How to Say No to a Promotion Without Losing The Career Opportunities You Really Want

Posted by Tony Fornetti on 5/30/19 10:10 AM
Tony Fornetti
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Whether you’ve been in the full-time work force for a week or a couple of decades, you’ve probably noticed that there is no shortage of “career advancement” advice out there.  But have you noticed that most of that advice is pretty narrow?  So narrow, in fact, that it goes in one direction only:  up, up, up.  Any great career coach, recruiter or mentor can give you solid advice on how to ascend the all-important promotion track.  But what if you love what you’re doing right now?  What if you don’t have the skills – or the aptitude – to take on that job one rung up the corporate ladder?  Conversely, maybe you’re one of the growing number of successful professionals who are more than qualified to succeed in that bigger job – but you just don’t want it.  You may fear that it would rob you of precious family or social time.

You’re not alone.  You’re not crazy.  (Even if you feel surrounded by people telling you that you are.)  And – more good news – saying no to the promotion does not have to mean career suicide.  As a headhunter in the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota, I’ve worked with a growing number of highly qualified, highly sought-after people who have simply decided that, for them, there are more important rewards to pursue than a bigger job title.  How were they able to turn down the next big job without sacrificing careers they love?  They followed a series of simple steps.  If you’re at a promotion crossroads, check out the tips below.  With a little homework, decision-making, and very careful scripting, you can not only survive the decision to plateau for a while; you may find that plateau is the richest place for you to be.

1.  Re-evaluate your life goals and how your career path supports them.

Do you love your work, admire your company, and feel like you have enough time away from the office for your family, friends and other interests?  Would the answers to be “yes” if you took the promotion?  If you want to be home every evening for dinner, more “on call” for your kids than your employer, be honest with yourself about that before taking on something that may chip away at the very things you need most in your life.  What are the financial trade-offs involved?  Can you afford to stay at the pay scale where you are now?  What about the stress trade-offs?  Poor balance between work demands, family demands and pure relaxation can lead to burn-out in every facet of your life.  What about the factual realities of the bigger job?  Is it too big for your skill set?

2.  Put it all on paper.

Soul searching is only the first step.  Don’t stop there.  You need to solidify your thoughts before you can make concrete plans.  Write the job requirements on one column of a sheet of paper.  Include the requirements on formal description – but also include the things you know through observation.  Does it require weekly travel?  Managing difficult people?  Note those things.  In the column next to this one, make an honest evaluation of your abilities to take on those responsibilities, grow into them, and thrive.  You’ve been offered the promotion because you’re successful.  Don’t become victim to the Peter Principle.

3.  Be sure you understand your employer’s promotion-track expectations.

Look around you.  What is your employer’s own track record with promotions?  If you’re in a hard core up-or-out environment, you’re likely not going to fare well after turning down an offer of a bigger job.  While this may have been a great place to work up until now, it may not be the right place for you going forward.  Who are the people getting promoted?  Are they happy?  Are they good at their new jobs?  What happens to the employees who remain plateaued?  Are they valued?  Are they fulfilled?  Ask them.  Consider asking your manager how they would react to your decision to put a pause on your vertical growth.  There is a loose, unwritten rule – followed by many organizations – that saying “no” is treated like a mistake:  do it once and you’re forgiven.  Twice and there’s a question mark by your name.  Three times and the analogy gets a lot like baseball.  You might be on your way out.

4.  Make your decision

Yes.  This is a separate step.  You can always change your mind.  It’s your life.  You have that right.  But for the right now, you need to put a stake in the ground.  Are you going for it?  Or is your current job truly the right thing for you right now?

5.  Script and convey your decision thoughtfully

The truth is, it is still considered risky to turn down a promotion.  That doesn’t change what’s right for you.  It does mean you should prepare your talking points carefully – and deliver them even more carefully.  When you tell your manager that you need to pass on the opportunity, keep this rule in mind:  this is a sales pitch.  While you should share some of your own reasons for wanting to stay put, you must present most of your argument in terms of benefit to your boss and the organization.  Fold your talking points into this easy format:

  • Always start with a sincere thank you.
  • Emphasize what you love about your job, your department, your boss and coworkers.
  • Do not devalue yourself or your contributions by describing yourself as not talented enough for the promotion.
  •  State clear benefits to the organization of you staying where you are.  Provide at least 2-3 concrete ways that your knowledge and command of the current job will pay off for your employer.
  • Offer to help with the selection or onboarding of the new hire.
  • Keep the door open for the future.  There is no reason to burn bridges.  State clearly why this is a decision that fits for you in the right now.  You’re enjoying growing in your current job.  And, as your own life balance shifts (as your kids get older, or your spouse’s travel schedule changes, etc.), you might find a bigger job to be the perfect fit.
  • Own your decision.  You’ve made a choice based on your values, yourself and your family.  So don’t apologize. And don’t let others devalue your decision.  Enjoy your successes, keep growing and carve out the career path that’s right for you. It’s your life.

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