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Should You Take That Promotion? Well, Maybe

A step up isn’t always a step in the right direction.

By Anna Goldfarb, Feb. 12, 2019

It’s an idea ingrained in the American approach to work: A promotion is an unconditional acknowledgment of your success and it’s a path to even more success. But what if that’s not the case? What if, contrary to our collective cultural outlook on workplace advancement, you don’t want a promotion that was offered to you?

Lauren Sieben, 29, eagerly accepted a promotion to the role of digital editor at a small Midwestern newspaper six years ago despite not having management experience. She was thrown into the position “with nary a ‘Management 101’ pep talk,” she said. Her lack of adequate training or support from higher-ups was immediately apparent: Changes she initiated were met with resistance from longtime employees, which made her feel ineffective and disrespected.

“When you consider that I was 23 years old and trying to convince people twice my age to change their ways, it didn’t go over well,” she said. Although she had planned to stay in the role for several years, the situation became untenable. She floundered for a year until she resigned and found a new job in another industry.

A lack of qualifications is just one of many reasons you might want to decline a promotion: The timing isn’t right; the new job comes with increased pressures and demands; longer work hours and travel commitments are required; you’re satisfied where you are and aren’t ready for a change; or maybe you just don’t want to be in management.

Yes, this does sound a bit counterintuitive. But carefully examining the particulars of a promotion is essential, as the offer might not be as attractive on closer inspection.

It’s wise to be cleareyed as you weigh your options, because the new gig might negatively impact your health if it’s not a good fit. Chronic work-related stress can cause high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, according to the American Psychological Association. It can also lead to burnout.

Before you accept the offer, here’s how to tell if a promotion is a smart step to take. Assess your goals If you don’t have specific objectives in mind — identifiable skills you want to sharpen, an idea of the direction you want your career to go — you’re not going to know if this promotion is going to get you to closer to those goals.

“When you’re not clear on your goal or what you’re trying to accomplish, then everything sounds good,” said Marsha Haygood, founder of StepWise Associates L.L.C., a career and personal-development consulting firm. It’s easy to be charmed by more money or prestige, but those rewards might not be in line with what you truly want out of your career. Ms. Haygood suggests using self-assessment tools (she likes Strengthsfinder) to figure out if the promotion plays to your talents. For example, if teaching children is your life’s passion but a promotion would eliminate teaching and anchor you to a desk, you probably wouldn’t enjoy that new role.

Vicki Salemi, a career expert for, recommends ranking the top three things you’re looking for in any position you take. Everyone’s priorities are different. For some, it could be proximity to home, the ability to engage in challenging work and maintaining a certain salary bracket. For others, flexible work hours, being on a cohesive team and access to mentors are priorities.

Do your due diligence Acquaint yourself with the circumstances surrounding your promotion. Ms. Salemi recommends investigating why the position is open and why management chose you to fill it. Look for red flags, such as whether the person previously in the role was fired, or if the department is undergoing a troubling reorganization. If there’s excessive turnover in the position, determine if you’re being set up for failure.

Inquire about the temperament of your new boss (if you’re getting one). Will this person be a valuable advocate or do they have a reputation for being difficult? Ask for a job description or overview of the role. If the supervisor giving you the promotion is vague at any point, take note. That might mean there isn’t a clear definition of the role’s responsibilities, which can create headaches once you start the job.

“You want to think about those things because it’s hard to go back once you’re promoted,” said Lori B. Rassas, a human resources consultant, employment attorney and author of “The Perpetual Paycheck. “It’s not like your job is going to be held for you if it doesn’t work out.”

It’s important to keep an open mind and think about the doors that might open if you take the job. You could contribute to an exciting project, break into an emerging industry or learn a new skill set, Ms. Rassas said. She counsels people not to be too rigid either way. Don’t automatically say yes, and don’t automatically turn it down. Step back, analyze the job offer and go from there.

It’s also crucial to ask the right questions as you evaluate the promotion. Ms. Haywood suggests asking, “What does success in this role look like?” — and learning the in-the-weeds details of the position.

“Research it like any other job offer: who do I report to, what are my work hours, what’s my day-to-day going to look like, that kind of thing,” Ms. Rassas said. Examine the pay increase (if there is one) and the changes in your responsibilities. Map out what new skills you’ll learn and which new people you might meet.

“Think of what you’re doing now, what you’re good at, what you want to do more of, and see if the promotion will allow you to continue to do that,” she said. “If the promotion is not going to let you do that, it might not be a good fit.”

Broker the terms It would be a mistake to accept the promotion as-is, experts said. Use this opportunity to see if you can shape the new role to your liking. It might not be a one-and-done conversation; be prepared for an ongoing discussion as you define the new role with management. Ms. Salemi suggests making a list of what you love about your current job and what you’d prefer to eliminate or lessen.

“Let’s say you’re a people person and you want to do more management of people and projects, and the promotion is more about budgets and numbers and constant meetings; that can pull you away from what you enjoy doing,” she said. See if your boss is open to tweaking the tasks you’ll be performing. It might make the promotion more palatable.

Take control Ms. Rassas coaches people to focus on the things you can control when it comes to your professional development. Instead of fretting over when opportunities for advancement will present themselves, hone your expertise and strengthen your network so you’ll be a competitive hire no matter what.

Ultimately, she said, we’re powerless over the majority of the promotion process. Who’s promoted, when they’re promoted, how much they’ll be paid; it can vary wildly based on all sorts of external circumstances.

“A lot of times there’s politics and somebody will never get promoted and it has nothing to do with you. It’s a better mind-set to say, ‘I’m going to get up and I’m going to go to work and I’m going to do the best I can in my current role, develop my own skills and those are mine and no one can impact that,’” she said. “You gain more power and people get more confidence when you think that way.”


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