When You Are Denied a Promotion

By Dr. Lynn Friedman
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 23, 2005; 12:25 PM

You have been repeatedly turned down for promotions despite consistent stellar reviews, excellent bonuses, impressive pay raises and an array of other kinds of formal recognition for a job well done. You're not a member of "the majority" and you are beginning to wonder if these rejections are because of your age, culture, sexual orientation or gender. If so, what can you do about it?

Before considering the worst, consider what other factors might be hampering your efforts to be promoted. Your boss may have reasons that have nothing to do with your minority status. She may be more dependent on you than you fully appreciate. For her own reasons, she may be afraid to lose you. Alternatively, you may be being turned down for promotions for other reasons. If this is the case, you want to learn as much as you can about why so that you can take effective steps to rectify the situation so that you can accomplish your work-life goals.

Make an appointment to talk with your boss. Approach her in a quiet, non-threatening way. Let her know what you appreciate about her.

Focus particularly on how she has been supportive of you and your work.

Let her know the ways in which you have felt recognized. Say something like, "I have appreciated your support over the years. I have always felt recognized and respected for my work. I've appreciated the pay raises and the bonuses."

Then, ask for her guidance and advice. Start by describing your situation to her in a straightforward fashion. For example, you might say, "I have applied for five internal promotions and I have received five rejections. This has been very difficult. My goal is to grow within the company. I would like to be promoted. I would like to try to better understand what I might do to be successful in any subsequent applications. What do I need to change?"

If these have been her decisions, ask her to help you to develop a plan aimed at making you more successful in your future applications. Ask her where she feels your deficits lie. If decisions have been made by others, ask her to help you to learn more about them.

Make sure to help her to be as specific as possible. To do this I recommend that you use two techniques, both described in wonderful detail by author Manual Smith in "When I Say, No, I Feel Guilty." The first technique is to ask her to elaborate. For example, if she says that you have problems with your communication skills, say, " I am not sure that I know what you mean by problems in my communications skills, can you tell me more about it?"

When she gives you some examples, summarize them and repeat them back to her. This will show her that you are listening and trying to understand.

The second technique is to agree with her while asking for more information. For example, she says you have lousy communication skills. You can say, "Yes, sometimes I feel like I am not a very good communicator, can you tell me more about it? In what ways do you feel that I am unclear or ineffective?" Keep drawing her out. Your task is to get as clear a picture as possible of just how she sees you.

Allow her to give you complete feedback. Let her criticize things that may be related to your "differences." The key here is not to disagree or to become adversarial, but rather to listen and to encourage her to be completely candid. Once you have this information, ask her to help you to develop a professional development plan to overcome your shortcomings. See if the company is willing to send you for trainingso that you can improve. If they are, take advantage of their generosity and ask your boss to meet with you again in a few months to review how things are going.

Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst and work-life consultant in full-time, private practice near the Bethesda metro. She is on the adjunct faculty in the Organizational Development-Human Resource program at Johns Hopkins. More of her work can be found on http://www.drlynnfriedman.com/.

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