what to do when you’re turned down for a promotion

If you applied for a promotion and got turned down, you’re probably feeling pretty rejected. Being passed over for a job never feels great, but it can be a particularly bitter pill when you’re turned down by people who you see every day and who know your work well. But a “no” or a “not this time” doesn’t need to be the end of your aspirations. Here are five things that you can do in the aftermath of the rejection that can position you much more strongly for the next opportunity.

1. Don’t take it personally. In most cases, being passed over for promotion isn’t a repudiation of your skills or your personality. Most of the time, another candidate was simply more qualified. It’s important not to take the decision personally or become bitter or resentful, because that will make you miserable at work and harm your professional reputation – whereas you can actually help build your reputation by demonstrating that you can handle bad news with grace.

2. Meet with the hiring manager and ask for feedback. One of the advantages of being an internal candidate is that it’s usually much easier to get feedback about your candidacy and what you could do to be a stronger candidate in the future. Of course, in asking for feedback, be sure that it’s clear that you’re not looking to challenge the decision; if you come across as even a little bit adversarial, you’re much less likely to get candid feedback. Instead, explain that you understand that someone else was a stronger candidate this time but that you’d be grateful for any advice on how you can better position yourself as a candidate in the future. You can get incredibly useful insights by doing this – everything from learning that you need to improve how you come across in interviews to learning that you need to shore up your skills in a particular area.

3. Ask to meet with your own manager to discuss your professional goals. In most companies, your manager will be aware that you had applied for another position, so this is a natural opening to ask to meet to discuss your professional development and future goals. Ahead of this meeting, think about whether there are specific things your manager could do to help you better position yourself for promotion in the future. For example, you might ask about opportunities to take on additional responsibilities or to raise your visibility in the company (such as by representing your team at particular meetings or getting a byline on pieces you’re writing internally). Or, even if you can’t think of specific ways your manager might help, try simply asking for advice on what you can do to increase your chances of advancing in the future.

If you have good rapport with your manager, you might also ask for a candid assessment of the likelihood of your moving up in the company in the future. There are some positions that don’t have a natural path to advancement, and if you’re in one of those, it will be useful to know that. Or, you might even hear that promotion is unlikely unless you build stronger relationships with colleagues, or remedy your reputation for being difficult to work with, or begin taking more initiative on certain types of projects. If there’s an issue like that holding you back, you’re far better off learning about it even if it’s awkward to hear – but many managers won’t volunteer it unless you directly ask about your prospects.

4. Once you’ve done all this, take stock of your situation. What have you learned from these conversations? Do you have a good understanding of why you didn’t get the job, what you would need to do to earn a promotion in the future, and what your prospects for doing that are? Does your manager value you and seem interested in retaining you? Is there a path toward your professional goals at your current company, or are you getting the sense that you might need to leave in order to advance?

5. Decide on a plan to eventually earn the promotion you want. Using the feedback that you received from these conversations, put together a plan of attack to earn the promotion next time. That might mean that you map out a plan for building a particular skill or increasing your visibility within the organization. Or if you’ve realized that promotion is unlikely at your current company, it might mean that you decide to start boosting your networking activity to lay the groundwork for a job search in a year, or even that you start looking around now. In other words, take the energy that you put into going after that promotion in the first place and re-invest it in a longer-term roadmap to a similar result.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. addlady*

    Someone in the comments offered fantastic advice about promotions and how it worked for her husband. Now I want to dig through the comments and find it.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    Talking to the hiring manager for feedback is really important, but feel free to take a few days/weeks to settle it down. You want your emotions 100% in check for it. And for goodness sake, don’t argue with the decision or talk about how you were more qualified. That will scar you for a long, long time.

    I….may have gotten that one wrong very early in my career. :(

    1. JessaB*

      Probably the most important advice here. Do not even consider having the conversation with anyone except your NON work friends and family before you’ve completely calmed down from any “But I deserved this, they aren’t as good as I am, why didn’t I get this, etc.” kind of stuff. Don’t gripe to co-workers, don’t vent anywhere anyone who works with you can hear it. You will not look good to anyone even if you’re right, and they made a total mistake and promoted a total failure into the role.

    2. J.B.*

      And even if the reasons for getting passed over are maybe more about who is friends with whom than who has the skills, arguing is not going to change that. When you’ve always been the high achiever and you suddenly stop getting the jobs and promotions it is a major adjustment.

  3. Always working*

    I like this advice. I applied for an internal promotion at my old workplace. I didn’t get it the first time but took the feedback and worked on improving. Then, the second time the position opened up, I made sure to point out my improvements in the interview. I got the promotion! I was told later that taking the feedback and working on it was crucial to me getting the job. They liked that I can take constructive criticism and apply it.

  4. Mean Something*

    I love these suggestions. I would also add that you can often frame applying internally in your mind as a kind of audition for roles that might not even exist yet. Even if the specific role you’re applying for isn’t the perfect fit, a strong showing can demonstrate your desirability as a candidate and help keep you in the front of people’s minds for future opportunities. I’ve seen this happen both to me and to people I’ve worked with.

    1. Sketchee*

      This is definitely true! I once had a position created for me after interviewing for an internal promotion.

      They found work that fit with my skillset and helped build the skills that I showed interest in developing

  5. Sketchee*

    It’s also notable to say what being “more qualified” means. It’s not an objective term. The hiring manager and organization have subjective reasons for wanting certain skills and experience.

    There’s no universal criteria. They made a decision based on their wants. Just as the candidate has an idea about the work they’re hoping to do in a position.

    It feels a lot personal to think through the process and realize our self worth isn’t on the line.

  6. AP*

    This advice is spot on. I actually had this happen to me recently: I applied for a promotion, and was turned down. We talked about why, and I made sure to thank them for their time and feedback, and to just rock it at my job and not at all let the decision affect me.

    Few months later, a similar position opened up (actually a little more senior). And I was approached and ended up getting the role. I think being open with my manager about my desire for advancement was really important, and her feedback after the first round was great.

  7. Temperance*

    At my last job, I interviewed for a position in the lower levels of management against someone who had been with the company longer, but working as the receptionist for most of it. They declined to consider my education as an asset, nor was the hiring person interested in the fact that I had been working in that position unofficially, at a larger, busier location, for months. The decision honestly came down to the fact that the other person worked there for two years longer, answering phones.

    It was the fire under my behind I needed to leave that job.

  8. Generally a Lurker*

    Fortuitous timing… About a week ago I asked for a raise/promotion, as I’ve gotten neither in four years and my job has changed dramatically since I was hired. I wanted to be paid what my job was worth. And I know I’m being underpaid for what i’m doing now, as we’re currently hiring someone to work below me, and the majority of salary requests are about what I’m currently making.

    I was asked to put the request in writing. I did so, and last I heard it was moving up the flagpole, but the way my boss was speaking about it, I’m not hopeful for a positive outcome. So, it’s good to have a gameplan in place for when I get the expected less than happy news.

    1. Artemesia*

      I hope you mean you are already doing a job search. Businesses that abuse employees this way so deserve to have them move on. It would be fabulous if a week after they turn you down for a raise, you could give them notice. (it would be too much to hope for that it could be done the same day.)

  9. HDB*

    A word of advice to the managers out there – don’t tell someone they’ve gotten the promotion until it’s set in stone and signed off by all parties. My manager told me (and the rest of the office) I’d be getting a promotion, and then the director hired someone else as a political favor. It took me weeks to get over my anger, and my coworkers were all angry on my behalf. Didn’t help morale in our already unhappy office.

    1. WhiskeyTango*

      Slightly different, but similar – if you decide to go with Candidate A, be sure to have the conversation with Candidate B before word gets out. I walked in one morning and people were already talking about how someone else got the job I’d been interviewing for. My manager didn’t talk to me about it officially until after lunch, but by that time, it was pretty-much common knowledge.

      1. myswtghst*

        This is so important for internal promotions! It’s bad enough to find out you didn’t get a promotion you were really excited about, but to have it happen via the gossip train / in public is so much worse. It’s one thing to suck it up and control your emotions when you’re called in to a room to meet with the hiring manager and you know the “no” is a possible outcome – it’s so much harder to do that with no warning.

        1. Ex Resume Reviewer*

          Can attest to this. Found out I didn’t get an internal promotion during the staff meeting the day after I interviewed… when the boss said they’d made a decision and just had a few more people to notify. Then I had to sit through the whole stupid meeting to be pulled aside afterwards and told I didn’t get the job.

          Yeah, I figured that one out @$()%&!!#.

          1. Ex Resume Reviewer*

            Side note: never applied for another internal promotion at that location ever again, and they were so confused as to why….

    2. Former Usher*

      Agreed. Years ago, a former director asked if I would be interested in assuming some supervisory responsibilities. It later turned out that he didn’t have the authority to make that offer.

    3. Bea W*

      Good god THIS!! My manager did this to me, and although she meant well the empty promises got to the point of infuriating when someone else ended up with the title I was supposed have while I had picked up the additional responsibilities. Had she not stepped up and made it right, I would have left. I was job hunting during the weeks it took to start sorting it out, and I was prepared to start again if the promise fell through at the moment of truth.

  10. WhiskeyTango*

    So, what do you do when the feedback you’re given isn’t something you can fix or even work on? Something like, you can’t be a teapot manufacturing supervisor because you’ve never designed teapot spouts. And we don’t design spouts here, so we had to go with an external hire.

    This has been an issue for an internal candidates for jobs in our departments and so all the jobs go to externals or people who have only been with the company a short amount of time before the job opened up. (This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen this in 2.5 years here…) It’s discouraging…. and while Allison’s advice is sound, I’m not sure how to implement it where I work now.

    1. skyline*

      I think your response depends on whether the missing qualification/skill really is critical. Sometimes when this type of feedback is given, the identified gap really feels arbitrary. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that you are disqualified for lacking X. That sort of arbitrary requirement tells you a lot about your employer might not be the best place to work. In other situations, management may really have a point. You might really need Y to be successful in that role. They’re not being unfair, they’re just being honest. In that case, you’ll probably still be unhappy, but you should probably also appreciate that they’re at least being straightforward about what they need in that position.

      Sometimes the reality of an organization’s structure is that you will need to leave to get the experience you need to advance in your career. This can be a hard message to hear when you’re seeking an internal promotion. As one example, early in my career, I worked for a pretty small nonprofit as a fairly junior manager. My boss was our department director, and he brought to his job years of experience as a senior manager and associate director in larger, more complex, for-profit organizations in our industry. There was no way that I could have ever made the jump from my job to my boss’s job. He needed that level of budgeting/decision-making experience to do his job. However, we were a small enough company that it didn’t make sense to have a role between mine and his where I could start to develop those skills. I really would have needed to go to another larger organization to get experience in an intermediate role if I had aspired to a job like his in the future. I eventually decided to go to grad school for a different field instead. When I told my boss that I was planning to go to grad school, he was very supportive, and he told me he had been struggling to find ways to give me additional growth responsibilities. There just were not any project/initiative areas that he could have naturally added to my role to give me a chance to grow.

      So while I think large organizations are wise to develop a clear pipeline for internal talent, I recognize that it’s not always feasible from a business perspective. Employees can be weirdly entitled about what they feel management owes them in this area. “I want a promotion and it’s Job’s responsibility to provide all the experiences I need to advance.” Well, no. They have a responsibility to pay you for the work you’re currently doing and to treat you in a reasonable manner while you’re doing it. If you really want the promotion, you may have to go seek out that missing experience/ skill on your own, whether that’s by seeking out an opportunity with a new employer or pursuing continuing education or side gigs.

      And don’t get me started on union environments where your employer literally can’t train you in a new skill because it’s not within your current job classification, no matter how much both parties might want it…

  11. Callietwo (no longer Calliope~)*

    Perfect timing on this as I’m sending my letter of interest for a promotional position today! I’m hopeful but know there is stiff competition among a few of my peers. Thanks!

      1. Callietwo (no longer Calliope~)*

        Thank you! I know the work I’ve done is quality work but I also know there are others with seniority that also do quality work. I’m hoping the extra work I took on makes the difference.

  12. Steve*

    What I did last time I was rejected for a promotion was decide that I didn’t really want to be a lead teapot engineer, ever. I am not sure if I was just rationalizing the rejection as sour grapes, or if I took the rejection feedback to heart. Said feedback was that when I was asked why I wanted the promotion, all I answered was that I wanted to advance my career. I didn’t say I wanted to manage people, or take part in higher level decisions, and I guess I didn’t say I wanted to attend a lot more meetings either. It’s been 4-5 years and a I have a new job now, where there’s a lead engineer position open that I guess I’d be a shoo-in for, but I still don’t think I want it. Even though I thought I wanted it when I started this job (it was open at that time too, for a different reason), all I really wanted was to advance my career. I got promoted to Senior Teapot Engineer and that’s enough for me.

  13. Not Enraged anymore*

    In a previous job the company rejected my long due promotion (just a seniority step, not a change from tech to management). They give the title and the increase in salary to another guy. I was coaching him and I was his official mentor. After the promotion he was my direct superior. I was seriously enraged but the rest of the team was even more furious. The guy was a slacker and know nothing about the job (when I was his coach I have to write his evaluation… and my opinion was that he was a very bad hire, without possibility to ever fulfill the requirements of the job, discard him at the end of the 6-months probation).
    The situation changes from bad to worst. Being now the boss he started to treat everyone as morons, in a very disrespectful way. Everyone continued to come to me for suggestions and advice, until a day when the team decided that was unfair to ask me when they should ask him. He was now officially considered more senior than me (even if I was his coach).
    I started looking for a job and found one quite quickly. The company backpedaled and offered me the promotion rejected before. I thanks them but I rejected the promotion because now the damage was done and giving me the promotion now was not resolving the problem and was not deleting one year of pain and suffering (for me and for the team).
    They look at me puzzled. No one reject a promotion. In their eyes they have NOT made a mistake.
    I left after a while.
    Without me keeping the ship afloat, other people left. Of course the more experienced left first. The project quickly crumbled and the company lost the 20-25 millions of dollars they already invested in it.
    Now they have a very negative evaluation on Glassdoor and they have a very hard time in finding (good) employees because everyone knows the horror story.

  14. Matt*

    I work for a US government agency, NGA. They think the best way to notify non-selects for promotion is a cold email. “You did not meet the threshold…” Thay is all you get, followed by a scripted one way phone conversation 30 days later. NGA is a horrible place to work and actively practices age discrimination and nepotism.

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