How to Get That Elusive Promotion

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 9:22 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, I have worked in the same position at my current company since August 2006. I am an extremely hard worker who consistently goes above and beyond my job description and am always willing to work on projects that effect the organization, even if it has no direct effect on my department. My performance reviews since I have been working here reflect that, and I generally receive high ratings in every category. Yet, when I ask about being promoted, my boss says, "Sometime in the future." What am I missing? I don't know what you're missing, but whatever it is, it's important. I'm not talking about how you need to learn a new accounting procedure or cross train with the international marketing group. Your high performance ratings indicate that you are good at your job. It's probably something about how you present yourself, or how you interact with others, or how you speak, or dress, or process information. It may be that your boss can't even articulate why she's not excited about promoting you, but there is something going on here.

You need to find out what it is, and fix it. First, take a look around and see what makes you different from the people that have been promoted. Don't look at race, gender, or age. There may be differences there, but you cannot change that, so it's not worth your efforts. Look at how they act in meetings. Where do they sit? In the back? In the front? How do they act in response to challenges? Do they call, e-mail, or stop by when they have questions? Do they eat lunch alone in their offices, or do they gather in the company cafeteria and talk shop?

Suppose they gather in the cafeteria during lunch. You may think, "Well, I'm working hard at my desk during lunch, so I'm a better worker than they are." Perhaps. But keep in mind that those chatty lunches may get you in with the right crowds. In the midst of discussions about weekend plans, business topics come up. And those business topics are frequently problems that need solutions. If you're in your office, working hard, you aren't aware of what the "important" problems are, so you aren't fixing those.

Keep in mind that it may be something as silly as not wearing the right clothes. I know, I know, we should promote based on skill alone. Fine, but this is the real world. I have two friends whose managers came to them and said, "Your wardrobe needs updating." One swallowed his pride and headed off to the mall. He asked the saleswoman for help. He got a new wardrobe that was more in line with that of people in higher positions. His career moved forward, and he was promoted shortly after. The other insisted that her modest wardrobe fell within the company dress code and was just fine. She didn't change a thing. Ignoring her boss's advice did not endear her to the boss, it served to further build a wall between them, effectively ending her upward path at that company.

It's clothing, for Pete's sake. Yes, it is, but it made a difference for these two people.

It's critical that you figure out what you are missing. Ask your boss what non-work specific qualities the company values. This will vary from company to company, so there is no golden answer. Keep in mind that you may prefer to find a company that values your qualities, rather than changing to fit in where you are. Pay attention to those around you. Figure out what a person in your desired position acts like (not their end work product, although that is helpful as well), and then do that.

And be sure to revisit the promotion question with your boss from time to time. No one cares about your career like you do.

On Friday, I'll give you more hints on getting that promotion you deserve.

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Photo credit Mykl Roventine, Flickr CC 2.0