what to do when you lose out on a promotion

A reader writes:

I recently applied for an internal promotion to be manager of the small team I serve. I was unsuccessful. Two questions. First, I was “let down easy”–the hiring manager said things like “it was close” and “we want to keep you.” But isn’t being turned down for the role essentially a repudiation of me? If they really wanted to keep me, I feel like they would have considered offering me some incentive to remain. I am reading it as a clear sign that I should move on.

That notwithstanding, how do I establish rapport with the new manager, an external candidate who I was in competition with and lost out to? Do I specifically acknowledge that I applied for his role but that now I am ready to be a great team member, colleague, and partner? The truth is that I might have a hard time being an enthusiastic team member now that I’ve been rejected for this particular advancement.

First, no, being turned down for a promotion isn’t a repudiation of you! Firing you from your current role would be a repudiation of you, but you were explicitly told that the promotion decision was quote and your employer wants to keep you. That’s no repudiation.

After all, imagine if you were hiring for that position and had a good internal candidate, but a much stronger external one. You’d have to make the decision that was in the best interests of the organization and hire the stronger candidate – but that wouldn’t mean that you didn’t value the internal candidate. Not at all!  In fact, hiring managers have to deal with this all the time; if they have one slot but multiple great candidates, that means that they’re going to be rejecting some great candidates. It’s just the reality of the math when you only have a single open slot.

So it’s key for you to stop feeling that you’re being nudged to move on. It sounds like just the opposite of that. But if you let yourself continue to feel that way, it has the potential to make you feel bitter and could even cause you to leave a job that you were happy in before this happened. That’s not necessary to do to yourself – and it’s something within your control.

As for getting along with your new manager, you don’t need to acknowledge to her that you applied for her job, although you certainly can if you’d feel better having it in the open. The best thing you can do, though, is to show that you’re ready to be a great team member by … well, by demonstrating it. Be to her ideas, do great work, and continue to contribute to the team at a high level. If you’re doing that, she’s not going to worry that you’re uncomfortable with her – because your work will speak for itself.

Now, if you find that you can’t do that, then you might be better off looking for a different position somewhere else, before you harm your reputation with your coworkers and your current company. Right now, they think highly enough of you that were a serious contender for a promotion, and you shouldn’t risk that good reputation with them by allowing resentment to affect the way you operate at work.

But I’d give it a good faith effort before you conclude that you need to go in that direction. And meanwhile, why not ask the hiring manager you interviewed with for feedback about what you can work on to have a stronger chance at promotion in the future?

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Eric*

    Career growth sounds important to the OP, and this company just closed the door on his career path. There may not be a promotion available in his department for another 10 years. If he feels that he is ready to move into a supervisory role, then he definitely needs to start looking now. It may take him some time to fine an open supervisory role in Underwater Basketweaving with another company.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t dispute that he could start looking around at other jobs outside his company if he feels ready to, but I wouldn’t say that the company just closed the door on his career path. Unless the company is tiny, that might not be the case at all.

      1. Laurie*

        I had something very similar happen to me recently where I had the executive tell me to apply for an internal managerial position to my face. Even suggested moving the position down to the state that I work out of but when I applied for the internal position, HR sent me a nice form letter telling me that I won’t be considered. Then I spoke with the hiring manager since her boss told me to apply. Then she said she would get me into the interview, well, she never did and they made an offer to outside person. How can you continue to work with those managers when they outright lied to the employee? Turns out I was more qualified than the external candidate. UGH.

  2. VictoriaHR*

    The promotion wasn’t right for the OP “right this minute” but it could be next time. One company that I used to work for typically hired outside candidates for management positions because the teams were so close-knit that it would be difficult for a newly promoted team member to suddenly have power over the others.

    I’d suggest he go back to the HR person who kindly gave him the feedback, and ask for suggestions on what he can do to improve his chances for the next internal opportunity. Perhaps the winning candidate had a certification or education that he doesn’t have, that he could work on.

    1. Mike C.*

      That’s a pretty silly policy if you ask me. I see promotions to management like that all the time and employees act like adults and respect the change in workplace relationship.

      1. A Bug!*

        I agree. If you feel the need to implement a whole host of arcane and unreasonable policies just to ensure your employees behave like adults, then there’s a serious problem on somebody’s part.

      2. AnotherAlison*

        If it were really the case that outside candidates were hired for mgmt positions, then it would be the silliest policy ever. No one would have a career path or opportunity for promotion.

  3. fposte*

    This happened to me years ago; the person who was hired had inarguably stronger credentials at the time than I did, so I wasn’t hugely devastated. And a few years later I ended up with the job anyway, so I’m definitely on the side of “it’s not a personal repudiation.”

    1. LMW*

      Same story here. I was completely devastated at the time, but the external person they hired had more experience and more education – they would have been stupid to not hire her, she was a great catch for them. Looking back now, I’m sorry I wasted time being bitter and feeling passed over. My then-boss did the best she could to get me promoted as soon as possible, and within a year I had that promotion.

      1. LMW*

        I also want to note that I learned a TON from this new colleague (not a new supervisor, but a coworker in a higher-rank position). It took me a while to realize what a great resource she was, and wish I’d realized it sooner because it would have made my job/life much easier.

  4. Carlotta*

    In my limited experience, you feel ready for a supervisory role way before you are actually ready, but it takes some time to adjust to that. I’m not saying it’s ego or vanity, it’s just a desire to be stretched and learn – I know, I’ve been there.

    I got some valuable experience by running a small intern program, managing some agency relationships and watching my supervisor – I realized then that I wasn’t quite ready to handle that responsibility.

    In time I will be though, as I’m sure the OP will be. Hopefully the OP will have some opportunity to try out some extra responsibilities and be the stronger candidate next time around – in that company or another.

  5. Jamie*

    If you doubt your ability to be an enthusiastic team player then don’t blow smoke at the new manager about how you’re ready to be a great colleague and partner. There is no reason to state a case to them either way (they will know by your attitude and product) and so lying when there is no need to say anything at all would be really damaging.

    I don’t think not getting this promotion means anything more than that you didn’t get this promotion and they went with someone else. Not everything has bigger meaning unless you’ve continuously been turned down for multiple promotions. I understand being disappointing, but if you think it will affect how you work on the team maybe you should start looking elsewhere…before being disgruntled hurts your reputation.

    I personally would allow myself a set period of time to whine about it (but not to anyone with whom I work) and then go into it with an open mind and if I was miserable after giving the new manager a change I’d get the old resume out.

    TBH I totally get the impulse to make rash decisions based on a bruised ego. I wish I was less familiar with this feeling – but I know it quite well. So I learned a long time ago to put in some mental/emotional speed bumps in my own thinking to save myself…because otherwise if I feel offended I am my own worst enemy. Just make sure whatever you do it based on logic and what’s truly best for you in the long run and not a knee jerk reaction to rejection.

  6. Joey*

    I know it stings because when most people start applying for jobs they mentally start moving on from their current job. The need for change becomes strong and with the realization that it won’t happen (at least immediately) its easy to question yourself.

    When I was turned down for a promotion I made a conscious effort to show them they made a mistake. Not by undermining my new boss- she was selected fair and square. By kicking it up a notch to prove to them that I was ready for more responsibility and if they didnt recognize that they’d better be ready for someone else to. But there’s no hard feelings. Promotions like all hiring is part skills/qualifications and part being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it just takes giving yourself more opportunities for everything to line up correctly for you.

    1. Jamie*

      Funny that you mention the need for change. I was just speaking with a friend about this yesterday and how sometimes I get restless and so tired of doing the same things for the same people day in and day out and sometimes I wonder what else is out there…my wanderlust conflicting my fear of change.

      She was completely sincere when she said she’s never understood that. She knows a lot of people feel like I do, but she’s truly content and wants nothing more than to stay where she’s at for the next 30 years until she retires.

      I’m worried that I’m too restless, she’s worried that she’s too content…can’t win.

      1. CoffeeLover*

        Hi, my name is CoffeeLover, and I’m a wandering soul. It takes me months, not years, to get tired of something. Probably explains my job hopping tendencies. If only employers appreciated my sense of adventure :P

        1. Rana*

          You might check out the Renaissance Soul website; it has good advice for those of us who like to explore new things frequently. On my own front, what I find helps is to seek out jobs that are inherently about learning new things – for example, my own work in editing and indexing requires me to master the subjects of my clients’ books quickly and thoroughly, and it’s a ton of fun exploring stuff I wouldn’t otherwise seek out.

  7. Anonymous*

    I would not acknowledge I applied for the position unless it was common knowledge in the office that you had; by common knowledge, I mean outside the management team. Of course, it might come out but you’d just deal with it then. In the interim, I would summon all of my acting skills ala Meryl Streep and be fakely nice and cooperative because the management team will be watching you every step of the way, and if you victor later learns that you had in fact applied for the position, your niceness and cooperativeness, though fake, will help diminish his/her fears that you’re harboring ill-will.

    1. Colette*

      I’d only recommend being fake if you’re using it as a technique to change your feelings on being passed over. In other words, if you’re making an effort to tell yourself “X has different skills than I do, and we could really use them” or “X has a lot of experience, I can learn a lot from her”, it can be helpful. That means you have to do that all the time, not just at work.

      If you are just being fake to look good to management (while still actually harboring ill-will), that’s not helpful to anyone, including yourself.

      1. A Bug!*

        There actually is a lot to be said for “fake it till you make it” when it comes to changing your outlook. If it’s done in good faith it can have a drastic effect on your attitude.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Yes, if you pretend to enjoy the job, like that person, be entertained by your crazy co-worker, love your spouse, doing all the actions that would normally be part of that feeling, it often happens that down the road you realize the feelings have followed the actions. It’s not a bad thing to pretend to enjoy doing something you should do, even when you don’t have the corresponding feeling. Make sure that it’s something that you would do if the feelings were there, and if so, don’t wait for the feelings — they can catch up.

  8. Anonymous*

    It would be helpful to the situation to know if being let down gently included an acknowledgement and discussion along the lines of “We know you are looking to grow your responsibilities; this didn’t turn out to be the right time for that but we do want you to move ahead” or some such thing. Basically, by applying for the promotion, you’ve indicated that you want a bigger role and you’re not getting it. So now that your interest is out there, how is the company responding? I think you need to figure out if they see you advancing in the future – just not right now – or if they think you are at the right level and not actively looking to move you up.

  9. Rob Bird*

    I would ask the hiring manager what you need to work on for the next time a position like this comes around. This will give you a map of what things you now need to work on.

    It also shows your employer that you are wanting to do better and that you are still interested in moving up in that company!

  10. Mike C.*

    OP, does this workplace have a policy (officially or unofficially) of an “Up or Out” type promotion system? I know this happens at a few companies and certain areas of the military. If so, it would explain the fear of a missed promotion being a sign from management to leave.

    As an aside, can someone explain to my why such policies are instituted or even a good idea? It seems silly to fire or move out an otherwise good employee just because they missed out on a promotion to someone who just happened to be better.

    1. John*

      OP here–no “up or out” policy except at the 5+ year tenure range (I’ve been here for ~2) but we’re an organization with a lot of stature in our field that wants to hire people who are proven. I guess I’ve gotten frustrated, though, because there’s a lot of lip-service paid to promoting from within. I’m having trouble getting constructive feedback as recommended by lots of folks here….on reflection I do think I was a strong candidate. Just not as strong!

  11. Anon*

    This happened to me. First, take your employer’s desire to keep you as a plus. You may not have been right for the role, but you are doing something right. There may be another promotion you can grab later on. Figure out a way to be an enthusiastic team member. Reach out to the person who got the job to say welcome and invite them to lunch. The better you do now, the better it will reflect on you. Keep putting yourself up for more responsibility. The only things that will keep you moving up are a great attitude and great work. If you slink away and sulk, you are only hurting yourself.

    1. Jaron*

      That is totally true… I was a very responsible, and kept on working harder with a great attitude. 2 promotions was passed onto other peers, and felt very upset about it since I had managerial experience and the skill sets to do a better job. But I think getting to know the manager well and working well together, will eventually keep and increase the business sales from coming in. Maybe in the future, I would be recognized and promoted being a manager someday.

  12. pirengle*

    When my previous supervisor left for another job, I ran the dept for four months while interviewing for the position she left. It was between me and an outside candidate and he got the job. He’s a nice guy but he’s new at management as well as the job-specific skill. It had me wondering for a long time if his affable demeanor won them over and if I just came across to the hiring committee as an over-excitable egghead.

    I disagree with Ms. Green: get the interview out in the open *before* it becomes an issue. I made it clear to my new boss on his first day that I applied for the job but I wasn’t going to pretend I was still in charge, undermine his authority, etc. It strengthened our working relationship, believe it or not.

    His hiring also led me to diversify my job skills. Instead of zeroing in on management level, I picked up a few technology certifications. I’m now planning on making a lateral move with guaranteed advancement rather than focusing on possible advancement where I am.

  13. Regina Bee*

    I think AAM was right in her answer, for the most part. I’d say nothing to the new manager, unless they bring it up first. There’s no need to insert awkwardness into a situation that doesn’t have to contain it. Just show up, do great work… and start looking for your next job. The company may want to keep you, but do you want to stay with them? Your goals and the company’s needs might not mesh any longer. It’s your life and you get to decide if this is the tipping point that makes you look elsewhere. Of course, I’m of the opinion that job searching is forever, not just until you’re employed. Constantly looking at job postings is a great way to stay aware of trends and changes within your industry. If you see that four out of five job postings require chocolate teapot programing skills, it time to get trained in programming chocolate teapots.

  14. clobbered*

    In my current job I have two people on my team who applied for the position (I was an external candidate). There’s no drama over it. They all recognize I brought something they lacked (and in fact they recognized this during the selection process, as I was interviewed by the team and they got to give feedback – a process I highly recommend).

    So to the OP I’d say “It’s not about you”. Assuming your company hired well, you can look to your new manager to see what qualities or experience they have that attracted your company to them. Do this with an open mind and it will help you with the growth of your own career.

    I am hesitating to add this in the circumstances but… a lot of places have a “better the devil you know” bias. If they went for an external candidate I would personally guess that it wasn’t *that* close. I know people say that to internal candidates to let them down gently even when it isn’t strictly speaking the case. Needless to say, I think that it is a terrible idea because it leads to situations like this, with the other person thinking “Well if it was so close and I am so great why didn’t they pick me??”.

    1. Shoshanna*

      Very good point. While I’m all for politeness and trying to keep productive employees, I’d like to see a lot more honesty in hiring practices. It would have been better to say something like, “you’re great at your job, but we need X, Y, and Z skills in this managerial position.” That way everyone is on the same page – the OP knows what they need, and what they need to do to move up. What the OP got was essentially smoke and mirrors, leaving a lot of room for doubt as to what exactly went down with this position.

      1. John*

        OP here…this resonates with me and is precisely what I haven’t gotten. Specific constructive feedback. People seem reluctant to say anything remotely critical to me.

  15. MissM*

    This happened to me about 10 years ago. I was also told that it was “very close”. Within 6 months I got a promotion to manage a different department, at the same level as the other job. I really don’t think I would have been given that job if I hadn’t applied for the first one. The managers that I interviewed with were impressed enough that they kept me in mind for the next opening; I didn’t even have to interview for it. Sometimes career opportunities happen in ways you don’t expect – I’ve found that if you raise your hand for a chance to advance, you will get yourself noticed, and that can help you down the road, even if you don’t get the job right now.

  16. Nichole*

    This happened to me once as well. It was an “everything turns out for the best” situation-the thing I was lacking was a genuine requirement to move up there, and I eventually left for a job where it wasn’t really an issue. Unfortunately, the person who did get the job went from model employee to complete lazy jerk the minute the keys were handed over. I decided that the choice was made and I was best served by playing nice, whether I liked the new pecking order or not. I comforted myself whenever something bad came to light by recognizing that you can’t hide that level of dysfunctional for long. By the time I left, they’d discovered this person was a train wreck-a fact that was reinforced by the craziness that came with the termination.

    But I digress. I do think I took it too personally, and letting that go may have helped. However, the experience took me off of autopilot and made me really think about whether this job was a good fit for me long term. I wish I had been more mature and hadn’t soured on my job so hard, but I’m glad I behaved as if I WAS that mature, and the result was an overwhelming positive for me. I was young and not used to failure/disappointment (high achieving Gen Y ;) ), so it was a very useful learning experience.

    1. Seal*

      Nicole’s situation happened to me, although in my case I had been promised a promotion to unit head by my outgoing supervisor. I didn’t find out he had been lying to me about the promotion (and many other things) until the position went to another internal candidate. Although I very nearly quit on the spot when I found out, I stuck it out for another 9 months while I dramatically ramped up my job search. During that time, the idiot they promoted instead of me proved to be all but useless, while I kept my mouth shut and continued to the work of 3 people. By the time I left coworkers were ignoring him and bringing their questions and problems to me.

      Ironically enough, I wound up moving halfway across the country for a job almost identical to the one I had been passed over for in the first place. Five years later, I have been promoted twice at my new institution and have been fortunate enough to receive awards and accolades for my work here. Meanwhile, both my former supervisor and the idiot who replaced him were fired within a year and a half of my leaving and the unit dramatically downsized.

      Although that ugly situation is still painful after all this time, career-wise it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I never would have had the opportunities I have had over these past five years had I stayed at my previous institution. More importantly, it still serves as motivation to me to continue to prove and improve myself, and also as a reminder to take nothing for granted.

  17. Tiff*

    It’s hard, but don’t spend too much time thinking about it. There might be a position coming down the pike that you would be a perfect fit for, or the external candidate has the skill set that they want for that job. Really, it doesn’t matter and it has little to know bearing on your professional development. Might as well focus on moving forward. Here’s what I would do:

    1) Take a look at my resume materials. If nothing else, it’s a good ego boost to just sit down and read how awesome you are.

    2) Make a list of self selected professional goals. Project management? People management? Systems analysis? More experience? More varied experience? Work that has broad impact? Take a look at the folks who are working at the level I want to achieve and look for trends. Lots of times staff with the same skill set have widely different titles and salary because one person is using those skills to benefit the entire organization and one is using them to support a smaller division.

    3) Figure out how to get from step 1 to step 2. Are there any existing projects that I can contribute to? I have found that the easiest way to develop myself is to take on the “wouldn’t it be nice” projects that everyone agrees would be a good idea, but no one has the time to implement. Put together a presentation, and give it. Nothing says, “look at me” like, well….making people look at me while I try to look smart.

    4) Once I’ve achieved some of the goals from my list, go back to my resume and update it. By that time another internal opportunity may have materialized. If not, start shopping my resume.

    1. Tiff*

      And now for paranoid editing of myself…..

      1st paragraph should be little to no bearing.

      not little to “know” bearing. crikey.

  18. Gmac*

    I was past over for promotion and to say I was peeved doesn’t cover it. But talking from my experience sometimes the worst things happen for a very very good reason!

  19. Jesicka309*

    Ugh this sucks. Especially when they give you lame excuses like “it was very close” and “perhaps next time?”
    I’ve lost out to a fellow internal candidate because they were “more mature”. I did far better work than this guy (had helped train him on this job function!) and was much more motivated. But he was 10 years older than me. It was like a slap in the face. I can’t magically make myself the oldest candidate! This was for a non-supervising role too.

    Then I had to watch him take aaages to learn the role. It’s made me bitter, because as a 23 year old woman, it’s hard to come across as their idea of mature without dressing like my mother. And I want to move up and out of this role, whereas its clear that he is not planning on any kind of career trajectory (data entry working with 20 somethings!). Very hard not to take it personally, when they still rave about my work, but obviously don’t have long term plans to keep me, though they’ll do their best to keep the older, less ambitious employees.

    1. Jean*

      – Being bitter for more than a few days is a waste of your time because it won’t help you to “move up and out of” your current position. Grieve or be angry (or both) and then return to being a stellar employee–in your present workplace or another one.
      – Please have more sympathy for a colleague who seems less ambitious than you! The “older, less ambitious employees” may have responsibilities beyond the office such as resolving a health crisis (their own or that of a relative or friend), monitoring in-home care for an elder, or advocating for a school to give the necessary support to a child with special needs (autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, genetic conditions, etc etc). People in such circumstances a person might be grateful to have a job that is limited to “data entry working with 20 somethings!” I’m assuming that as a 23 year old woman you don’t have any such family ties but please correct me if I’m wrong.

      In my own case, my child, who has a form of autism, needs a structured, calm home environment. If I’m unable to provide this–because my work leaves me totally stressed out or depleted–my child will fall apart emotionally. In this situation, settling for less-than-super-challenging employment is not being unambitious! It’s being realistic.

      1. jesicka309*

        Oh I know he’s less ambitious for a fact. He lives with his girlfriend’s mother’s family because they can’t afford a house, and he’s openly admitted he wants to do data entry for the rest of his life because it’s easy – it wasn’t an assumption. It’s just what he’s happy to do, which is great for him, but frustrating when he’s promoted for his age, not his skills.

        I’m doing all I can to move out of this role and I’m being pushed back for all kinds of reasons, some I can handle, others (like the age thing) are more difficult to swallow. At the time I was able to move on and continue being a great employee, and I’m doing my best now both at work and in my job search. But a combination of many things means I’m stuck watching people do poorly in roles I was knocked back for, and over months and years, even the best employee can start questioning the way the company practices.

  20. Sandrine*

    Oooooooh boy can I talk about this.

    At my current company there is a cycle of positions : you are a customer service rep, then you can either be a support person (no more phones!) or a team leader (NO MORE PHONES!!!) or try another service entirely.

    They have opened the “support person” (deals with training new hires too) position about four times now. First time, I was 6 months into the job. My favorite coworker EVER got the promotion.

    Second time around, can’t remember what happened. Third time around december, some guy got it and now that I’m working the evening shift I see him more and he’s actually just my kind of guy to be pals with.

    They opened up a new support position last week… I’m going for it again. Yuppers. Old Boss seems to think it’s too early, but this time I have more ammo for the potential interview, so I have good hope.

    However, the point of this comment is that even if I don’t get it… it’s just like with any job. Sure, when you think you’re in good standing to get something it stings when you don’t, but you are not owed a promotion, which means that while of course you can feel bitter, resentful and all that stuff… you’d better not show any of it at work, otherwise if they see you react badly to such an event they’re likely to cross your name off the list for future promotions :( .

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