I was 22 the first time I turned down a promotion. Just out of college I had taken a job in desperation with a company that did school photography. As in, Class Picture Day photography. While dozens of photographers swarmed in and out of the rural New Jersey office, I manned the phones, calming school secretaries and frantic mothers whose extra $20 in retouch fees hadn’t blurred their kid’s acne as effectively as they’d hoped. If memory serves correctly, I made $300 a week, just enough to cover my car payment. The job itself? I hated it.
Still, when I was offered the position of office manager just three months after I started — a position that promised to more than double my paycheck — I was psyched. Graduating with an art school degree in writing had left my career prospects slim and I figured I should take what I could get. I was all set to sign the paperwork when it hit me: while it might make me more money, moving up on a path I couldn’t stand would only be taking me further from the path I was hoping for.
So I stuck it out for another month — and landed a newspaper job that put me on the path to here.
Whether your own employment situation reeks of entry-level desperation or you’re simply looking to move up the ladder with a bigger paycheck, the offer of a promotion can be enticing. “Most of us are very flattered when we get offered a promotion and often that comes with the dangling carrot of more money,” says Karen Friedman, a communications consultant and author of "Shut Up and Say Something." But will more money make you happy? Where is your career headed? Will you be up to the task? What are your priorities?
“When the ego soars and visions of fatter paychecks and other benefits dance in our heads, reason eludes us,” agrees career consultant Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, Inc. “Bask in the praise, pat yourself heartily on the back, acknowledge the financial benefits, and then, after a few days, set all of that aside.” Ask yourself the right questions, she says, and you might find there are just as many reasons to pass on a promotion as there are to accept.
Reason No. 1: Because the promotion will keep you from the right opportunity
Friedman likens the career path to a board game: “To win, you have to be a step or two ahead of your opponent. In your career, if you’re looking forward, a promotion might bring you a short term windfall or growth but it might not take you to the top of the ladder or worse — to the top of the wrong ladder.”
Look at your long-term goals. Are you in sales but hoping to move to a more creative field? Offered a promotion in accounting but dying to work in advertising? Often the answer is that a move upward in a certain field can keep you from a lateral move that might be more beneficial long-term.
Reason No. 2: Because the promotion doesn’t mesh with your personal life
Steve Hall, the VP of business development for executive search and staffing firm Find Great People recently accepted a promotion that required him to travel for the better part of a year. He accepted, but not until he had spoken with his family. How would they manage his being gone four days out of the work week?
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Friedman says Hall’s decision is a matter of priorities. Her advice? Make two lists: The workplace priorities of the new position and the other your priorities at home. “How do they match,” she asks. “If that list is unbalanced, you’ll feel it in your gut that taking the promotion may not be the best idea.” Maybe you’re hoping to take time off to raise children, she says. Maybe you have to care for an aging parent and you won’t be able to fulfill both your personal and professional priorities. The goal is to look at your whole life — and everyone in it — to decide if the promotion is the right opportunity at the right time.
Reason No. 3: Because you’re a people person (or not)
One of the areas where Latham sees the most failure is when a task-oriented employee is promoted into a managerial role. “That step into management is hard for a lot of people,” she says. “It’s difficult to have a sense of accomplishment because helping a team to succeed often seems like an intangible task. If you’re the kind of person who measures your success in lines of code or high-quality design or other deliverable tasks, you might find that your success in doing performance reviews and managing employees might not be as fulfilling.”
Translated to other positions, Latham’s point is just as clear. It’s often the case when accepting a promotion that while you know the title and the salary, you know very little of the day-to-day tasks. Seek out a resource who can fill you in on this most-important of details, lest you find yourself in a position that doesn’t mesh with your interests or skill-set.
Reason No. 4: Because the promotion is a set-up for failure
“This is a big one,” says Hall, “And there are a lot of elements to consider.” Were you asked to take a role in a division or product line that’s struggling? Were you asked to fill a position that’s seen higher turnover than a subway turnstile? You might find yourself developing skills that won’t be marketable five years down the road when the line eventually fails. You might find yourself reporting to a supervisor who’s just plain impossible to work for.
Do your homework, he says, and consider the red flags before stepping into a role that serves the company’s interests more than yours. “The bottom line,” he says, “Is if you’ve been promoted and you’ve been asked to do the impossible, you’ve got to make sure you’re up to the task.” After all, he says, “The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to mow it.”
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