WorkWise: How to decline a promotion

culp@workwise.netSeptember 8, 2013 

Scott Kiefer maintains that people need to know themselves well before accepting or declining a promotion. He’s partner/vice president in Louisville, Ky.’s The Oliver Group Inc.


When an employer offers you a promotion you decide against, you could just walk away. Don’t. This situation presents an opportunity for you to keep doors open for other opportunities in the same company or industry.

Timothy Wiedman, now an associate professor of management and human resources at Doane College in Crete, Neb., accepted two promotions when he was the manager of one of his firm’s top regions in Toldeo, Ohio. The third promotion would require relocating to the much more expensive Washington, D.C. market. He could handle the initial 65-hour workweeks, but without a raise, he’d watch his standard of living plummet.

“I met with my bosses and presented concrete examples of why a raise was justified,” he says. “I showed that by streamlining D.C. operations as I had in Toledo, I’d save the company ten times my requested salary increase. But since I’d gotten a merit raise a few months earlier, my bosses weren’t in a mood to negotiate and turned me down. I had to decline the promotion.”

A year later, another person in the firm offered him another promotion, which he accepted.

When Scott Kiefer turned down promotions in the defense and oil industries, he left the organizations. Today, as partner/vice president at The Oliver Group Inc., a consulting firm in Louisville, Ky., he says that self-awareness is essential to making the best decision for yourself – “knowing your competencies, skills, education and experiences – and understanding the work environment, types of bosses or teams” where you’ll flourish. He describes these as “elusive” to many people, accessible only through trial and error. He wanted to be engaged in his work and knew he wouldn’t be if he accepted the promotions. Kiefer opines that many people lack the courage to leave organizations after being offered a promotion they don’t want.

“I tactfully let the hiring managers know and gave them my reasoning,” he explains. “The promotions they offered were not the direction I wanted to go. I didn't burn the bridges. I thanked them in person for the opportunities and for thinking of me, and then I moved on.

“Some of these individuals (later) sought me out for consulting work,” he adds. “They’d been able to find better fits for those organizations than I would have been.”

Transition coach Shelby Griggs works primarily with women through GALS Inspired International, which she founded in Dallas, Tex. After 20 years in corporate, she advocates treating a promotion turn-down delicately. “You are an internal candidate and the hiring manager either knows you directly or is familiar with your work and reputation,” she comments. “Every now and then executives decide to handpick people for key roles, but chances are that you applied for this position, which showed interest.”

You want to keep your reputation pristine and don’t want to appear wishy-washy, she says. “Base your decision on your career goals and be transparent,” she recommends. “Explain your professional (not personal) reasons for refusing the promotion” without getting lost in details. Make certain leadership understands your logic. She says that by doing this, you assure continued respect in your workplace and retain your candidacy in the future.

Griggs used this method herself and found it successful. Offered another promotion later, she remarks, “I accepted it. It was a much better fit.”

Both Wiedman and Griggs refer to conveying the “logic” of your decision to the employer. Wiedman further states, “I learned that turning down a promotion for a good, solid reason is not necessarily the so-called kiss of death. But make sure that your bosses understand the logic behind your decision!”

Dr. Mildred L. Culp of WorkWise® welcomes your questions at © 2013 Passage Media.

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