worse.

2. Understand the remedy you want - what do you expect to gain by bringing up your suspicions in discussions with the VP? Is there a possibility that you too will now be promoted to Senior Engineer? Or is the discussion purely academic? I would suggest figuring out what you are asking management to do, before you initiate any discussions. Ask yourself whether this is a realistic remedy to ask for. Is this something that the company can reasonably give you?

3. Look to the Future - getting passed up for promotion is tough. It really hurts your motivation and impacts your self image. Believe me, I know, I have been there. Having said this, it is rare that companies will reverse such promotion decisions after they have been made. In my experience, the way to address promotion issues is long before a decision is made. For example: when my boss moved to a new position two years ago, I walked into his boss' office and made it abundantly clear that I considered myself his obvious replacement. I was ready with all the relevant support for my statements, including my performance reviews but also a list of successful projects, a list of my accomplishments and so forth. It is not clear to me from your e-mail whether you were proactive about seeking the promotion, or whether you were assuming that it would happen based on the really good feedback you were getting from management. In any case, the aggressive, proactive approach often works best in these matters.

4. Alternatives - if you genuinely feel that you were discriminated against, consider whether you would like to take legal action. If this is indeed the case, I also suggest you consider whether a company that discriminates against its employees is a good employer to work for in the long term. Whatever you decide, do not look back. The worst trap you can fall into is self pity or bitterness. Either of those would essentially derail your career.

Looking forward, my advice to you is this: go to your VP. Speak with him or her and be very candid about your disappointment at the fact that you were not chosen for promotion. Do not speak ill of your fellow employees that were promoted, simply make the positive case for yourself. Solicit constructive feedback from the VP, ask why management did not select you for the promotion, and what you can do to take your performance to the next level. Managers truly appreciate employees that solicit feedback and that are genuinely interested in getting better. Maybe you will find that management had some sort of valid reason for their decision, who knows? Keep an open mind.

Next, tell the VP that while you understand and respect the decision that was made you consider yourself a worthy candidate for promotion and expect to be on the short list next time. A clear declaration of intentions - without ultimatums - would serve your purpose best. From your e-mail, I am unable to tell how big your company is, but if it is large, you may also want see if you can find another suitable position within the company."

Can you suggest other ways to deal with the situation? Would you have answered the question in a different way? What would you have done under similar circumstances?

As you can tell, I am always happy to receive e-mail questions from my readers. Please keep them coming. If you would like your anonymity maintained when I answer your questions on this blog, or if you prefer to receive a private e-mail answer, I am glad to do either or both.


plonkee said...

I think your response is excellent. I would reiterate that in those circumstances you need to be clear and realistic in your expectations. I'd also add that if you can't get over it and end up with a positive outlook, you should think about looking for a new job.

Patrick said...

Excellent response. The layoffs at her company may have factored into the equation... But there is no way for us to know.

Another consideration is the health of her company with so many layoffs and obvious restructuring.

MizD said...

While I find your advice to be helpful, I am wondering what you what say in the case of an office that employs only 2 to 3 people. Recently, one of my supervisors was fired and since then they have been looking for someone to replace her. I have been vying for the job since I was pretty much next in line. I have been working my butt off and coming in early and really just going the extra mile in all aspects. I have had one sick day since last November. My employer told me that he had no obligation to promote me, and that he wouldn't count on me for the position anyways, because I have far too many "health problems". The girl that they hired for the position has ZERO experience. I should mention that, previous to November I was on disabliity for two months, due to major surgery that was needed. Prior to my surgery, I had missed a lot of work because the doctors didn't know what was wrong with me. Since the problem has been fixed, I have only missed one day of work, like I said.

I receive 7 personal days per year which count towards vacation and sick time. I have taken my vacation allotted for the year and my employer told me that he was concerned that it was only June, and I had no days left. He also told me that my attendance had not changed at all, that "no one else here has health problems the way you have health problems". I told him that I was very confused because to the best of my knowledge, I had improved greatly. He told me that then he should be concerned because "as far as he's concerned, nothing has changed and it worries me that you think it has".

I asked him if we could go over my attendance and performance in a meeting and was told that there was nothing to go over, and that if I didn't like it, I could quit.

Please tell me what you think in this situation.

Thank You

Anonymous said...

The advice is sound but it may not be the smartest approach. I don't believe you can fix your "perception" any longer within that group/company. They've already passed you up for promotion once and this trend will most likely continue – yes, it’s possible to reverse it but very unlikely. The old adage “Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!” is somewhat applicable and you may want to look for a position at another company that values your contribution right from the start. If you stay there for a few years and they treat you unjustly, you might eventually need therapy (don’t take this as a joke) and you may also “waste” the formative years of your career. I also feel that if you’re really good at what you do as you claim, you may have trapped yourself. I’ve observed that people who are better than others at what they do are often passed up for promotion. Management’s thinking behind this is very practical “Why should I take my best person and make him/her a manager? Who’s going to do the work?” The people who do get promoted within corporations are usually people who interact well with management and often develop those skills simply because they’re mediocre or plain bad at what they do. Also, the people who are good get assigned not just more work but more challenging work and over time become disgruntled by the inequity of workloads. As a result, they have less time to “schmooze” with management and feel that their hard work speaks for itself and tend to be less “proactive” about their promotions – managers all suffer from memory loss and need to be constantly reminded of contributions! It’s also not uncommon that they also start feeling that they don’t have to “kiss up” as much and to start projecting an aura of superiority. It’s also important to realize that most managers were bad themselves at what they did so it would be foolish to expect him/her to promote you for your hard work. I know you’re disappointed and I don’t want to shatter your impression of meritocracy in our system but it’s a flawed system and the sooner you realize that the better off you’ll be. My advice to you at your current company would be “Less work and more documented results and more interaction”! Every business is about people and the only people you need to please at your workplace are your managers – delivering quality work is a distant secondary goal.