my boss says I’m not ready for a promotion, but is giving me work above my pay grade

A reader writes:

I am a Junior X, which is an entry-level employee in higher education. In my specific industry within higher ed, people in my role stick around for two to three years before they get promoted or leave. I am approaching that three-year mark in a few months. I talked to my manager several months ago about getting promoted to a Senior X, which she said was a possibility, and began giving me the job duties and workload of a Senior X for my career growth.

Several months later when I brought up the topic of being promoted again, she said that I wasn’t ready but gave me helpful feedback that I have put into action. I’ve improved so much within the past several months that my successful projects have gotten attention from people in other departments, and I have received nothing but praise from my manager and her boss on these projects. In other departments, these are all projects a Senior X would have taken on and I went far beyond expectations on these projects.

Recently, I talked to my manager again about my career growth and she said indicated that I’m still not ready to get promoted. I am getting frustrated that I am doing the workload of a Senior X (successfully enough that it’s gathered attention from our peers!) without the pay or the title. How do I continue the conversation on revisiting my pay and title given these circumstances? (Also, for what it’s worth, when I was hired I was told that there was career growth within my organization and I know for a fact that lack of funds is not an issue at my organization.)

Since your manager is saying you’re not ready to be promoted, ask her specifically what you need to demonstrate in order to be promoted.

Be careful, though, that she’s not moving the goalposts — telling you to do X and Y, and then when you do that telling you that you also need to do Z. That’s not always a sign that a manager is intentionally not being straight with you — it could be that she’s not thoroughly thinking through everything she wants to see from you, or that she’s spotting weaknesses she hadn’t seen before as she watches you do higher level work — but if it happens more than once, you should name it and ask what’s going on. (“We’ve talked several times about what I’d need to do to get promoted and you agree that I’ve now done those things successfully. Is there something else standing in the way of my being promoted?”)

In general, you should be wary of doing the duties of a Senior X at the pay of a Junior X for very long. In some orgs, you’ve got to do that to get promoted — but it should be for a limited period of time, not indefinitely, so it’s also reasonable to ask about that. (“My understanding is that projects like X and Y would normally go to a Senior X but I’ve done them successfully for four months now and I’m concerned about continuing to do Senior X projects at Junior X pay.”) That said, be aware that this can be more nuanced than it looks; sometimes you’re doing an abbreviated version of what a Senior X would do or not doing it with the same skill, and your manager is using it to get you ready to work at Senior X levels even though you’re not quite there yet. But other times, they’re just getting Senior X work from you for cheaper. It’s worth a conversation about exactly what’s going on, so you have a better sense of which of those possibilities it is.

If none of that gets you closer to a promotion, the rest of the answer may be in this part of your letter: “people in my role stick around for two to three years before they get promoted or leave.” If they’re not making real moves toward promoting you, at that point it’s likely time to look at promoting yourself by leaving the organization.

Read an update to this letter

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. Cece*

    This sounds typical of a lot of university jobs, where you’ll need to be demonstrating success at the higher level before getting an official promotion. My tip for the LW is to keep documenting any and all achievements at that higher level (against metrics, with letters of support, etc) to make sure the case for promotion is as strong as it can be. Good luck, LW!

    1. KL*

      Agreed – my experience at several different universities is that you have to demonstrate you’re working at Senior X level to get a promotion to Senior X.

      This often surprises my friends in other industries, who ask “what new responsibilities do you have in your new role?”. None! I had to do them over a sustained period to get the new title and pay bump!

      Ah, academia.

      It’s still reasonable to ask exactly what you need to do to get the promotion though. Sometimes people who’ve been through the process already can be really useful if they can show you their application.

      1. Alexis Rosay*

        I work at a large corporation and the policy is exactly the same—demonstrate that you can do higher level work and then get promoted.

        1. soontoberetired*

          Same as my industry. you have to show you are at the next level. Also, there has to be money to pay people at the higher level. I know it is harder to get a promotion at my company now than it used to be, and a lot of that has to do with money.

        2. The OTHER other*

          Same at my former company, large international finance corp. There were a few exceptions, but in general you often needed to do the work before getting the job. They also had a BS “promotions can only happen 2x a year” rule, which of course always seemed had already rolled around just a few weeks prior.

          LW should document responsibilities and accomplishments and update their resume, it might be a good time to see if other employers value her skills more highly.

          1. TW1968*

            I think LW deserves the SALARY of the new level since she’s doing the work, if not the title…and if they’re not giving that, I’d be tempted to stop doing those extra duties and say “I’ll be happy to resume them once I get paid for it”. Sounds like they’re taking advantage of LW.

            1. Wisteria*

              Adjacent levels typically have overlapping salary ranges. If someone is taking new tasks or the same tasks but at a more senior level, they should be getting merit raises to reflect that. That’s separate from the title change. By the time someone is performing at a level that warrants a promotion, they should be in the high end of their own salary band, and in or at least close to the low end of the range for the next level up.

        3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          To some extent, it’s actually logical, because that prevents people from rising to their level of incompetence.
          But it mustn’t go on for too long or it’s exploitation.

      2. Wendy*

        That is the opposite when I worked at a university as a visitor parking attendant from 2006 to 2012

        My former employer had a contract with the university to manage their visitor parking garage

        In 2008 an Assistant Manager who worked at the Parking and Transportation office at one of their satellite locations was promoted there Director of Parking and Transportation Services at this location

        Turns out she was not the right fit for that job

    2. Nesprin*

      Was also going to say that support staff tend to get promoted when they jump departments- if you’re doing higher level work and getting attention from other departments, that may be your way up.

    3. Esmeralda*

      My tip for the OP is to start looking for another job asap. At the same institution or another. Now is the time to move within academia, especially if you are not faculty. Many such areas are losing staff and having a hard time finding quality replacements. Put some time and effort into it…I suspect that these times are not going to last (recession on the horizon?). Get out while the getting is good.

      1. SAPro15*

        This. Especially if OP is in Student Affairs – it’s a game this division has played for years and we’re hemoragging people right now because our salaries are low for the amount of work we’re asked to do. People are leaving because they’ve been doing Senior X for years with promises being broken left and right of getting a raise or promotion. People are tired of it and moving on, and many are moving outside higher ed. OP, if you’re in SA, start looking for a new job. These folks are going to burn you out, keep asking you to do Senior X, and will have no intention of moving you up to that title or pay.

        1. fantomina*

          this– and if you can make a case for your impact on recruitment or retention, that’s your best argument. “My work with first-gen college students correlates with a 5% reduction in probations among that group” or “my record of nurturing admissions candidates through the application process shows a highly successful 55% conversion rate from inquiry to deposits” or whatever

    4. SD*

      I agree that it could be you’re doing an abbreviation of the senior job. It could be that taking on the new responsibilities is a longer term learning process than what you envisioned. It also could be that the budget isn’t as good as you think. My experience in higher ed is that it takes quite a bit to upgrade or promote and the bureacracy of proof can be intense. And when you’re talking about a whole department or college, leadership also has to buy into it – and they have a whole host of priority job decisions they have to make. Having the manager be specific about expectations, and about what the higher level job actually entails, along with how much decision making is really up to them, is a good place to have a starting point to work from.

    5. Kosmick*

      The university sees the role and the person filling it as different things. Your department has been allotted Y Junior X positions and Z Senior X positions. If all those positions are currently filled, your boss can’t just unilaterally make you a Senior X. She has to apply to HR to get a Junior X position reclassified to a Senior X position. She will have to show that she already has enough work for a full-time Senior X, and someone well above her (likely a VP or AVP) has to find the funds in their personnel budget for that position. (It may look to you like there’s lots of money but personnel budget and operating budget are typically different pockets). If you leave, that position will remain a Senior X position, so this is an expensive long-term commitment.
      This is why it’s really hard to get a reclass for a position (I only ever got one approved), and why at the university, if you want to move up, you have to move over. Otherwise you have to do the level-up job at your lower compensation for at least 6 months, and the reclass may still not get approved. Easier and better for your career to take a higher-level position in a different department, or look outside the university.

  2. Alex*

    This happened to me for years in higher education until I took it to the university’s main HR department. Fortunately, universities usually have a job description on file for everyone, and so I took that description and detailed to them how I was meeting and exceeding every item on it. Can you do the same with your HR department?

    In my case my boss was just being lazy about advocating for me. I did get the promotion but not after a lot of legwork on my part.

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      Job descriptions are such a great idea. Especially if the OP can find the job description for Senior X. They can go to the boss and say “well per the job description it looks like I’m doing X duties of a senior X but I’m being paid as a junior. How can we resolve this?”

    2. nikki*

      I came here to mention the same thing. At my higher ed organization, there’s a very specific job description that dictates the pay grade. I would suggest to OP that they should ask their central HR/Employee Relations department to evaluate their current job responsibilities as they relate to the description of the position they were hired for. I’ve been with one organization my whole career, but here at least, equity is a big concern. Is OP now doing the same work as someone with similar education/experience who has a Senior X title and is getting paid more?

    3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Sometimes it’s not laziness but a matter of, damn Alex is good, I don’t want them to leave! I’ve fallen victim to this. It especially happens to women and minorities because people don’t envisage them wanting a “career”.

  3. kiki*

    To investigate whether your boss may be moving the goal posts, I would discreetly ry to find out if other employees in your junior role have been promoted to the senior role and in what timeframe. If other folks have been promoted within the 2-3 year timeframe, it’s more likely your boss is acting in good faith. If your boss doesn’t have a history of promoting folks– that’s a sign you likely need to leave to see that promotion.

    1. Susannah*

      This is great advice.
      I understand that in academia especially, you may have to prove you can do the new job before they give it to you. But it’s also bene my experience that places won’t promote you/pay you more/hire someone to do the job you took on in addition to your own work when someone left if you are doing it for the lower pay and title. It works for them, they figure.
      But yeah – if you get the sense they are taking advantage, go.

    2. ferrina*

      The other thing is to check for is consistency. Does she change her mind or critique you for doing what she said? Are her expectations in line with her contemporaries (check with a colleague or mentor to get a sense of what is happening in other scenarios.

      I had a boss that denied my request for one telework day per week because I was “not responsible enough”, then the next week told me that I would be managing a new direct reports. So….I’m not responsible enough to oversee my own work but I’m responsible enough to oversee someone else’s??
      (In actuality: I was the cornerstone of the department and she was terrified that she would lose access to me, because I was the only one who knew what was going on. But she didn’t want to tell me that, because then I want a raise- she knew she was underpaying me by at least $15k. I was a new grad and didn’t realize how bad it was until years later in my career)

    3. PhD survivor*

      Yeah I’m wondering if OPs boss has an inaccurate understanding of what would be expected in the role. It’s possible that OP has some skills they need to further develop but from the context of their letter (their work is being applauded by other departments, people in their position are typically promoted by this point), it makes me question if OPs boss has unrealistic expectations for what OP needs to do to be promoted.

      Some bosses are like this. A few years ago I was doing a fellowship where I was doing projects that demonstrated my ability to move into a full-time permanent role. We had open positions on the team and I’d been there for a year and a half performing at a high level but my boss didn’t think I was ready. I went to another company and now have a fantastic job doing the work that my previous boss didn’t think I was ready for (she was wrong about my capabilities and I knew I was capable of a higher level of responsibility). I’d recommend looking into the other departments or another institution.

      1. Cmdrshpard*

        “but from the context of their letter (their work is being applauded by other departments, people in their position are typically promoted by this point), it makes me question if OPs boss has unrealistic expectations for what OP needs to do to be promoted.”

        While it is possible that boss has unrealistic expectations, generally other departments may not know the finer details of how a person is preforming, so someone may get applauded for the great final product, but may not see the behind the scenes work boss or other staff member had to do with them. If the boss is good they praise in public and critique in private. OP might also be doing really good work, but the promotion needs really great, I generally think it is harder to go from a good employee to a great employee compared to going from an okay employee to a good employee.

        OP also mentioned it has been several months since they got the feedback from the boss on what they needed to improve, I think seeing 3/4 months of great work may not necessarily show a person has the capacity to deliver at that long term, and boss might want to see more like 6/8 months of consistent great work.

        1. Move it move it*

          I’ve experienced a similar situation where a struggling employee who reported to me was receiving compliments from other departments that didn’t realize what was going on behind the scenes.

        2. kiki*

          I’ve definitely seen scenarios like that happen, but if that’s the case, the manager really should be proactively discussing the issues with LW, especially since they’ve made it known they want the promotion. Regardless of the situation, I think it’s good for LW to very directly ask what is needed from them to get a promotion. Even if it turns out the LW is struggling in some major way, LW seems very motivated. It’s better for LW to know and be able to make changes than try to guess what’s going on.

          1. Cmdrshpard*

            But it seems the manager has discussed this with OP several/few months ago. I don’t think OP in this situation is struggling, but rather OP might be doing well/ a good job, and this is what other coworkers are applauding, but the manager wants OP to be doing a great job for the promotion. To try and put it on a scale basis, OP may be operating at an 8/10, but for the promotion OP needs to be operating at a 9/10. Sometimes to get to the higher level you just need some time and practice, more than “several months.”

            1. Kevin Sours*

              They discussed it. OP acted on it. No promotion was forthcoming. The idea that there *must* be some reason OP doesn’t really deserve the promotion and we need to looking for it does a real disserve to OP and people similarly situated.

  4. Jane Bingley*

    I would also encourage you to straightforwardly ask your boss if there are non-technical reasons you’re not being promoted. Unfortunately, some bosses won’t talk with employees about more personal reasons they’re not being considered for a promotion – things like tardiness, rudeness, lack of interpersonal rapport, and other soft skills. I don’t mean to imply you have any of these issues, but if there’s an awkward concern your boss has, she may be focusing on technical skills you already have to avoid the more difficult conversation. Making it clear you’re open to this feedback increases the odds she’ll say something.

    1. OrdinaryJoe*

      I would second this advice. I’ve had friends who just didn’t click with their boss or the Big Boss or Board Chair and there’s not a thing they could do that would have gotten them promoted. It just was never going to happen. People can be shockingly petty and those petty people seem to have the longest memories.

    2. Sloanicota*

      Yeah I was trying to get a sense of this. OP says the boss gave them feedback about why they weren’t ready to be promoted that was actionable and made a lot of progress, but I’d be curious about the substance of that feedback. If it was bad enough on the fundamentals (which OP might not be picking up on?) it’s possible it’s a bit of a non-starter trying to get promoted by this boss, even if you did make some improvement.

  5. insert pun here*

    If you’re actually at a university (“higher ed” might also mean an edtech company, or something similar), there is likely a way to ask central HR to review your classification and possibly get you a title change to reflect your new duties and a pay raise (maybe even backpay.) Put the university’s bureaucracy to work for you! I did this once, early in my career, and though it was a massive pain in the butt (the form was about 20 pages or so), worth it.

    1. Lisa*

      This. HR works in your favour at universities in my experience. I had a title review and had 30k pa added to my job within a week.

  6. TG*

    If you’re doing work successfully and it’s getting the notice you say you need to ask for specifics. I like the idea someone else posted – get the senior job description and junior one and show how you are meeting the senior level. You should also look for an opening in another area that is Senior, if your boss is still not willing to promote you and you think you’ve exhausted any chance with her.

  7. Higher Ed*

    Besides everything else mentioned, I would also wonder about the financial aspect. You mention that you don’t believe there’s a lack of funds, but it could be that your manger has constraints being put on their budget, or is simply trying to look good to their higher-ups by not spending the extra money. They’re getting the work of a senior at junior pay. Have you asked specifically about money/budget?

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Yep. Chances are good they’re cheaping out at your expense, OP.

      My department chair discouraged me from seeking a campus accolade that comes with a permanent pay bump, hinting that I was unlikely to get it. I looked at who had already gotten it, thought to myself “I’m at least as impressive as several of these folks,” put in for it, and got it.

      I like my department chair, I genuinely do, but I don’t trust them to have my best interests at heart always.

    2. Delta Delta*

      This was actually my first thought. Junior X is paid X but Senior X is X+20, and there isn’t room in the departmental budget for that. Maybe OP needs to change departments when Senior X becomes available there (if possible).

      1. TechWorker*

        There’s definitely cases in my company where budget impacts how many promotions are done and thus how quickly people get them – I doubt that is unusual tbh. I don’t know how managers *should* handle this (claiming ‘just not ready yet’ is demoralising, but so is being told ‘We’d promote you if we could’ – if a manager even has the backing to say that)

        1. Kevin Sours*

          Good managers with a long view will help people they can’t promote find new positions. Ideally within the organization, elsewhere if need be. You are going to lose those people eventually and it’s best to face that head on.

    3. Academic Fibro Warrior*

      Or third, what happened to me, my department got closed down and outsourced. And because the company we were outsourced to wouldn’t share salaries structure or promotion with outsiders we had no way of knowing anything other than our work load would shift significantly. So when we stopped getting anything other than COLA raises even though funds were not an issue within the department (we were soft funded) that was the start of the very long transition. When people looked into merit raises or moving to full time because the need was there and we had the money, there was a lot of ‘you’re not ready.’ That meant the university would never be ready.

      HR did work for me with that group though albeit enough so the school didn’t get sued. I got hired on an 11 month contract but told it was 12 months. I was stunned when I got half pay in month 12. Thankfully HR had their EEOE office on our floor and noticed I was working 12 months and made the boss transition me to actual full time.

      I had to advocate for myself to get paid the actual 12 month pay and get the orientation so I could sign up for benefits because nobody wanted to do that. Apparently it wasn’t the HRs office responsibility to make sure I could sign up for health insurance within the 60 days but our admin, who had never been notified or trained on it. It was an inglorious mess.

      All that to say….it’s very very possible higher ups are doing political things that may make an internal promotion impossible even if it’s only refusing to sign the paperwork. And forcing the issue may only make LWs future there rocky. I’d be putting apps out to leave.

  8. CharChar*

    This could have been a letter about my company and when I asked my manager what I need to do “You are already there”, when I pointed out someone in a senior role was doing the same work as me and their role did not change when they got a promotion. Suddenly their role did change, speaking of changing goal posts… I set myself an end date on how long I would deal with the current situation and after that I’m job hunting.

    You’ve asked the right questions, done the right work, assuming there isn’t a soft skill missing and you’ve received continuously good feedback, your skills may be more valued somewhere else :)

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      The issue of a soft skill could be a big one. I have seen it happen in my own organization where a person whose ability to perform tasks is pretty much at a level that’s good enough for a promotion, but a vital soft skill isn’t really there yet. For example, a person might be great at painting teapots, but in order to promote them to a Senior Teapot Painter, I need to know that they’ll be able to communicate effectively with our teapot design team and the sculptors, and I’m not confident they’ll be able to handle that level of communication. But it’s on ME to tell them that, and explain what I want to see: responding promptly to designers when they push a new design to the painting team, calling the sculptors’ attention to flaws in a way that’s polite and professional, etc.

      1. Lab Boss*

        +1 to your commitment to giving people feedback on soft skills! So many managers will happily tell someone “you don’t paint teapot fast enough” but not “you need to be way more polite and professional when you’re requesting design changes.” I suspect it might be because hard skills are what someone DOES, but soft skills are more like who they ARE, and it feels weird to say “you’re too rude to have a better job.”

      2. Mewtwo*

        Right, but then the manager should say so. I know it’s awkward, but either you are honest about why someone isn’t getting promoted or you continue to get junior level work for junior level pay until the junior employee leaves.

    2. Nopetopus*

      The exact same thing happened to me! My (male) colleague was promoted and offered a large raise but continued to have the exact same responsibilities as me even though I was being paid nearly 10k less after his promotion. When I tried to make the case for myself to also be promoted to the same title about 2 months later, suddenly all of his responsibilities were changed and I was told that my work didn’t meet the “new expectations” for the role.

      I left that role for a similar promotion at a new company, where I increased my salary by 15k and finally get to take on new responsibilities and grow! Setting an end date for yourself is the way to go, and I wish you luck!!

  9. Lab Boss*

    You said your manager gave you “helpful feedback,” but was that feedback something objective or something subjective? If it’s “A Senior X is expected to write their own project reports without needing them re-written by a manager,” that’s an objective measure you can work toward. If it’s “you need to improve your report writing” then it’s a potentially moving target. Your boss can always think you need more improvement (whether it’s an intentional moving of the goalpost or just a fuzzy picture of what ‘Good Enough’ looks like).

    I lost out on a management position I applied for (completely justifiably to a comparable but better candidate) and the initial feedback was the fuzzy kind- “you need more development” and “we want to see higher-end project management skills.” I asked for better benchmarks with a script something like “I can see where I’ve got room to improve in those areas, but I’m concerned that without a more concrete idea of what that improvement might look like I’ll be getting this same feedback the next time I apply for a higher position. Can we come up with some specific benchmarks for what would make me qualified for this type of role?” I ended up with a checklist of specific, measurable goals and a commitment that if I met them I would be promoted within my department (the kind of promotion OP mentions, X to Senior X).

    The company can always renege on that or play games with it if they’re so inclined, as it likely wont’ be a full on contract, but it puts you in a much stronger negotiation place when you can hold them to the specific things they said would qualify you.

    1. El*

      “I can see where I’ve got room to improve in those areas, but I’m concerned that without a more concrete idea of what that improvement might look like I’ll be getting this same feedback the next time I apply for a higher position. Can we come up with some specific benchmarks for what would make me qualified for this type of role?”

      That’s SUCH good language!!!

  10. Churpairs*

    Greetings, manager at a university here who is very aggressive about position management for both myself and my direct reports. Alison and many of the commenters gave great advice, and I encourage you to follow up with your manager on specifically what they’re looking for.

    I know for my direct reports, there have been times where, if it were up to me, I would have promoted them to the senior title, but HR was the one with subjective or moving goalposts. I worked for TWO YEARS to promote one of my employees. The HR person I was working with simply did not like the move and refused to deal with it or give me objective feedback on why the words I was using “didn’t sound like increased responsibility” to her (they were the same words I’ve used successfully for other promotions, with other HR reps). The promotion went through in a snap once we were assigned a different HR person.

    At my university, we have to be careful using promotion or a different/higher classification as a tool, because if the request gets denied, it can be months before you can try again. There used to be a formal appeal process, but documentation for that seems to have disappeared. Weird how that happens.

  11. Kevin Sours*

    I’m going to go a little stronger. It’s time to start job hunting. Maybe your promotion comes through, and it’s a wasted effort. But at this point you’ve been doing the work for several months without any clear path forward. Time to invest in a sheet anchor.

    1. The OTHER other*

      Maybe it will turn out to be unnecessary, but updating your resume/CV, getting a sense of the job market, and practice interviewing are always good things!

  12. LW*

    Hi, I’m the LW! I want to report that I did accept an offer at another job shortly after sending in this letter :)

    One key thing I didn’t include in my letter (because I thought it would out me if my boss reads this blog), is that my boss said that they were about to hire for a Senior Z (a new position) and might not have enough room in the budget to promote me for Senior X. A Senior Z requires far more experience than a Senior X, so I would not have been qualified for the position.

    Once I was told they “might not have enough room in the budget,” I began job searching heavily and accepted a job that pays 25% more than my previous role. I am still in higher education, in a role I know I’ll thrive in. While I would have loved to have stayed at my previous job, I also knew that I would be leaving a lot of money off the table if I didn’t begin looking elsewhere.

    1. Anonym*

      Well done, OP! This is great news! It sounds like there was actually a concrete constraint on hiring budget rather than just BS, but you clearly made the right call.

      I was in a similar position for a couple of years, but too burnt out to seriously job search. So glad you moved quickly when you realized the promotion was unlikely to come anytime soon.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        In many instances there is no difference between won’t and can’t. This is one of them.

      2. LW*

        Yes, I’m sure the budget restriction was a legitimate reason why I couldn’t get promoted… they chose to allocate funds that could have been used to promote me to creating a new position that I wasn’t qualified for. As Kevin Sours said below, there really wasn’t a difference between “can’t” and “won’t.”

        I came to the realization that boss and grandboss needed a Senior Z more than they needed me as a Senior X. They did what they believed what’s best for their department, and I had to do what was best for me (leaving the company to get the salary I wanted).

    2. Churpairs*

      Congratulations! You made the right choice. Higher ed is a fickle beast and you have to take your opportunities when you get them.

    3. Smithy*

      That makes a lot of sense – and while I don’t know much about higher ed specifically, this echoes a lot of my experience in nonprofits. When conversations around promotions stall with otherwise good (or moreso average) managers about staff not being “quite there yet” – it’s often worth seeing if there are budget limitations.

      I think a lot of larger nonprofits put a lot of effort into describe what different bands and positions are, what success looks like, and what warrants promotions. However, if there isn’t money in the budget very often supervisors are left in a position where they have to expend *a lot* of capital or genuinely have no recourse for promotions. It’s often easier for them to expend that extra capital when they know someone has another offer and is prepared to leave, but very often it truly just is a case where they only have $X dollars for a role. And moving on really is the only option.

    4. Wisteria*

      Congrats on the new role! Just know that the path to promotion will be the same–you will have to perform at the higher level before you can be promoted to the higher level. So all the advice is the same.

      1. LW*

        Yes, I’m very much aware and I find Allison’s advice in her letter to be very helpful. I’ve just accepted that the quickest way to get more money and experience is to get jobs at other organizations.

      2. Kevin Sours*

        Sure. But if your current place won’t promote you, you don’t owe them any particular schedule for them to get around to it.

    5. All Het Up About It*

      Good for you, LW, for recognizing that your promotion was no longer hanging on your work, and on a nebulous budget item. And it seems very nebulous because your boss wasn’t advocating for you.

    6. Crencestre*

      Congratulations, OP! You’re getting the compensation and recognition that you’ve earned – YES!

      Oh, and OP – winning the Nobel Prize wouldn’t have gotten you that promotion in OldJob. As long as your department was getting the cream and cheese for the price of skim milk they had absolutely no motivation to pay you one penny more! (Cynical? Yes! True? Also yes!)

      1. an academic*

        There was an associate professor who won a Nobel Prize, Donna Strickland. After that, she did apply and got promoted to be a full professor.

    7. SAPr15*

      Good for you! I’m glad you saw the writing on the wall and went for it. Congratulations on your new job!!

  13. Just Me*

    I work in higher ed, but in an office with a pretty flat org structure and one where the department director lets us see behind the curtain a little more, so to speak. There’s usually a LOT of documentation and hoop jumping that needs to happen in order to give someone a promotion/title change/raise. Your manager should be saying, “In order to be promoted you should hit x goalposts,” so it’s up to you to bring it up if she isn’t, as Alison mentions.

    Speaking frankly, my boss will often find, uh, creative ways of giving people raises, things like, “On your paperwork I said you’re running this training. We can have a discussion about whether or not you really want to do that, but it had to go on the form so you could get the Senior title.” Someone else was my “manager” on paper even though he didn’t know what I did, just so that he could get more compensation for a very technical part of his job. You probably have to ask what the explicit measures of Senior X are so you can start preparing.

  14. Don’t Pay Me Less Because of Body Parts*

    I left higher ed after a decade (and a masters degree), in no small part because of this BS. I think Alison’s advice is spot on for many places, but in the land of Student Affairs, and higher ed in general, I think you could do everything right and still get a lot of the “well actually now I’d need to see A, B and C” then after you do that, they “don’t have an opening” to promote you.

    Are you in Residence Life? ARD but doing the work of an RD? My thoughts double down if that’s the case. Gotta move out to move up, the saying goes. And if you have any interest in regular upward mobility, this field may not be for you.

  15. voyager1*

    University/ higher education is a animal of its own. But how many times have you brought this up with her? And over how long a period of time? Again I know your industry is weird, but in banking where I am, that many times would probably not look favorable. Is your manager forthright about your chances?

    Hope it works out.

  16. By the Bay*

    This is happening with a colleague at my organization right now. They have fundamental soft skill/judgment issues that are preventing the promotion, but I don’t think their supervisor has communicated this properly to them. It’s a tough situation but I feel like more transparency from above would have been helpful… I hate watching the whole thing unfold.

  17. Wisteria*

    ” I am getting frustrated that I am doing the workload of a Senior X (successfully enough that it’s gathered attention from our peers!) without the pay or the title.”

    Doing that work without the title is to be expected.

    Have you been getting merit raises based on taking on increasingly senior duties, and does your current pay overlap the Senior X pay range? If the answer to both is yes, then you have the pay. If you have not been getting raises to reflect your increased duties, then you need to make that a separate conversation from getting the title.

    If you have been getting raises but not to the level that you overlap with the Senior X role, then you need to have conversations about what else you need to take on and what level of proficiency to achieve your desired salary level. That part is probably what’s missing in being able to promote you. You have been doing some of the work of the role, but not all of the work of the role, and your manager *should* be able to give you an idea of what’s missing.

    Work is not college. In college, once you demonstrate proficiency in Calculus I (or English Lit I, whatever), you automatically move to Calculus II. Work is not like that. You do not move to Senior X after you demonstrate proficiency at Junior X. You have to demonstrate proficiency at the majority of Senior X and, sometimes, have your pay already in the range of Senior X to get promoted. Fair or not, you should set your expectations accordingly.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      “Doing that work without the title is to be expected.”
      Not indefinitely it isn’t. If you are doing the work without the title you should have a clear path to getting the title or you should be planning your exit.

      1. Alternative Person*


        I’m taking on a higher level role in a project at the moment, but it’s a limited time arrangement with a direct benefit for me. If a promotion doesn’t come within the next year or so, then I’m outta here.

    2. Very Social*

      In college, once you demonstrate proficiency in Calculus I (or English Lit I, whatever), you automatically move to Calculus II.

      That’s not my experience. You have to complete the class. If the semester is August-December, you can’t take the final Calculus I exam in October and move on to Calculus II. But equally, you can’t take the final Calculus I exam in March and move on to the spring Calculus II class at that point… there are time boundaries.

  18. TallTeapot*

    You work in ResEd, don’t you OP? Knowing higher ed, and having worked with ResEd, if you want to move up, you need to look for a new job.

  19. urguncle*

    I really empathize with OP here. I’m in a similar position, although different circumstances. Leadership has been expanding at equal pace with the rest of the company and I got pushed onto a new manager last quarter. My former boss knew something about the transition, so he never gave me the list I was looking for in terms of how to be promoted. New boss was supposed to have done this by June and now we are in August, 8 months after I asked for this list, staring down the barrel of my H1 review with no guidance whatsoever. I’m glad you got out, as I’ve been wondering if that’s my only option as well.

  20. Judge Judy and Executioner*

    I agree with Alison’s advice. If your manager can’t give you clear direction on what is required to perform at a senior level vs. junior, it’s time to start looking for other jobs. I had a terrible manager for 5 months after my boss at the time left, this person was awful to work for, and consistently had changing priorities. It was impossible to give anything to her without her marking it up so it sounded like she wrote it. One time she spent a whole 1 on 1 tearing apart my documentation on something I had been doing for 10 years. She also went as far as calling me “unpromotable”. She ended up just being an awful manager, I applied for supervisor role in a different department and was promoted to her same level within the company.

  21. funlspuw*

    I’m a little wary of this manager. If it’s standard to get promoted from junior to senior within two to three years, it seems like a good manager would have been preparing an employee for this promotion by providing feedback & opportunities to earn the promotion. Instead, OP has had to go back three times so far & still hasn’t “earned” the promotion.

    I don’t disagree with the advice, but if it were me, I’d have one foot out the door & start looking. I’m not optimistic this manager is going to advocate for her employees, or at least not OP. I do think this manager is likely to continue to string OP along.

  22. Beth*

    Consider also that you may be getting a lot of positive comments because people recognize you’re doing new/more challenging work and want to be encouraging as they do see development from you. There may still be gaps/development areas they are not vocalizing because people often feel uncomfortable giving developmental feedback and may prefer to leave that to your manager.

  23. Fluffy Fish*

    Something to keep in mind regarding your work getting noticed. It *may* not necessarily be a reflection that you are totally doing the full level of work expected at a high level.

    When people are doing stretch things outside their role, often people comment on the work in an encouraging manner. I know where I work, we want to provide feedback for people who are doing an objectively good job while taking on tasks, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the project was 100% because they aren’t experienced enough yet.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      Something I’d like to gently push back against is the generally assumption people (not just you) are making. The likely scenario is simply that management has not urgency to change a situation that ultimately benefits them in the short term. Stretching for reasons why management’s approach must be based in rational judgement is doing OP a disservice.

      1. Fluffyfish*

        It’s not a stretch. Its a very common – dare say typical – scenario.

        Are you pushing back on Alison’s feedback offering things to evaluate as well?

        People read into positive feedback, especially when they are looking to support that they really are good at something.

        Providing positive feedback to someone who is new at something is typically encouragement, not a sign-off on how qualified they are to do something.

  24. Age of the Geek, Baby*

    OP, this does work! My only other advice is a pinch of bravery also helps.

    I just did it to my boss, and pointed out that the only thing that he does that I don’t do is schedule events like: 40 under 40 best teapot innovators or top bosses in the teapot sector. We pretty much have the same duties in terms of designing our manual, writing for it, editing for it, posting content on our socials.

    His response was that since we were such a small department it wouldn’t make sense to make me Associate Teapot Manual Editor. When we hired a third person (if ever!) then that would be the logical step.

    After a day of seething, I pointed out our sister manual department, that focused on coffee pots, had three people, and all of them were Coffee Pot Manual editor, Associate Coffee Pot Manual Editor and Digital Coffee Pot Manual Editor. He had no idea that’s how their department was structured.

    We had some more back and forth about how different the industry is for him (he was in this for the long haul, pre-recession and worked his way up) and the age gap between us makes it unlikely I would get the “working way up” model unless someone like him promoted me.

    I’ve been Associate Teapot maunal editor since May.

    All this to say – be brave, and be honest (maybe not too honest, depending on the manager). Good luck!

  25. Staff not Student*

    Not sure what your setup is but at my High Ed job if you were doing the work of a Senior X there was a re-classification process separate from my manager. The union backed me when I went through the process.

    That was the normal route to promotion at Old Job so it was not seen as fighting with your manager or anything.

    Do you have colleagues who have been promoted? Maybe they can give you some advice.

  26. CharlyBee*

    If this is a public university and you are civil service, check with HR about the steps in a position audit.

  27. College Career Counselor*

    Haven’t read all the comments yet, but…if this is higher ed, there may not BE the $$ to promote the LW to Senior X. Less charitable reading, the boss is getting a benefit of keeping salary costs down while producing better work. It’s also possible HR is blocking the promotion.

    I would encourage the LW to talk to the boss about re-writing the job description to be Senior X. That might force HR’s hand to compensate fairly if HR is the stumbling block.

  28. Miss Suzie*

    Employers are going to try to get the most work out of you for the least amount of pay and recognition. So if they can get you to do senior level work for junior level pay and title, they will. Might be time to dust off your resume.

  29. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

    You’re now on the radar of other departments. If this continues, you can reach out to them and see if you can get promoted and transferred to another department where your work will be valued and respected. If Senior X jobs are posted internally, you can also take a look and start applying there. You have accomplishments of a Senior X to add to your resume. In your cover letter you can also mention the positive feedback and appreciation you’re getting from other departments. Or maybe some of that can go in your resume.

  30. Mewtwo*

    I don’t work in higher ed but I was in this situation in my last job. After two years, I was promotion-ready, receiving a lot of praise from clients, and doing the work of people two grades above my title, but during the review cycle I kept getting BS excuses for why they couldn’t promote me. I left as soon as I got a job offer. If they don’t want to promote you, there isn’t much you can do about it, unfortunately.

  31. VLookupsAreMyLife*

    If I may offer feedback regarding the advice offered to LW3 & the use of pronouns. The idea that misgendering someone is “one of the drawbacks of doing things online” suggests that gender & pronouns are visible and/or inherently obvious based on what can be physically observed. Unfortunately, many folks are misgendered or assigned the incorrect pronouns IRL, too. The only way to know someone’s pronouns is to ask. I only use proper names or “they/them/theirs” pronouns in all instances when gender hasn’t been clearly defined. Perhaps this might be a helpful approach for others?

  32. MsSolo UK*

    I have a junior colleague who could have written this letter! Ultimately, in our org, it comes down to the fact that there are only a specific number of senior roles, our internal HR requires all promotions go through the same process as a normal job application, and someone else interviewed better. There are reasons that person interviewed better – though both of them were picking up some senior tasks, the person who got the senior role has stronger attention to detail and better prioritisation, which will allow them to excel at the senior tasks that they weren’t permitted to pick up at a lower level.

    We don’t want to take the senior tasks back from our junior colleague, which would feel like we were punishing them for failing to get the higher level role and leave them doing repetitive processing work, and reduce their opportunities for promotion in future, but it is definitely on our radar that it’s not a sustainable situation. If I was having an honest conversation with them, I’d suggest they make a sideways move – I don’t think their attention to detail is ever going to be at the standard it needs to be at, and if they do get promoted it’s going to mean they find themselves doing more repetitive work correcting their own errors and missing deadlines, but with stakeholders’ eyes on them. They’d do better in a role where that skill isn’t as vital, but they could use their other skills to stand out amongst their new peers.

    (there’s actually a 3 month secondment to the senior role coming up, and I am worried about Junior colleague getting it, and then after 3 months having to give it back and struggling to adjust to the reduced duties again)

  33. Academic Librarian Too*

    In my academic institution, “Junior X, which is an entry-level employee in higher education” would have to be competently doing 70% of the tasks of the Senior level job description to receive promotion to senior.
    One or two special projects do not warrant the promotion.
    They should speak to other seniors and compare their job descriptions and bullet point successfully achieving those higher level tasks.
    It has been just a few months.
    As a supervisor, I want to see sustained meeting of expectations before advocating for promotion.
    No one wants to be in a situation of demoting an employee or setting someone up for failure.

  34. FORMERHigherEdPerson*

    Having worked in Higher Ed administration for 15+ years, there could be a few reasons why you aren’t getting moved up to Senior X:
    1) Your dept budget line isn’t being given the funds to support another Senior X role salary
    2) Your manager hasn’t been given the approval to either move you up, to create another Senior X role, or whatever needs to happen
    3) They have had budget cuts and any Senior X roles that become vacant are eliminated positions and the job responsibilities are then spread out among remaining colleagues. Sucks, but it’s very “Higher Ed” typical
    4) Your boss is advocating HARD for you, but their leadership just keeps kicking the can down the road because there are more pressing matters

    At the end of the day, normally the only way to move up in Higher Ed is to move out. I was promised promotions over the years and it never materialized – even when I was given more responsibilities and made an interim “Senior.” If you want to wait it out, talk to your manager again when it’s budget time, and ask point blank if it’s ever going to happen. Additionally, polish up your resume and start applying to Senior X roles at other universities.
    There are a lot of issues in higher ed as a professional field, and the norms that we put up with b/c “that’s how it’s always been” would shock a lot of people in other fields. Don’t let them take advantage of you.

  35. Wanderland*

    If you do everything that Alison suggests, my advice go where you are appreciated, not tolerated.

  36. Yellow Flotsam*

    LW I see from your comments that you’ve moved on to a new job, so this is largely irrelevant at this point. But I’ll comment anyway. I’m assuming higher Ed is universities/colleges rather than trade focused higher Ed.

    First – higher Ed in what sort of role & which country? My advice for professional positions is very different to academic positions, and culture and practices vary widely between systems (and countries).

    Higher Ed where I am has an odd situation where academic promotion is not directly linked to a job being available (up to a point). So it’s not we have need for a Level X and we look to applicants for promotion, but rather you demonstrating that you are doing the work of an X and therefore should be one. Ie your outputs are at X so that should be your title. Although, often it is easier to move than go through the onerous promotion application process.

    Professional positions usually require that a position is available at level X for you to move into. With some limited promotional opportunity within a role as you become more independent and skilled. It is often the case that professional staff need to move roles to be promoted.

    What is true of both career pathways, and indeed outside of higher Ed as well. Is that promotion is not really about doing your current position well but demonstrating sufficiently that you will be able to discharge your duties at the higher level. To prepare yourself for promotion you need to look to the job description and expectations (formal or informal) of the role/level you want.

    You are right that you shouldn’t be expected to do higher level tasks without the position/pay. However, stretch assignments are often how people get experience at the tasks for higher level work, and therefore put themselves in a position to be competitive.

    You need to make sure you and your manager have the same understanding of your interest in promotion and what sort of timeline you want. You also need to be getting clear feedback on the standard or your work as well as how to improve. What is not always obvious is that while you are doing higher level work, and even producing good quality outputs you can be proud of, you might not actually be helping the boss. The time they put into supporting you to do that work, or the other things you aren’t doing, might be a net negative for them and the positive is because supporting your growth and career goals is part of their job.

    What becomes hard is knowing when to back off the development opportunities, and where the balance between opportunity and exploitation is. Higher Ed is rife with people being exploited, and illegally underpaid. It is a huge problem. I’m not wanting to make light of that – and indeed I’ve seen supervisors discourage promotion applications inappropriately. I’ve seen people doing work many levels above where they are employed with no hope of promotion. And I’ve seen straight up exploitation where someone is underpaid and continually given work outside their job scope.

    And I’ve seen people hired at level X push for opportunities at level Y even though there’s no promotion opportunity for them in the near term in that role (but they can go elsewhere). I’ve seen people take on higher level duties themselves and then argue that they’re doing that work – but it isn’t actually part of the role. I’ve also seen people work on skills development while missing key parts – so becoming amazing at llama grooming to the standard expected at the higher level, but missing or ignoring that their sales aren’t enough.

    My biggest advice in higher Ed is that your supervisor should not be your sole point of feedback for understanding promotion and opportunities. Get yourself mentors from outside who can provide another perspective. And often, applying for an open position at a higher level is easier than applying for promotion where you are.

  37. gawaine*

    Anywhere I’ve worked, unless you are applying for an internal transfer to a completely different organization, you need to be working at the new level first to get the promotion. The idea of being promoted first, then working at a new level, is not something I’ve ever heard of, since, as a few others have pointed out, without sustained ability to work at a given level, you’re opening yourself up to having to PIP and eventually fire someone. As a rule, for someone to get a promotion, I need to see behavior that would earn them a “satisfactory” rating across the board at their new level.

    I’m not in the OP’s workplace, and I don’t know them. I don’t know if this is the extreme of a tyrannical boss who’s keeping their best employee down so they can have more departmental salary to buy better quality teapots, or their not reading the situation right. What I’ve usually found is that it’s usually not that extreme, and usually a mix of both a boss who’s resistant to promote, and an employee who needs to figure out how to communicate with them. Without knowing the OP, I’m afraid that sounding at all critical is taking sides – and that’s totally unfair.

    Still, this needs to be said: People are bad at evaluating their own work. Yes, in the OP’s case, it may be the rare case where the individual is absolutely objective about their own abilities and how they are perceived by those around them, but Dunning and Kruger have something to say about that. If you don’t trust your manager’s objectivity, you need to figure out how to get someone who’s not a good friend of yours, but is willing to give objective feedback and mentoring. And, as Allison and others have suggested, you need to work with your manager to understand what you need to work on.

    When it comes to a promotion, working at that level does not usually just mean “doing the work”, if by doing the work you mean the obvious, physical parts of the job. The assignments themselves are actually the most likely part to wait for the paperwork to be complete. A Senior teapot developer doesn’t just make better teapots – they’re also acting as a mentor to junior teapot developers, communicating with customers, putting together briefs for managers, etc. They’re getting good at communicating with their management and asking tough questions, and showing that they want to have professional growth. They’re observant about what people around them need. They look and act the part, to the point where people are surprised that they’re still “junior”.

    I’ve had people who were really good at the purely technical parts of their job, and sure that they deserved huge promotions, but they’d miss all the tiny things that, taken together, made it hard to make a case with management that they were truly senior. They’d randomly not show up on time, come to a customer meeting in flip-flops, forget to finish something that had a tight deadline (and then say their personal plans were more important than the people who had to fix their work), “forget” that something they’d downloaded off the internet had to actually be licensed before it was given to a customer, run in the hallways – colliding into a senior VP at one point without as much as an apology, etc. I’m sure the OP’s not in that boat, but when I see something like this, I wince a bit because it’s such a classic D-K symptom to go asking the internet why someone’s boss doesn’t recognize how great they are, and how they’ve heard from their friends that their work is good.

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