what to do if you’re turned down for a raise or promotion

So you put together a compelling case for a raise or promotion, pitched it to your manager, and got turned down. What are you supposed to do next?

1. Don’t take it personally. Yes, it might sting to hear that your manager or company doesn’t want to recognize your work with a pay increase or promotion, but the reason might not have anything to do with you at all. For instance, your department might not have money in the budget for a raise (and/or your manager might have other team members who have been waiting for a raise longer or whose performance merits it more right now). Or your company might have relatively rigid rules about when raises can be given, in terms of both time of year and performance triggers. Or, in the case of promotions, there might not be a logical spot to move you to – or another candidate might simply have been more qualified (which doesn’t mean that you weren’t qualified, just that someone else was a better fit).

2. Ask what it would take to earn the raise or promotion that you wanted. Too often, people just hear “no” and consider the conversation over. It’s true that you shouldn’t keep pushing once your manager has said no, but you absolutely can ask what you’d need to do in the future to earn a “yes.” You might find out that there are specific areas you need to work on improving in or new responsibilities you’d need to take on. Or, in some cases, you might find that your manager can’t think of any path to the raise or promotion you want – and if that’s the case, it’s very useful for you to know that, rather than to continue to try to work toward something that’s unlikely to come to fruition.

3. Take stock. You’re probably feeling pretty disappointed, but try to separate those emotions out from figuring out what makes sense for you as a next step. You want to be able to consider as objectively as possible what this decision means for your tenure in your current job. Do you have a good understanding of why you were turned down and what you’d need to earn a raise or promotion in the future, and does your manager seem to value and appreciate your work? Or do you think the decision reflects a fundamental lack of appreciation for your work, and/or a misalignment between you and your company about your contributions? Is there a path to work toward your professional goals without leaving your company?

4. Decide on a plan of action. From here, decide on concrete steps that you’ll take to earn the raise or promotion you want, and a rough timeline for having those pay off. For instance, you might decide that you’re going to work on improving your presentation skills, increase your projects’ visibility with higher-ups, and ask for more frequent feedback from your manager, and then reopen the salary conversation in 10 months. (Be realistic here; in most cases, it will make sense to wait at least 6-12 months before reopening the conversation.) Or, if you’ve realized that you’re unlikely to meet your goals at your current company, you might decide to meet with three key contacts about other opportunities in your industry. Whatever you conclude, launching a plan with specific action steps will ensure that this one “no” doesn’t knock you off the path you want to be on.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Oh yeah, don’t send your boss a 2-page email complaining of “unfairness” and “injustice” and say things like “maybe I’ll just need to go work somewhere else where my work IS appreciated” if you don’t want your boss to say “ok.”

    1. Anon Accountant*

      Or “don’t let the door hit you where the dog should’ve bit you”.

      Heard that once and loved it.

    2. Artemesia*

      No kidding. I have had two bad hires try that. One resigned hoping that we would beg them to stay because they were indispensable. We wished him well. The other secretly found a job and then resigned after threatening to do so; good for her. I hope she is a better employee for them that she was for us. Everyone was pleased to see her go although she was extremely talented; her undermining of other people and general buttheadedness outweighed her very clear strengths.

    3. Bend & Snap*

      My friend tried this once–tried to leverage an offer she didn’t want for more money. Her boss told her to take the other job.

  2. Dan*

    I’ve worked for two companies in my professional career, and my understanding is that at both places, promotions don’t grow on trees.

    I think AAM’s advice of “Don’t take it personally” is the absolute best thing you can do.

    In the end, all you can really do is work your butt off, and if you don’t get recognition for it, leave. If you really are working that hard, and becoming that much more valuable, then someone else will recognize it for what it is.

    “Taking it personally” almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you stop working hard because you didn’t feel you were appropriately rewarded during the last review cycle, you better believe that your slacking WON’T get rewarded at the next one.

    Work hard, and the promotions come sooner or later.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I’m going to take on the role of cynic today.

      “Work hard, and the promotions come sooner or later.”

      No, not really. . .I’ve seen good people who were the best performers in their department not get promoted due to politics. One person in particular won a dept. award based on metrics, but got a crappy annual review rating with the excuse that everyone couldn’t be an “A”. (No, everyone can’t be, but the guy who has the best performance should be.)

      I do think people should continue to work hard, because you are right that someone will recognize it. . .it just might be someone external to your current company.

      Assuming one has 5+ years in the workforce and some perspective on things, you can tell when no promotion now means no promotion ever. Time to suck it up and move on.

      1. OriginalYup*

        I don’t think you’re being cynical at all — the simple reality is that promotions don’t always follow hard work. Hard work is the first step, sure, but there are a ton of other factors involved, as everyone has pointed out. I worked my little heart out for a company that only allowed promotions to the next level if you began managing a team. As a department of one with no business case for further expansion, I hit a wall.

      2. GrumpyBoss*

        Something I’ve seen often in my career – people who want to be promoted don’t always make their ambitions known, then get frustrated when their manager doesn’t read their minds. Not always the case everywhere, and may be unique to technology fields where people are a little more introverted.

        But yes, I think we’ve all seen a good person passed over for a promotion. But if the same person is repeatedly passed over, that person and that company may be an ill-suited match.

        1. fposte*

          I think that’s pretty common too, actually, without regard to industry. I think this relates a little to the previous post–sometimes people feel like they’ve earned a promotion that their superiors don’t even know they want.

      3. Jessa*

        I disagree that everyone cannot be an A. I hate metrics that require bosses to judge that way. It’s like taking a test. If everyone gets from 96-100 then everyone should get an A. Bell curve bugs me like crazy. There is no reason to have to distribute grades in an office situation. If everyone gets high metrics you have two choices, give them all an A, or redesign the metrics. NOT say “everyone can’t have an A so even though you got a 98 you’re getting an F, because most everyone else got a 99.”

        I will NOT work for a company that pulls that stupid stuff. It’s demoralizing and unreasonable.

      4. James M*

        I’d like to try to sprinkle a little logic on the whole “everyone can’t be an ‘A'” thing: If we agree that it is management’s job to hire ‘A’ employees, then if not every employee is an ‘A’ employee, management is not ‘A’ management.

        That doesn’t even get into the metaphysics of judgement and double standards, which is a whole other bag of cats.

    2. Lora*

      Oh heck, there’s plenty of darker reasons you didn’t get the promotion, office politics is merely one. “Upcoming merger that senior management has not yet been authorized to tell you about,” “VP who has to approve it never met you personally and has you confused with someone else,” “Colleague stole credit for your idea and you never found out about it,” being the wrong gender/color/religion/nationality, being likely to quit once you get to this level as you’ll be a more desirable candidate for other positions…

      That said, there is also plenty more you can do than simply work hard. Find mentors, build your network, know the office politics and dynamics, build professional relationships outside your department so your boss is constantly being told, “that Dan guy sure is great!”, participate in professional organizations and societies–especially the ones that set standards and rules for your field, as this positions you as an expert in your field.

      1. Artemesia*

        Being clear about your ambitions and working to position yourself for promotion and THEN failing to advance in a reasonable time then suggests that it is time to move on.

      2. AnonEMoose*

        There’s also the time-honored “We won’t promote you because your boss/management doesn’t want to replace you in your current position.” Which usually ends up being shortsighted, because the person may end up leaving for greener pastures.

  3. HM in Atlanta*

    If it’s a promotion you’re asking for (not an internal job you’ve applied for that would be a promotion), even if you’re ready for the role the business may not have a need for it. I have some great people on my team that are ready for the next step, but unless the business grows/changes or people leave, that next logical step isn’t available right now. Instead, I look at ways they can grow in their current roles, ways they can ready themselves for other next career steps, and basically help them so they are ready when the next opportunity becomes available.

    1. Jake*

      That was the situation for 5 out of 7 people in our department at my last job. We were all ready to move on, but the project didn’t have open slots to promote us into, and outside of our project the company was contracting, not growing.

      Now 4 of those 5 are at different companies.

  4. Bryce*

    At the risk of going “sour grapes,” keep in mind that a promotion or raise may not necessarily be a good thing for you, or at least not a good thing for you right now.

    For example, if your company is experiencing a budget shortfall, your new position/higher salary may make you more vulnerable to cutbacks. Plus, your promotion may mean doing more things that you may not like/aren’t good at, and less of those you do like/are good at. What’s more, your employer will expect more of you…can you/do you want to deliver that?

    There are also the “intangibles” to consider: more pay, prestige and responsibility may not make up for a demanding boss, difficult employees or a not-supportive culture.

  5. Adam*

    My choice was to publicly appreciate the opportunity and then quietly begin looking for another job. I had no ill will as I understood completely why they chose someone else over me (they were an external candidate), but it did basically highlight that I would never get what I wanted or needed from my current employer, and sometimes that’s just how the dice rolls.

    1. Celeste*

      I heartily agree with this. I think we’re pushed to never take no for an answer, and to keep on and on. That “no” can be very valuable information, if you let it.

      I have gone through some tricky medical stuff where it meant going to a new doctor to get some help with diagnosis and treatment. I had been told nothing was wrong, it just had to be lived with, there was no treatment, there was treatment but it wouldn’t work, or I was given referrals as a way of saying I don’t know. It’s so emotional to not get what you need. It forces you onward.

      1. Artemesia*

        LOL. Yes women are hysterical and old women are particularly so. My fatigue was just something to live with. But the new doc did a simple blood test and found I had very VERY low thyroid. Magic pill; fatigue all gone.

  6. AH*

    I agree, Adam. Be professional, but also recognize that you aren’t likely to move up in the company. These days, loyally is not valued. If you want a raise or a promotion, you will have a better chance if you look elsewhere.

  7. Purple Brontosaurus*

    Explaining to good employees why they aren’t getting a raise is one of my least favorite conversations to have. I had one person who was honestly on the bubble of getting a raise but had developed a nasty attitude the last few months, so we decided not to go through with it. Now she just keeps throwing that back at me any time I criticize her performance — “well, if I”m not getting a raise, I don’t know why I’m working so hard.” Definitely NOT the way to get your boss to fight for you!

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      Ugh…. I’ve been there. I recently went through it with someone who came late in the 2013 calendar year and missed a cutoff for a 2014 raise, which we do in April. Everytime I give him feedback, positive or adjusting, I brace myself for the “why bother” crap.

      And sadly, I think I may have said this once as an employee when I was 22 and didn’t know better.

      We all learn. Some sooner than others.

      1. Purple Brontosaurus*

        Yeah, I cringe on the inside when I get into those conversations because I have definitely been on the other side of them, making stupid and really unfair accusations towards my manager without knowing the whole story. I totally understand the emotions, but now that I’m a manager I take everything so much less personally and an much more able to see decisions for what they are rather than thinking they’re a personal attack.

  8. Ash (the other one!)*

    Problem of course is when they promised you the promotion when they hired you and then turn around and say “well, actually, to get that title you have to have 30 years of experience.” (BS by the way since one of the people with that title is younger than me)… And when asked of any possibility in the future the answer was a resounding no. This wasn’t even for a raise or change of work duty, just a change in title to better fit what I actually do…

    I’ve been trying to get out for 8 months now. ARGH

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      Sorry… Happened to me once. I know how betrayed and frustrated you must feel. Was offered a job (internal transfer), and asked for specific title. Response was come on over to this team, we put forward requests for title changes semi-annually. We will submit you in the next go around.

      Took 3 years to get the title and it involved transferring back internally to the job I had initially. Lesson learned: I always negotiate it for day 1 now before I take the job.

    2. Artemesia*

      Well, I once hired someone with the idea that she would get a big promotion. We hoped she would be the one to take over a major division. It was not promised but it was discussed as a possibility. Within two weeks she had demonstrated workplace and personal characteristics that took her out of the running. When the time came for the big promotion two years later, I didn’t even consider her.

  9. Seal*

    I’ve been passed over for career-changing promotions twice. In both cases, I was told privately it was because management had an agenda that did not allow the best qualified, most competent people the opportunity to move up. So I continued to do excellent work while devoting my energies to job hunting and left for better positions elsewhere as soon as was humanly possible. Perhaps not surprisingly, both places imploded spectacularly after I left due to bad management. I’ve been told repeatedly how lucky I am to have dodged those bullets.

  10. Mike C.*

    Yeah, I had my last promotion delayed a quarter because HR lost the paperwork. Paperwork that was digital. I work in Quality, so as someone whose job is to manage regulatory documentation, it was particularly maddening.

    1. MJ*

      My husband (and everyone else in his department) has been waiting almost a year for HR to reclassify their positions, which are poorly-described and drastically underpaid. They’ve finally been making strides, but last month, when someone left and they had to advertise his position, their manager told them, “We had to use the old position description because [Director] e-mailed the new one to the wrong person in HR.” This was a process that took MONTHS, and somehow nobody noticed that an e-mail– and a really important one, at that– had gone astray. A single phone call or e-mail to double check would have prevented the problem, but somehow nobody was capable (or cared) enough to do it.

      Needless to say, more than half of the department is secretly looking for new employment.

      1. Joey*

        Fwiw this needs some context to understand roles – HR is wholly responsible for reclassification. A manager is usually responsible for providing enough justification for a reclass. HR usually only determines whether the justification is appropriate. And usually fiscal is responsible for approving the salary impact. Then, someone in an exec role is responsible for approving. Where I’ve seen it get held up most frequently is either the managers justification is lacking or budget is delaying the approval to save money. I only found this out when a reclass in my area was getting held up and I defaulted to blaming HR. For some reason HR folks don’t tend to push back when they’re blamed, they just take it.

        1. MJ*

          I wasn’t blaming HR in this case. The director was responsible for getting the description to them for the listing and apparently just fired off an e-mail without following up, and it didn’t get where it needed to go. It was just one of those things that makes you go, “REALLY? That wasn’t even a complicated task.” (And now everyone is suspicious that it was just an excuse to cover up the fact that the reclassification is not as far along as they’ve been told. It’s not a good situation.)

          1. Joey*

            Sorry if I was implying that. I just wanted to add onto your point that HR folks aren’t to blame as much as people think they are .

            1. MJ*

              Sorry I took it that way! I was worried that I came across as scapegoating HR, when they’re really just stuck waiting on stuff from other people.

              My point was that sometimes raises and promotions are held up completely unintentionally by simple oversight. Losing paperwork or sending an e-mail to the wrong person are easy mistakes to make, but failing to follow up and treating it as no big deal while the people affected have to wait months for their compensation to be adjusted is awful, and sends a terrible signal to the rest of the company. It’s hard to feel valued when the raise that was supposed to be your reward for excellent performance gets delayed by somebody’s apathy!

  11. Parfait*

    I recently didn’t get a promotion I’d applied for. I was upset, but the person who did get it was the person I knew was going to be my biggest competition, so I couldn’t be TOO upset. Then about six months later they created a new position for me that is a much better fit for my skills and interests, and I am having a lot more fun and success doing that than I would’ve in the one I’d applied for. Not getting that gig was the best possible outcome, although it didn’t feel that way at the time.

  12. Lisa*

    My old company is telling people that since they moved into a new office, that overhead is too high for them to give raises. Its an excuse since they are hiring people with less experience at a higher salary than people already there. Oh and common excuse, well you did get a raise last year. That excuse is used even when it isn’t true, with claims of let’s ‘i can go through your file right now, and show you’. But when countered, ok show me. I was told, ‘its not about the exact raise you got last year (um no raise, stop saying that), but you need to understand how much running a business costs and how raises are not guaranteed. Yeah, bad commute and no raise in 4 years, bye.

  13. Snarkus Ariellius*

    I can tell you what I did wrong when I asked for a raise.

    Because I’m a government employee, I can see everyone’s salaries.  After hearing the “budget cuts” excuse, I believed it.  Only to find out that a male coworker (equal to me) got a $10K raise that very same day!

    I’m not sure if believing my boss was wrong or checking up to see if he was telling the truth was wrong.

    All in all, I’ve been skeptical ever since.

    1. Lia*

      Yeah, I had something similiar happen. I accepted a job elsewhere and handed in my notice. VP asked “how can we keep you?”. I said, give me $X extra (an amount I knew another staff member had been given for a “bonus”– because state employee salary data is public record!).

      Oh no, there’s no room in the budget for a raise of THAT size…ok, thank you, you made me realize I made the right decision.

      1. Snarkus Ariellius*

        I’d love for someone on the other side to weigh on in this.  Did my boss really think I didn’t know how to read and/or do math?  It’s so insulting because everyone KNOWS those salaries are public.  It took me two minutes to find out my boss was lying.  I should have said (but never would), “You know I can check up on what you just said, right?”

        1. Joey*

          It possible they gave a counter offer and made room in the budget. Here’s somethig about being a govt employee- there are always going to be exceptions regardless of what managers tell you. What it all comes down to is 1. Is your chain of command rules followers or do they push back. And if they do push back 2. Are they willing to go to bat for you? Consider that they have to be strategic about who and when they go to bat for someone.

          So its possible that there indeed isn’t money in the budget as a general rule and they since they already went to bat for someone they weren’t willing to do it again so soon.

  14. Sandrine (France)*

    I’ve been passed over for promotions a few times. I did number 2 in the article quite a lot. Each time, I did what was asked, in the timeline asked, and when I couldn’t I just made sure my efforts could be seen.

    2 years, and still nothing.

    As is stands, I’m going through a really bad week anyway (US trip withdrawal) but I will be more active in my job search. Tired of being told I’m a good employee with next to nothing to show for it except “Try harder next time” .

  15. Vancouver Reader*

    My husband was promised a promotion that never came through. He was bitter about it at first, but then realized since nothing was going to change (and he’s not going to find another job in the same field that’d pay him the equivalent or more) he decided to do the minimal necessary to get the job done.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I don’t know, it’s possible the husband’s coworkers are in essentially the same boat. In which case, they may neither notice nor mind if they do notice.

        1. Vancouver Reader*

          Husband’s job is independent of anyone else, so while he has to wait for higher ups to sign off on things, there’s no co-workers that has to pick up his slack.

          And those are his words, not mine that’s he doing the minimum. But AnonEMoose is right, he has a few co-workers in the same boat who’re doing the same thing, making it through the day best they can because morale is so low.

  16. Brett*

    The “no path to a raise” thing is why I am getting more and more frustrated with non-competes/ethics clauses. My state is continuing to expand the standard on those; recently ruling that blanket non-competes were enforceable up to 12 months and narrow non-solicitations for up to 5 years. Seems like it really reduces a company’s incentive to retain employees in other ways.

  17. On To The Next One*

    I am in this position currently. I am vocal about my aspirations and desire to be promoted. I constantly seek feedback on areas of improvement. Specifically qualities, traits and skills that are needed for the next step. I inquired with my direct supervisor and our department head (with her encouragement) and I received the biggest morale killer from him. Its disheartening to hear that your direct supervisor wants to move you up, but is being blocked by the department head. Based on that I put my plan of action in place and have decided to move on. I am actively interviewing using a lot of the tips from this blog. Its not personal, I have higher aspirations that clearly won’t be met at my current place of employment. At first I was dismayed at first, but after I let that settle, I realized that I have reached the glass ceiling. There is nowhere else for me to go. On to the next one

  18. Comment Anonymous*

    My boss was passed up for a promotion this year. I do not know why, but when the company announced the list of promotions, he was not on it. He had told a couple of us that he was up for the promotion.

    I actually learned about his lack of promotion on Facebook first. While he and I are not friends, I can still see some of his Facebook page. In the job section, he has his position listed as “Teapot Supervisor (STILL!)”* As someone who is not friends with him on Facebook and can see that, that means the rest of the world can, including his superiors. While I can understand he is pretty disappointed, it is not a very professional reaction. I don’t know if he has a plan of action or has questioned himself as to what he could have done/not have done to put himself out of the running for the promotion.

    *I just checked it, and it’s still there, plain as day.

  19. Awaiting the yearly cycle*

    Thanks, this is very timely for me. The company I work for does all salary adjustments on a yearly cycle so we’re anticipating news in a couple weeks.

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