Across my half-decade career in career counseling and jobseeker marketing I’ve seen these maneuvers in motion, and the same proven principles that have helped me slug through my own battles will help you spar through yours.
This is what you’ve been waiting for.
You worked hard. You put in the hours. You shook all the right hands at all the right parties. At last – at long last – you’re getting that promotion. As your boss calls you into their office they have you close the door and take a seat. They seem a little somber, but hey – that’s just them observing the solemnity of the moment, right?
Then they say it.
They’ve given it to someone else.
Getting passed over for a promotion is uniquely painful form of rejection. Opportunities to move up don’t come along every day, and depending on your situation, losing a promotion might mean it’ll be months – perhaps even years – before you get another chance. It doesn’t help that you’ve already probably poured time, effort, and ingenuity into building yourself into the perfect candidate, only to get told that it wasn’t good enough – that you weren’t good enough.
So what do you do?
Do you turn that bottle of celebration whiskey into a consolation prize? Do you lie awake through the sleepless hours of the night, trying to convince yourself you never wanted to the promotion in the first place? Do you secretly set into motion a decade-long scheme of diabolical revenge, starting with shoving expired tins of sardines into your boss’s AC vents?
Okay – maybe not that last one.
Regardless of how you process the disappointment (and you do need to process it), you’re going to need to get back up, dust yourself off, and commit to a course of action. The bad news is that you didn’t get what you wanted. The good news is that you still have options.
And this is probably not what you want to hear.
“Try again? I just flushed weeks – months – of my life down the drain going after this thing! You’re telling me to just ‘try again’?”
Not at all.
This is not (I repeat, not) a call to throw yourself blindly back into the same pattern. Insanity, the old saying goes, is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. What you need to do is come at this with a plan, and it starts with finding out where things went wrong.
Granted, this probably isn’t what you wanted to hear, either. Rehashing the process is going to be painful. Nobody likes revisiting their failures, but it will always be a better course of action than changing up your approach and trusting to blind chance.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to rely on your supervisor here. It might not happen exactly when they deliver the bad news, but shortly after they should have the decency to give it to you straight. “You didn't get the position because you lack experience.” “You didn’t get the promotion because you're needed where you are.” “You didn’t get the promotion because you started a gerbil-fighting ring in the break room.”
This isn’t a perfect world. The fact of the matter is that you can’t always count on someone explaining just why you didn’t make the cut. Delivering bad news is tough, and even seasoned supervisors may still feel uncomfortable breaking down your faults and shortcomings while you're seated right across from them. Nevertheless, you can’t allow their kind intentions to keep you from discovering where things went wrong. Be ready to take them to task over it. Politely (but persistently) get them to articulate exactly what qualities and skills you’re missing. You may need to help them along, directly telling them, “Look – I understand this is awkward for both of us, but I need to know how I should be improving myself.” Conduct yourself with stern-but-courteous directness, and you’re likely to get it right back.
It’s only when you have the facts laid out that you can start to effectively strategize.
Confront your supervisor with a concrete plan to make up for those weak areas. Looking for more experience? Plenty of supervisors are more than happy to delegate duties (albeit, piece by piece) and free up time for themselves. Need a broader grasp of the company? See about getting cross-trained – other departments are always happy to have a backup guy waiting in the wings.
Regardless of what shape your plan takes, it’s going to be critical that you involve your manager from day one. Make them understand that this is you taking direct steps to address whatever deficiencies they believe you have. Don't try to take on a host of duties and then approach management after the fact. The element of surprise is more likely to feel like an ambush or manipulation, rather than a fair and honest arrangement.
This might seem daunting, but keep in mind that it is far faster, cheaper, and easier for a company to promote from within than to take the time (and risk) of hiring someone on the outside. Most employers will gladly cultivate talent from inside their own teams, but you do need to make it clear it's something that you want.
Unless, of course, it isn't.
There's a solution for that as well.
Forget The Promotion – Take What You Want
Chances are that you’ve been taught, pretty much since birth, to think of promotions as inherently good things. If you’ve lived almost anywhere in the modern world, you’ve likely been bombarded from every angle with a persistent myth: That every guy out there is always chasing that elusive, ambiguous promotion – something that will immediately and magically translate into respect, confidence, authority, and money.
That image needs to go.
Forget society’s formula. Ask yourself what you want. Do you really want to sink more hours into a job that may or may not have anything to do with your passions and beliefs? Is managing a small chain of stores specializing in Halloween costumes for pets worth the extra twenty-plus hours of your existence you'll put in? If it is, great – but don't buy into the notion that you need to constantly crush your fellow man to chase something you never wanted to begin with.
This isn’t an excuse for defeatism or a call for you to get off the grid and live in a cabin in the Rockies (but hey, you do you) – it’s an invitation to think outside the box. Step back for a moment and ask yourself what it was about the promotion that you were most looking forward to. Flexibility in your hours? The chance to travel? The ability to get some experience you'll be able to leverage into a position elsewhere? These are things which we can pursue outside of the traditional method.
The proper term for this technique is “expanding the pie” – a negotiation term for treating the scenario as win-win, rather than zero-sum. Used properly, it can produce incredible results.
Consider the following example. If the main attraction of a promotion was the jet-setting life that came with it, you might approach your boss and say:
“I understand that I’m not getting the promotion, but I believe that my skills in public speaking are the best in the office. I know I’d be great giving updates at corporate, and that’d let [insert name of the person who beat you here] focus on running things here. Plus, I know [person who beat you] probably doesn’t want to trek all across the country when they’ve got their family here. I’d definitely have the flexibility. Given how much I’ve developed over the last couple years, I think that’s pretty reasonable.”
Here you’re presenting a scenario where everyone can benefit. You get to travel, your (former) competition gets to spend time with his family, and your employer gets a manager who can concentrate on where they are while making best use of your own talents. (And it definitely doesn’t hurt that your boss may feel obligated to throw you a bone after turning you down for advancement.)
Will this always produce results? The harsh answer is no, not always. Even the most creative proposals don’t always land, and even the most willing bosses sometimes have their hands tied by red tape.
But while every company has their rules and regulations, you will surprise yourself with how much flexibility you can find when you start to push. Maybe you won’t get to take on all your competitor’s travel duties, but you may get selected to accompany him for some of the major trips. That right there is a foothold, and it’s definitely more than you would have walked away with if you approached the promotion with an all-or-nothing mentality.
You can’t always get what you want. You can still carve out a damn decent chunk.
But what if that's not enough? It might just be time to…
Pack Up – Move On
As difficult as it might be, it is something you’ll have to consider.
The brutal reality is that office politics decide who advances and who doesn’t just as much as performance reviews do. Sure, it’s possible that you lost the position to someone more qualified. It’s also possible that you’re not being given a fair chance, or that you’re seen as a threat to the status quo, or that you vaguely remind your boss of a mysterious, crime-solving vigilante who seduced his college sweetheart thirty years ago.
There is a time and a place to be stoic. This isn’t it.
Let’s get one thing straight: You don’t owe your employer anything. To hell with anyone who says that you do. The side effects of the economic ups and downs that our generation has lived through in the last 20 years is proof of that.
You’re the one committing your brains, your will, and the majority of your waking hours (year after year) to the success of a company. If that company isn’t going to appreciate that – if it can’t fairly compensate you for that – then there’s no earthly reason for you to stay there.
It sounds simple. But for Millennials, it can be a particularly tough tie to sever.
Most of us came of age in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It was hard enough to get our first positions, and in spite of our reputation as job-hoppers, the honest truth is that plenty of us would love the stability of a long-term job – especially with our forties approaching at a greater clip. We're still fighting the (completely unfounded) stereotypes of being lazy ingrates expecting immediate satisfaction and constant affirmation. Don’t let yourself get guilted by your boss, by your coworkers, or (most critically) yourself into staying someplace where your growth isn’t being respected, just to prove the image wrong.
You do not need to be the sucker who sinks forty years of his life into a company that grinds the life out of him and kicks him to the curb the minute he can be replaced. You do not need to be guilted for looking out for your own best interest.
What you need to be is smarter.
Here’s where your exit strategy should come into play. Although everyone’s plan will be different, they should all abide by these three core principles:
1. Don’t Burn Bridges
As justified as you might be, do not strut into the manager’s office, slap them across the face with your resignation letter, and call management a bunch of blood-sucking bastards. Nothing in life is ever certain, and having a trusty fallback position can keep you from getting marooned in a position that turns out to be even worse.
On a similar note, make sure you time things properly. Two weeks’ notice is generally considered good etiquette, and you should avoid irritating your boss (who might be called by future employers for reference) by leaving them hanging in the middle of a crisis.
2. Hang On Until You Can’t
Unless your position is truly unbearable, it’s best to hang onto the job you have until you have another actually lined up. A bad wage is still more than no wage, and ideally, you’ll have enough saved to keep you afloat should things fall through. But what this does mean is committing to defining a plan for finding something new.
3. Resign In Person
Whenever possible, deliver the news yourself. Your directness will be appreciated and you’ll potentially be in a position to respond to any questions or counter-offers the employer might make (more on that in a second). Get to the point without being blunt or abrupt, and whatever you do, make sure you sandwich the bad news between two earnest compliments. Something along the lines of:
“I want to let you know how much I’ve appreciated the chance to grow here over the past couple of years, but I think it’s time for me to move on…
[insert succinct summary here]
…I want to say again how grateful I am for everything I’ve learned here and for the chances I’ve been given. Thank you again.”
A gentle but firm explanation can do a lot to take the sting out of bad news. After all, even the most ruthless of corporate overlords can have their feelings hurt by the news that you’re leaving.
If your office is remote now, a face-to-face Zoom meeting is warranted. It will be good to have a letter prepared as well. Besides helping make things official, a letter of resignation can also help you articulate your thoughts.
4. Offer An Ultimatum
While it’s possible that your boss will burst into tears and beg you to say, the smart move is to walk into their office with an offer already in mind. This is, after all, the very reason you’re citing the reasons you’re moving on – not to rip on your employer, but to give them one last chance to fix things. Even if things can’t be mended, it at least gives them the opportunity to feel included in the decision.
Again, you’ll have to ask yourself: what are the absolute essentials that you’re looking for? What would they have to deliver that would make your present position (sans promotion) worth sticking around for? Understand that there can’t be any haggling here – this has got to be your bare minimum. If they can’t match it, then there’s nothing to be done.
It’s as simple as that.
You can’t always advance.
You always have to move forward.
Read more from Gordon: