What To Do When You're Passed Over for a Promotion
By Arlene S. Hirsch
Career ladders have largely disappeared in organizational life. Paths upward
are clogged and promotions no longer automatically guaranteed. The result:
stalled careers and disillusioned employees.
To put your career on an upward trajectory, you need to learn how to make the
most of each situation. This includes knowing what to do when you get passed
over for a promotion.
In a perfect work world, office politics don't exist, no one ever makes
mistakes, and everyone who performs their job properly gets promoted. But the
reality is that competence often takes a back seat to office politics,
personality conflicts influence decisions, and the best person for a job isn't
always the one who gets it.
The Role of Office Politics
A 28-year-old social worker in Chicago admits she had underestimated the
importance of office politics before she encountered "the boss from hell."
Despite the fact that she was admired and respected by many of her colleagues,
co-workers and clients, she got passed over for a promotion she believed she
deserved in favor of an outsider who knew nothing about the agency. While the
newcomer had no social work experience, shehad management skills that
the social worker lacked.
Career counselor Janet Scarborough, founder of Bridgeway Career Development
in Seattle, believes that individuals often underestimate the importance of
organizational politics while overestimating the role of skills and
accomplishments. "When you get passed over for a promotion," she says, "you need
to ask yourself: 'Have I paid enough attention to the organizational structure?'
Get comfortable with the idea that the interpersonal component matters." In
other words, if you shun office politics, don't be surprised if you get passed
over for promotions. People who are good at office politics are good at building
relationships in organizations.
For the Chicago social worker, the first task was sorting out the personal
disappointment from the professional ramifications. While she could see the
value of hiring someone with management experience, she resented what she saw as
the devaluation of her social-work experience. She also suspected that her
personality clash with her boss hadn't helped her situation. She was even less
sure about whether she'd be able to respect and work with this new manager whose
style was so different from hers.
From the other side, her boss worried that the social worker might try to
undermine the new manager's authority instead of providing valuable input and
expertise. If she wanted to keep her job, she needed to focus on forging a
strong relationship with this new manager. This meant setting aside her personal
feelings and acting professionally. Still, it wasn't easy for her to continue
working in a place where she felt she had no future.
Not getting promoted turned out to be a key to forcing her to re-evaluate her
priorities and make necessary changes. When she was able to place the lost
promotion in perspective, she realized that, despite her ambition to be
promoted, she didn't want to be a manager. She really wanted to become a
It Can Feel Personal
Getting passed over for a promotion is almost always painful because the
rejection feels so personal. But it may not be a reflection on your abilities at
all. That's why it's important to get all the facts before you jump to
conclusions. A 35-year-old marketing manager in New York City figured this out
after getting passed over for a promotion on three different occasions, despite
that, on paper, she was clearly the most qualified candidate for the job. The
manager couldn't understand why apparently less-competent people kept getting
promoted ahead of her, despite her outstanding achievement record with the
Because all the promotions had been given to less-qualified men, she felt she
had only two options: file a lawsuit for discrimination or start looking for
In such cases, proceed cautiously, says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical
psychologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland., who specializes in workplace issues. If you're a
member of a minority group who has been turned down repeatedly for promotions
despite stellar reviews and other kinds of formal recognition, it's natural to
wonder whether these rejections are based on discrimination, Dr. Friedman says.
But wondering is different than knowing. Before generating any hypotheses
about your boss's intentions, you should consider what other factors might be
hampering your efforts.
Your boss may have reasons that have nothing to do with
your minority status. For example, she may be more dependent on you than you
fully appreciate. She may, for her own reasons, be afraid to lose you. It's
important to learn more about why you have been turned down so that you can take
effective steps to rectify the situation, says Dr. Friedman.
Be Calm, Not Confrontational
It's hard to accomplish those goals when you're upset or angry. Dr.
Scarborough emphasizes the importance of staying calm during such discussions.
She says, "Take time to reflect on your situation before seeking feedback. Come
at the question from a positive place. Don't be confrontational.
Dr. Friedman agrees. "Deal with your feelings first, preferably with someone
outside the workplace, before you go to your boss. Figure out what you want the
outcome of the discussion to be, she says.
In the case of the marketing manager, this meant soliciting feedback about
what she needed to do get a promotion. She asked her manager to help identify
the skills and accomplishments she needed to position herself for the next
promotion and sought her manager's support as a mentor to help her to achieve
What she discovered surprised her. Rather than devaluing or discriminating
against her, the manager was actually grooming her to take over her own position
as soon as the manager was promoted. In the meantime, she wanted to keep the
marketing manager close to her so that she could continue to mentor her.
This opened the door for the marketing manager and her boss to discuss
learning and growth opportunities the company could offer her in lieu of a
promotion. Together they developed a career action plan that enabled the
marketing manager to continue to expand her skills, increase her
responsibilities and make more money even though she didn't receive a promotion
at that time.
Had the social worker had this discussion with her boss, she would have
learned that she needed more management and supervisory experience. She might
then have negotiated with her boss for more formal education and training. She
also might have been given day-to-day supervisory and management
responsibilities that would help her gain the hands-on experience she needed for
Is the Promotion a 'Good Fit'?
Regardless of the reason you're passed over for a promotion, the question of
"fit" almost always needs to be addressed. Often the position isn't really the
best fit -- either because you don't have the right qualifications or your
personality doesn't seem to match the particular situation.
In a perfect world, personalities wouldn't matter quite so much. But in the
real world of work, the people you work for and with can make all the difference
between success and failure.
Losing out on a promotion you wanted isn't the end of the world. It's not the
end of your career, either. "Really successful people use [rejection] as a
learning experience," says Dr. Scarborough. "They don't let it immobilize them.
They use it as an opportunity to develop and exhibit resilience."
The important thing is to get feedback and gain clarity, Dr. Friedman says.
Then, you can figure out what you need to do to change.
What's important is to learn from the experience and, in the process, take
the initiative to become more resilient, confident and self-directed.
So, if you don't get that job you wanted:
Take time to process your feelings, preferably with someone outside of the
In an objective, non=confrontational and supportive meeting with your
manager, solicit feedback to determine why you were passed over.
Determine what you're seeking: Do you want to expand your role, change
your job title; get a pay raise, receive professional training, or reapply for
Evaluate your future with the company based on the feedback you received.
Develop an action plan.
Click here to check out Dr. Lynn Friedman's new website, with more comprehensive information on work-life, psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.
-- Ms. Hirsch is the author of "How to Be Happy at Work" (Jist Publishing, September 2003). She's based in Chicago.