From the outset of our careers, we’re taught to climb the ladder. Work hard, meet the right people, hit your goals, and there will be a promotion at the end of it.
“We think promotions are generally a good thing, right?” asks Scott Dobroski, a career trends analyst at Glassdoor. “But there are many cases where promotions can be negative and even set people up for bad situations.”
Indeed, not all promotions are created equal, and a poorly executed status boost can be detrimental for the workplace and an individual employee. In a new study from Ohio State University, researchers observed a multi-billion-dollar high-tech organization headquartered in Tokyo. When the company suddenly announced it was making English its official language, native English-speaking employees found themselves unexpectedly and abruptly elevated to a higher status within the organization. “The language mandate . . . rendered English fluency a newly designated source of value,” the authors wrote.
According to Tsedal Neeley, associate professor at the Harvard Business School and the study’s coauthor, because the change was sudden and unexpected, it bred insecurity and doubt within the organization. The employees hadn’t earned their promotion, it was given to them. “There was a lot of rationalizing benefits, a lot of discomfort, and a lot of paranoia,” Neeley says. “And when you have anxiety or concern about anything in an organization, that’s never a good thing. You’re not stable, you’re focused on whether or not this will remain. It takes your eye away from mission and vision of work itself.”
Knee-jerk promotions actually happen quite frequently. “It’s one of the things we do poorly in the world of management,” says Ann Maynard, managing director of Maynard HR Consulting Inc. “But each and every promotion should be thought about and weighed and measured very carefully because the last thing you want is for someone to fail and you take the job away from them.”
A promotion that just falls from the sky can generate festering guilt and insecurity. Dobroski says the most successful companies have clear career-advancement structures in place that are accessible to the entire company, so the how and why of a promotion are never a mystery. “The days of ‘I feel you get a promotion’ are a little willy nilly,” he says. “The best way is when employees know exactly what they have to do to reach their goal. If someone is plucked from the herd without rhyme or reason, that’s when guilt can ensue and that indicates there isn’t structure in place that all employees are aware of for how people are selected and designated for promotions.”
But even if the promotion is done well, accepting it may not be the right move. How do you know if you should turn down a status boost at work? Here are a few red flags:
You don’t want to manage people.
Oftentimes a promotion comes with new responsibilities, specifically managing a group of junior employees. But not everyone is cut out for management, and that’s OK. “It’s very different being an employee than it is a supervisor or manager,” says Maynard. “You’re not only responsible for yourself, but for a group of people. That’s a daunting task to ask of anybody. Often we think because they’re a great individual contributor, they’re going to be a great manager. But that doesn’t always work and often they fail because nobody really sat down with them and went through the new responsibilities.”
You love your current job
If your role is fulfilling and you’re comfortable there, you don’t have to leave it behind. “Often they come to me and say, ‘I love my job,’” says Maynard. ”They don’t want to leave the role they’re in or people they work with or what’s in their span of control. That’s somebody who’s not ready to be promoted.”
The downside to remaining at your current level is the inevitable pay ceiling. “You have to think of the consequences,” says Dobroski. “If you’re doing the same thing year after year, that’s OK but if you ask for salary increase, you have to be prepared that it may not come because salary increases are often given with more responsibility.”
There’s a high turnover rate
Do your homework on the history of the role. A revolving door of predecessors can be indicative of problems like bad management and a general lack of support. If a lot of other people have vacated the job before you, you should be asking why.
Similarly, know the goals and incentives that come with the job. If none are directly stated, be wary. “If you have a role that’s just brand new and no one to report to, and there’s nothing in place for you to show traction or success, then you could be setting yourself up for a dead end,” says Dobroski.
There’s no pay increase
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not uncommon for employers to offer a new title and new responsibilities without the pay raise. “For some employees, that may be OK because they’re just excited by the job title and new duties,” Dobroski says. “But if another company tries to lure you away and they ask your current salary, you may be at disadvantage from that point on because then you’re playing catch up. You should not be thinking of this just in the short-term but consider the long-term ripple effect it can have on your career.”
If you know you shouldn’t take a promotion, stand up for yourself. Explain to your boss why you’re turning it down and where you think you can be more helpful in the company. “You want to give them reasons and tell them where you want to be so they have some idea of what your future goals are,” says Maynard. “I tell employees going through this process that the greatest voice is their own, so use it. And if you really think the job isn’t for you, follow your gut.”