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I Can't Get a Promotion

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I've been working at the same job with only one title change for 15 years. My hurdle is I'm being held back due to personality conflict. I've trained all new hires (four people) including two bosses. They are very moody and difficult to please.

Most of my performance reviews are "barely acceptable." However, my boss routinely asks me for help.

I have asked to be promoted every year for four years. The title I requested became available, but in an area that doesn't interest me. I've asked HR to define my job and they said my boss has to do it. So I asked the boss to update my job description. He lied to me and said he did. (I checked it and nothing had changed.) Times are tough. My HR dept is not confidential. Help!!
Wow. A whole bunch is going on here. First, a common misconception is that HR is supposed to be like a counselor, priest, doctor or lawyer and keep information confidential. Sure, we keep a lot of stuff confidential (no, I won't tell you what your coworker's salary is), but if you come and tell us something, we have to make a determination whether or not we need to act on that information.

Some things are very difficult to act on while keeping confidential. So, if you come in and complain that you haven't been promoted, how do you expect me to solve that without saying something to someone else? If you just want someone to vent to, pick a friend outside of work. If you want something done about it, then you can come to HR.

(All right, I can hear that snickering, or perhaps guffawing from the peanut gallery. Yes, HR does actually do stuff about problems. It may not seem like it sometimes, and some complaints aren't worth addressing, but we do actually do work on those that are a real problem.)

Now, your boss is either incompetent or a wimp, or both. If you've asked to be promoted and you haven't been, has he talked to you about what you need to do to be promoted? Have you followed those steps? If you have, and you still haven't been promoted, then the problem lies with him, in that he's not telling you what you truly need to do to be promoted.

You may be missing some skill or quality that he cannot articulate properly, which is what is truly holding you back. Or, on the wimpy side, he may be afraid of hurting your feelings by telling you straight out what your problem is. You may have poor presentation skills, lack judgment when speaking to superiors, or poor project management skills.

Bosses do their employees no favors when they won't speak up about what problems need to be fixed. If this is the case with you, you need to sit down with your boss and ask him for specific skills you need to work on. I'd leave the whole promotion subject out of the picture. I'd just say, "Boss, I'm frustrated with the below average performance ratings. But I'm not quite sure what it is I need to work on. Can you give me one or two areas that I can focus on? I really like my job, but I'm not succeeding like I should be."

Then you need to listen to what he says. It may take some hemming and hawing on his part before he spits out what your real problem is. If he won't tell you a problem area, then your only possibility for advancement is to leave the company. A boss that won't tell you how to improve isn't someone you want to work for.

And now a few notes about you. I realize you see the fact that you trained new employees (including your superiors) as evidence that your below average ratings are inappropriate. Likewise, with your boss asking you for help. But you've been there for 15 years; of course you'll be asked to train people on the way the department works, or the company runs, or whatever. Everybody needs some level of training when they start a new job. And your boss asks you for help because that's what bosses do: they ask their employees to do things for them or to answer questions.

I've never had a job where I didn't know more about my area of focus than my boss did. Even back when my summer job was to stick pictures onto real estate appraisal reports with two sided tape, I knew more about how the pictures were organized than my bosses did. Why? Because that wasn't their job; it was mine. I'm not trying to brag. As a general rule, this is how it should be. You should be the subject matter expert in your job. Your boss should understand your job enough to do his job, but he's got a different job to do.

And so, when he has a question, he comes to you. Excellent. But you're not getting promoted, HR and your boss are giving you the run-around, and your performance appraisals are not so good. All of this indicates that you may be in the wrong place. 15 years is a long time to stay at a company. Staying may be the best course of action, but it does not hurt to start looking around for something new.

Listen to what your boss says, and work to make those changes. Things will either begin to look up, or it will become abundantly clear that you won't find career advancement at this company.

Photo by kyknoord, Flickr cc 2.0