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Dilemma of the Month: Were You Passed Over for a Promotion?

Back Article Mar 10, 2021 By Suzanne Lucas

I’ve been working in a key position at my company for 20 years. When a management position opened for which I am highly qualified, I applied and, frankly, expected to land the promotion. My company instead promoted a male colleague who has similar experience but has only been with the company for 10 years. Do I have any recourse?​

This story is part of our March 2021 Women in Leadership issue. To subscribe, click here.

While you don’t say specifically, I assume that you’re a woman and that’s why you’re concerned about a male colleague receiving the promotion over you. Was this a case of gender discrimination? Possibly, but not necessarily. Here’s why and what you should do.

Time in Position Rarely Matters

There is some logic to the idea that promotions are given to the person who has been doing the lower-level job the longest. You often work your way up through longevity. And in union situations, this is often the case. Seniority brings privileges.

In the nonunion world, though, seniority doesn’t make much difference. What hiring managers should look at is the skills needed to do a good job in the higher role, not who has been in the position the longest.

You say you’ve been doing your job for 20 years, and your colleague has similar experience but has only been at the company for 10 years. There is probably little that you know that he doesn’t, at least as far as practical knowledge. Sure, you remember something that happened in 2003 before he joined the company, but it’s unlikely to affect day-to-day operations.

Having a similar background but experience in different companies can actually be a bonus. Understanding that the way your company does something isn’t the only way to do that process helps with flexibility, growth opportunities and the ability to handle change when outside forces demand it.

Managing Is Different Than Doing

Imagine that you work in a widget factory where you and 10 other people take widgets off the conveyor belt and put them in a box. You are terrific at this and can fill more boxes than any other employee. You are the best widget boxer, so should you be promoted when a management position becomes available?  

The manager spends only a small percentage of time touching the widgets. Most of the time, what the manager does is create schedules, solves problems between employees, ensures compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act by approving overtime, coaches struggling employees, trains new hires and works with other management team members to create more efficient processes.

And the manager is held accountable for sexual harassment, racial discrimination or other legal violations on the team. Suppose an employee has a disability or an illness; the manager must work with human resources to go through the interactive process required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to find a reasonable accommodation.

Whew! Can you see why the best widget boxer may not be the best manager? Being able to do the work is often a tiny part of the job. 

If the company leadership is looking for a new widget-boxer manager, it often makes sense to pass on the best doer and instead promote the person who has the other skills. Companies often look outside the company for managerial positions because they feel the current employees simply don’t have the needed skills.

What You Can Do

Of course you’re disappointed, and I’m disappointed for you. You’ve been waiting for this promotion for a long time. You can sit down with the person who made the decision and say, “I was really hoping for this promotion. Can you tell me what skills I lack that kept me from this position?”

Notice how I phrased this. You’re focusing on yourself and not what you perceive as the unfairness of the situation. If you say, “I’ve been here for twice as long as John! Did he get the promotion because he’s a man?” you’re making accusations and putting the person on the defensive. Remember, for his promotion to be illegal gender discrimination, you’d have to demonstrate that they chose him because he’s a man, not just that you were both qualified and they gave it to a man. 

Ask what skills you lack — and then listen. If there is a lot of hemming and hawing and no clear answer, then maybe you have reason to believe the position was filled unfairly. But if you hear, “You aren’t as good at X,” or, “We were looking for someone who could do Y,” then you have something to build on.

And, while I hate to say it, it may be time to look for a new job. If you’ve been in a position for 20 years without the promotion you want, it may never come at this company. There are plenty of reasons to stay in a long-term job — the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t and all that — and you may be approaching retirement there. 

All that is fine, but if you really want the promotion you feel you’ve earned and deserve, start looking outside the company. And take the feedback you receive and work on those skills as well. It will make you a stronger candidate.

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