Santa Isn’t Coming and Neither Is Your Promotion: How To Get Promoted

Some people are told there is no Santa Claus. Their dick cousin tells them as vengeance for a lost game of Monopoly Junior. Or they saw Gremlins.

Others figure it out on their own. I was one of these. It took me eight years of cognitive development to get there. The physical impossibility and the logistical improbability pressed at my young mind, but my biggest question was one of motivation.

At eight years old, I had recently begun to understand money. I’d come to understand that one Breyer Horse was equal to approximately one thousand years of untouched allowance. I’d also begun my education in the concept of Stranger Danger. I had a newly honed ability to scrutinize adults for their intentions.

And I found myself wondering, “If this old man has such limitless wealth and power, what is his angle in using it to buy presents for children he’ll never meet?”

So I asked my parents, and they confirmed. “Yeah, that’s a thing adults made up to incentivize kids to conform to behavioral expectations,” they said, in so many words.

The thing is, Santa Claus is not an isolated incident. False or greatly exaggerated incentives exist everywhere to compel you to behave yourself. I’d like to talk about one of those false incentives today. The merit-based promotion is a comforting myth that took me thirty years to unravel. Much like with Santa, it was a rude awakening, but I’m much happier knowing the truth.

What reason does a company have to promote anyone?

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Mr. Bighead has worked for Conglom-O for six years. He makes $40K per year, with a yearly 2% cost-of-living raise. Mr. Bighead is highly educated. He is a hard worker, and his peers look to him as a leader. He often works late nights and weekends, and is deeply dedicated to fulfilling his role to the highest standards. Mr. Bighead thinks he’s poised for a raise any day now.

He’s not going to get one. Why?

The cruel yet true logic of promotion decisions

Let’s apply my eight-year-old Santa-busting logic to this situation. You have to ask yourself what Conglom-O’s motivation is. Why should Conglom-O give Mr. Bighead a promotion?

You may be tempted to frame this question from an employee-centric perspective. “Because he’s earned it. He’s a hard worker, he gets results, he’s a natural leader, he’s put in the time, and he has great potential.” Assuming all of those things are true, a corporation has even less incentive to promote. Because here is the same idea, framed in the cold robotic voice of Conglom-O:

“This person has worked for us for six years, making $40K. Our budget for that role was originally $52K, so we’ve saved $72,000 so far by using him. Despite being cheap, he’s also done spectacular work. He fulfills the duties of a manager without actually being paid to do so. He works nights and weekends in exchange for a bare minimum of perks and recognition. Our HR department’s pay structure is such that managers make a minimum of $75K, so we would have to almost double his pay to get him to that level. So why on earth would we move him from his current role, where he is performing so optimally?”

In other words: “Why would we pay him $75K to do the job he’s been content to do for $40K for the past six years?

We do not live in a meritocracy

I think it’s easy for young people to get trapped into a meritocratic way of thinking because schools are meritocratic.

You work hard, you get good grades, you move on to the next grade level. Rinse and repeat. The best singer gets the lead role in the spring musical. The best athletes are on the varsity team. The brightest and hardest-working students get the best grades. These expectations were so firm that any deviation would cause a school-wide stir. (That time the band teacher’s son was selected to be drum major? FIFTEEN MONTHS OF DRAMA!)

It’s little wonder Millennials are so often accused of having an obsession with “fairness.” We expected it to be one of the governing principals of the world, and it ain’t to be found nowhere.

Your employer will work hard to promote the image of a meritocracy. It flatters the people who control such messaging (the leadership, who did get promoted at some point) and acts as a dangling carrot to inspire sacrifice and hard work among individual contributors. Don’t fall for it.

Your parents used the mythos of the North Pole to inspire you to be your best self year-round. Companies use the promise of future promotion to do the exact same thing.

No problem, no problem!

So what do you do if you want a promotion?

There are other ways to achieve a promotion that aren’t easy or wise to try to harness. For example, I know a handful of people who were promoted to their current role because they were the only person to survive a team-wide layoff. I also know people who shadowed someone of retirement age and pounced when the role became vacant.

Do not do these things. It’s so unwise. Too much can go wrong. It’s true that some wildebeests successfully cross the river by charging wildly right past the crocodiles, but that doesn’t make it a good strategy.

In my career thus far, I’ve witnessed only two successful techniques for getting a promotion that don’t rely on luck or circumstance.

1. Leave the company

This is the “caulk the wagon and float it” strategy for getting a promotion. No matter how the river rages, it almost always works.

Our grandparents and parents were far more likely to stay in the same job for ten, twenty, or more years. Even now, workers aged 55-64 stay in one job for an average length of over ten years. Workers aged 25-34 average only three years.

There are a ton of reasons for this, but one of them is that those older workers are more likely to be at the job level they want to be. Young people who want to advance their careers are getting smart to the idea that moving up sometimes means moving on. Learn from your peers, and do as they do.

Additionally, it’s hard to change your perception within a company. A current coworker of mine is thorough, highly educated, whip-smart, and oriented extremely strategically. She’s hanging around in a role she doesn’t like because she’s holding out hope for a promotion. It won’t come.

The reason? She started at the company as a high school intern. And that’s how they’ll always see her. She now has an MBA, but it hasn’t redefined expectations among her coworkers and leadership. In my opinion, she needs to move on immediately and start over in a workplace that views her as a serious young professional.

You always have the option to return if you leave on good terms. Any transition point can act as a springboard, even if you’re springing backwards.

More on job-hopping your way up the ladder:

2. Align your promotion to business interests

This is the “attempt to ford the river” strategy. It only works in very specific conditions. You need a cool head and ovaries of steel to attempt it.

Let’s go back to our earlier hypothetical. Conglom-O doesn’t want to promote Mr. Bighead because promoting him doesn’t align with their business goals. They like saving $12K per year on such a cheap, overachieving employee. They don’t care about such fuzzy things as “deserving it.”

Mr. Bighead has a much better shot of getting what he wants if he spots a way he can save the company even more money in a higher role. Let’s say his current duty is to put the bottle caps on all the bottles. If Conglom-O is currently paying $3M per year to buy the bottle caps from an outside vendor, and Mr. Bighead proposes a plan to make the bottle caps in-house for only $500K per year, he has a much higher likelihood of piquing upper management’s interest.

Saving $12K per year is cool, but saving $2.5M per year is a lot cooler. The company won’t mind giving Mr. Bighead his promotion and raise if the net is still a huge improvement to their bottom line.

Frame your request for a promotion as part of a larger business strategy, and make sure that strategy falls in line with your leadership’s existing vision. Express this as a time-sensitive business need you’re eager to fulfill. Pitch it in such a way that your boss recognizes it as a huge potential win for them. And make sure you attach a dollar amount, if at all possible. Improving processes, quality, and morale is all well and good, but remember that you’re talking to a business. Your ideas carry more weight if they can be expressed using dollar signs.

Citizens of Conglom-O, repeat after me!
"Wee wee!"

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(Also, if you were a little too young or a little too old for Rocko’s Modern Life, go ahead and watch it now. Everything Piggy and I write for this blog is a pale imitation of its comprehensive and utterly perfect vision of adulthood.)

16 thoughts to “Santa Isn’t Coming and Neither Is Your Promotion: How To Get Promoted”

  1. In my dead-end hotel job, I’ve seen a lot of employees come and go. Sadly, most of these employees were young females who were hungry to learn and start moving up the ladder. I made an attempt with a few of them. I said “less is more”. What I meant was: Come here, do your job, go home. Going above and beyond isn’t going to put money in your pocket in this joint.

    None of these ladies listened. They all got pissed and left. Which sucked, most of them were awesome employees.

    As for me, I don’t get promotions. I do get raises. And every year I go out of my way to do less work. And every year they give me more money. I show up every day. I don’t complain. I do the bare minimum. I don’t start drama. I’m clear about what I will do and what I won’t.

    I’m not sure how my philosophy would fare in the corporate world. I’ve never been a part of that. However, I think the one thing that does carry over is having a backbone. Not just with your boss but with yourself. Make a line in the mental sand and decide what you’re willing to do and what you aren’t willing to do for your company and never cross it. At least not until they’re willing to pay you for it.

    Great post. Love this blog.

    1. Thanks for the love! FYI that attitude would take you FAR AS FUCK in the corporate world. There are lots of people who make a show of working late and overachieving, and those people do NOT get promoted, for two reasons. 1. They’re valuable in their current role. 2. They aren’t perceived as leaders. They’re martyrs, not strategists. No one who drives themselves to death can be trusted with other people. A certain level of cool detachment will get you much further.

      In my first-ever corporate job in my mid 20s, a woman I viewed as a mentor told me that her professional motto was “I don’t care.” She was also making twice what I made. So I listened. I disengaged and was rewarded in exactly the way you describe: less work, more pay. The girls you worked with might have resisted in the moment, but I bet your words stayed with them. Sometimes you have to touch the stove a second time before you listen to your mama when she tells you not to touch it!

  2. Very good post. It’s very unfortunate that this is the reality we live in. In my old position, I was one of 3 people who could do a very specific type of job that supported 1/3 of our business unit (about 20 people). The 3 of us brought in millions of dollars in revenue per year, but management simply wouldn’t promote us even though we outperformed people with 15 more years of experience than us.

    The result? I left the position, then my boss left his position. This left only 1 of us who could actually do the work, and I imagine he’ll quit soon. The end result is they’ll probably have to lay off about 20 people, and lose $6 million in annual revenue as a result. They could have avoided the situation entirely if they paid us about $30,000 more in total.

    1. David, the EXACT SAME THING happened to me at a previous company! I was part of a team of six, running the entire marketing creative department for a Fortune 1,000 company. We saved the company $4.1M per year. Four of us (including myself) came in fresh out of college with a junior title. When two years passed, we asked for industry-standard title upgrades (and raises, natch) and backed it up with our amazing metrics. Management refused, and the entire team was gone within three months (the senior employees out of solidarity). The company went back to spending millions with external agencies because there was no one left to train them.

      One thing I forgot to mention is this: IT’S GREAT TO LEAVE THESE COMPANIES! They’re showing you what bad decision makers they are! You don’t want to hitch your fortune to such institutions for longer than you have to anyway.

  3. So true. I wish it weren’t but sadly it is.There are a few exceptions, but far too many companies see their employees this way. But you’ve also outlined the good news, which is that you don’t have to put up with it. Take action! Great post on an important topic.

    1. Exactly. If a company’s gonna treat you like you’re disposable, the best you can do is show them the exact same courtesy.

  4. The mistake that I made last year all had to do with timing of when I asked. Early in the year we went from a team of 5 to a team of 3. in losing those two employees those remaining had to pick up their slack. One was expected to just be out for a few weeks maximum and they kept planning to hire someone new to fill the 5th position. Over a year later and we still have just have the 3 of us but since we’ve had to cope with the added work load for so long it has become the standard expected of us now. In my performance review I tried repeatedly to highlight all of the added tasks and work that was taken on over the past year in a hope that an appropriate merit increase would be given (after all, they did lose $160k worth of salary they had to pay out and still got the same level of productivity out of our team). I was insulted by a 2% ($1.2k) increase and when asking the new manager was told that the manager who had just left the company had determined the raises and that he couldn’t give raised based on things that happened before he came but if I would like to take on new roles he could probably work something out in the next 3-6 months for me to work towards – how convenient.

    1. GREAT point tthat I’m sad to say I know well. I have a future article planned on timing. Basically you have to time your ask before your annual review AND before they determine next year’s budget. Can’t ask them to add blueberries to the muffins they already baked.

  5. My managers are actively working with me towards a promotion. It’s of course ‘you have to do the next level work before you get the title’. It is tricky because managers assign tasks, and to not step on toes, it’s not always best to just do things, I found at my last place. Last place the manager also took all my extras, what I thought I did that others didn’t and called it ‘other duties as assigned’. I won’t stand for that again.
    Our company went through layoffs in the fall, and at the time announced we were getting retention bonuses a % of our salary 1/2 paid in April, 1/2 paid in Oct. Then raises were a standard % for everyone (near my level at least). Thing is, my department has found a lot of errors and systematic errors in another department (it is our job to verify their work, we aren’t being jerks). They can turn out crummy work and I can find it, and alert management to a larger problem and we get the same raises and bonuses? Maybe it’s a bit of that fairness idealism seeping in, or its the interest in why a merit system can be beneficial. Companies are often afraid to lay people off for performance but if you make big mistakes and you know your bonus dwindles each time, it is incentive to try to get it right. In some places you can let the errors ‘go out through door’ & it will come back to bite the person. Not in this case. What goes out the door has to be the highest quality or all of our jobs ate at risk. *sigh*

  6. Question for Kitty: I am a (paid, thank god) intern at a pretty lucrative company for the summer. My job as it stands is fairly simple, but really heavy on emotional labor. I have an idea for a project that I’m thinking about pitching to my manager, and based on personality, she would take it well. The skill set it requires is hefty though; and even though I know I could do it, it’s about the same skill level as what my manager does, and she makes easily 6 figures. I would absolutely not get a raise over the summer, but I’m looking for glowing recommendations (I’m a college student and would like a job after I finish lol) and a break from the EL. Do you think that the idea is even worth pitching?

  7. I’m interning at an investment bank (not going to say which one) and everyone gets either promoted or fired after the first 2 to 3 years on the job (which is bad in a way but I guess better than being stuck). Like there isn’t a single person who stayed for longer than 3 years as an entry level employee. It get’s a bit harder to get promoted after that but over all, the firm has more of an “up or out” culture than “we will keep you stuck without a promotion forever” culture. It’s different for back office employees, though, but everyone in front office roles are either good enough to figure out how to get a promotion or get fired and replaced by new hires.

  8. Thanks so much for this post! I gave notice at my job today and this was super helpful to read (and re-read) as I was preparing to speak with my manager. My experience at my current company has been everything you outlined here. I took on lots of additional work that’s usually done by someone at the next pay grade. This has gotten to the point where clients and colleagues in different departments were asking me why I hadn’t changed my email signature to reflect my new title (obviously implying that if I’m doing this work, I must have gotten a promotion…sigh…nope.) By leaving my company I’m getting a nearly 30% raise (which I negotiated!), which is very likely more than I would ever get from a new title where I am now. Thanks again!

  9. I just stumbled across this post and you couldn’t be more spot on. When I had my first corporate job in my early 20’s I also believed in the meritocracy facade and was that chump working like crazy and killing it for a joke salary. When I was the only one not promoted, I learned real quick that connections and timing mean a lot more than productivity. I also agree with your advice that the best way for a promotion is to leave the company. Great article!

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