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Are you paid in compliments instead of raises?

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

My reviews are glowing, my progress non-existent. I feel like I am getting paid in compliments and not in salary and/or title. I have been with this company for two years and have always gone above and beyond. I even faced an angry employee who had just been fired -- sent in by the head of HR with little warning (I understand that she was scared) -- and calmed him down. This is just one example.

My reward so far keeps getting pushed farther and farther into the future.

When it was made clear to me that my department had little growth, I applied for another position. The formal explanation for why I did not get it was that the position was reviewed and that a more junior person was needed. Except I saw the acceptance letter left out by the fax machine. This junior person is getting paid $7,000 more than me and has a much better title. And a career path.

I have asked for a salary review and only received verbal responses. Praise. Praise. Praise.

I would like to bring up the fax that I saw to HR. It was just left there. I am not sure that I can, or how. I am not in a position to be unemployed.

I do my work conscientiously and go above and beyond my call of duty. I continue to do all sorts of favors and tasks for HR and the department that did not hire me. I am loyal to my boss of two years and never speak ill of a person whom many people jeer at.

At this point I see little recourse other than to look for another job, but I feel sick at two years that I see as wasted. And if I were a bad employee, I would understand why. Is there anything that I can do that I have not thought of?

Many, many companies are scared to death of having anyone know anyone else's salary. (I am actually in favor of a much more open salary policy.) And sometimes people become irrational and defensive about it. There's about a 50 percent chance that if you went to the HR person and said, "I saw this fax," that you'd be blamed for violating the privacy of whomever it was. The other possibility (which is more rational) is for the HR person to blame whoever sent a confidential fax to a non-confidential fax machine. (And really, people. Why are we faxing? Scan and email!)

But you ask an excellent question, and there are three realistic possibilities:

1. You are not as fabulous as everyone tells you. Some managers cannot give negative feedback. It's really hard to do! Especially if you like the person. Some managers will smile and give out praise all day long and then silently curse their incompetent employees.

2. You may be fabulous at what you do, but lack other critical skills. One of the biggest mistakes made in promoting people is taking the best doer and putting that person in as the manager of the doers. Doing is different than managing. Being an expert at task A does not necessarily translate into being an expert in unrelated task B. Also critical are the "soft" skills that tend to be difficult to even articulate. You may grate on people's nerves when you run a meeting. Or you may be a sloppy dresser and the powers that be don't want you in a higher role.

3. You may be so fabulous that your manager doesn't want to lose you. This is actually a common enough experience. It's hard to find good employees, so a particular manager may want to keep you. It's generally pretty easy for a manager to keep a particular employee from getting promoted. It can either be a direct request: "Please don't take Jane. I can't live without her!" Or a casual mention of, "Gee, I'm not sure Jane would be fit for your department." You've shown a lot of loyalty, and sometimes that can actually hurt you. Your boss assumes that you will never leave her, so why reward you?

Whatever the reason for your lack of progress, you can address it head on. You need to speak with your boss. While it's all well and good to meet with HR, HR isn't the decision maker when it comes down to promotions or raises. They can say no (and be overridden by management), but they cannot say yes. That has to be done by the manager.

You need to tell your manager that you are interested in furthering your career. I realize that this seems obvious, but it's really not. There are plenty of people who are content to stay doing what they are doing.

Ask which three skills would help you the most. Do not let your manager brush off this question. "Oh, you just need more experience," is not an answer. By using a number, it should push a real answer out. It also prevents a flood of 50 things you stink at. While there may be 50 things you need to improve in, no one can work on that many areas at once.

Ask what for the real reason you weren't given the other job. You know it wasn't because they wanted someone more junior. You don't need to bring up salary, but you can bring up title, which is generally public information. Explain that you know the other reason was false, but don't be accusatory. Rather, express that you really want to know what skill you were lacking.

Two years is not wasted time. Two years is not a long time to become an expert at whatever it is you were doing. Generally, you need 10,000 hours to master something, which is about 5 years of work. While you started the job with some of these skills, don't freak out if you haven't moved on in two years.

Realize that not every company has growth potential for every employee. In many small companies you must move out to move up. There's really no other way to do it. You need to gain skills for the jump between where you are and where you want to be, and they aren't readily available at the current job. You may need to move out.

The most important thing here, though, is to talk with your boss. You'll never find out where you're lacking if you wait around for someone else to promote you.

Have an workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

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