Here at Fast Company, we write a lot about how to get promoted, when to ask for a promotion, and how to make a case for your promotion. But we also know promotions aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Though frequently framed as a positive—a rung up the career ladder!—a promotion can bring longer hours and management responsibilities. Sometimes, it can even take you away from the work that you actually want to do.
In other words, a promotion isn’t always the right move for your career or personal life. Three people told us why they regretted taking one, how it impacted their careers, and what they wish they had done differently.
I regretted my promotion because of workplace politics
About six months into a job at a major tech company, Jack Delk snagged a promotion to a senior talent acquisition role. It should have been cause for celebration, but four of his colleagues had jockeyed for the promotion, and they weren’t having any of it. “When I got [the promotion], I thought it was great—that everything would be smooth sailing from there on out,” he says. He expected friendly congratulations, but said that’s not what happened.
Instead, he found that his coworkers—some of whom then had to report to him—were very critical. It felt like being back in school again, he says. “Unfortunately, the corporate world mirrors high school more than we sometimes like to admit,” he says. “I think truthfully, it’s a popularity contest; it’s not always the person with the best ideas but it’s the person with the best delivery who wins.” Delk didn’t feel like he had been “anointed” as one of those people—someone his colleagues would have seen as deserving of the promotion.
He concedes any competitive work environment can stir resentment, but Delk felt his employer did little to mitigate the tension. “I think the person who got the promotion would have had a target on their back, regardless of it was me or one of my team members,” he says. Even the transition to the new role, Delk says, wasn’t smooth. “I thought, ‘This is a giant company, they must know what they’re doing,'” he says. “But I don’t think there was awareness on their side of how bad their team culture was to begin with.”
To successfully promote team members internally, Delk says, he felt the company needed to better prepare both the teams and the person getting promoted, as well as keep tabs on how things were progressing after the fact and collect feedback. “If it is somebody internal, talk with that person about what a transition is going to look like and what potential blowback might be,” he says.
Delk only stayed in the role for about eight months. Eventually, he retired and started a blog where he shares what he learned from years of working in recruiting and talent assessment. But in retrospect, he wishes he had asked more questions before accepting the promotion, especially about culture and the structure of the team. “I think all the warning signs were there, which said ‘Don’t do this,'” he says. “But I think it can be really easy to be blinded by that promotion.”
I regretted my promotion because the pay wasn’t worth the hours
As a staff pharmacist at a telepharmacy company, Michael Brown eventually wanted to become a trainer, which would also make him a salaried employee rather than an hourly one. After about a year—during which he spent 10 hours a week learning the ropes—Brown landed a position as a regional trainer. “I still remember that day,” he says. “I thought, ‘Finally, I got to where I wanted to be. This is going to be a great job.'”
His optimism was short-lived, however. Brown quickly realized the new role was far more demanding—that he was effectively expected to always be on call, even on days off or at night. He says he can remember a specific weekend where he was on his way to the beach with his daughter when he got a message from his boss’s boss saying that a person needed to be trained immediately.
“I had looked forward to having three days off for months,” he says. “And so I’m in the car, I’ve got my daughter, and she is reading messages to me as I’m driving. When we get to the beach, I spend the first two hours of my time trying to set up a training session with this person.” An hour later, he was told he needed to be in Chicago for work on an upcoming weekend and had to make the necessary reservations immediately. Unfortunately, Brown says, this weekend wasn’t an anomaly. “It was just a constant barrage of work, deadlines, get this done, get that done. And no matter what I did, they always had more.”
Brown was working several jobs at the time; some weeks, he found himself clocking close to 60 to 70 hours just in his training position. “I was working for a hospital and working four days a week in the evening,” he says. In total, he was working around 90 to 100 hours a week, though he certainly wasn’t getting paid accordingly. As a trainer, Brown was now salaried, but he found that his pay was only marginally more than what he was paid as an hourly employee with far fewer responsibilities. Plus, he was already getting benefits like insurance through his hospital job.
He still works a lot these days—but mostly for his own company. “I don’t mind putting the extra hours in because it ultimately benefits me, not another company,” he says. His experience as a trainer turned him off salaried jobs. “I would never take another job that was salaried again,” he says. “It’s in the company’s best interest to work you more, and you don’t necessarily benefit from that. I would rather stay hourly. [That job] helped me realize that if I’m going to put this much effort into something, I might as well be putting it into my own business.”
If anything good came of Brown’s promotion, it’s that the experience eventually led him to strike out on his own. “Being tethered to somebody else’s company is, to me, not worth the work-life balance at all,” he says. “And the successes are a lot more personal with your own business.”
I regretted my promotion because it took me away from what I wanted to do
At 25, Danielle Bayard Jackson was offered a job she didn’t think she could turn down. She had been working as a high school English teacher and got a call from another school asking her to be the department chair. “[It] meant I would oversee a team of 30 English teachers,” says Jackson, who was floored by the offer. She asked if she could take the weekend to think about it, but the school needed to know right away. “I kind of felt pressured to give an answer, and I thought, ‘well of course, I would be a fool not to [take it],'” she says.
Some of her friends in teaching warned her that the job would be a big commitment. “I would say the first six months was kind of a wake-up call,” she says. “I knew I would have to show up for other teachers, or offer guidance, or come early and stay late. I knew that intellectually, but I think I was unaware of it practically—how much it would affect me mentally and affect my work.”
As the department lead, she was still teaching classes, so she still had to prep for her own classes on top of her new responsibilities, which included reviewing teachers’ classrooms, discussing their students’ scores, or mediating parent-teacher conferences.
Like Brown, Jackson also found that the pay bump didn’t match the expectations of the job, but it wasn’t just that the job was hard and demanded long hours; it also took Jackson away from what she actually wanted to do: teaching. “When I did my plans for the next day or week, I felt like I couldn’t put as much creativity into it and really think it out because there were other things I had to do,” she says.
And because her role was coveted, Jackson didn’t think she could share her frustrations with colleagues. “I couldn’t commiserate with anyone even when I wanted to, even if I felt close to them, because everyone wants that position,” she says. “I’m not going to find sympathy in my subordinates.”
As a young woman of color, Jackson also felt like she had something to prove. “I think I was trying to compensate for being so young,” she says. “That mentally was a lot, too—trying to be perfect so nobody thought it was given to me or I wasn’t the right person for the role. And as a minority, I felt like I had to work twice as hard to show them I have the credentials to be there.”
After a year on the job, she told her principal she was overwhelmed by the workload and that it was affecting her own classroom. But he convinced her to stay on. “He said all the right things and told me how much they really needed me, and that I was already turning the department around,” she says. “How can I abandon that?”
She ended up staying in the position for a total of two years, and then left for a teaching job at another school. It felt like a step down, and Jackson worried that she had failed—but it was a job that would keep her in the classroom (at least for a few more years, before she switched gears to public relations). “I think that was my lesson in: Happiness doesn’t equal professional advancement,” she says. “You’re trained to think, ‘Get the promotion, and you’ll be happier and have more money.’ It’s just not true.”