How to Say No to Promotion

It might seem unthinkable to those who endlessly launch themselves up the corporate ladder, but for many people there are times when accepting a promotion, especially when it comes with longer hours, additional responsibilities, more direct reports, and/or taking on an international assignment, is simply a bad decision.

Don’t get me wrong, most employees get the jitters when taking a new job, but there’s a big difference between nervous excitement and sheer dread. If your first reaction to a potential promotion is the latter, you need take stock of where you are in your career and make a call that reflects your complete work/life situation. If after your soul searching you feel that now just isn’t the right time, take the following steps to ensure you’re not sidelined indefinitely.

  1. Review Your Company’s Culture: In most organizations, professional development and advancement is encouraged, but in the end, optional. And let’s face it, promotions are hard to come by so don’t kid yourself with feelings of guilt about leaving your employer in the lurch. If you get tapped for one and decline, someone else will be more than happy to fill the spot. Of course if you are in a true “up or out” environment, you might find that saying no causes your professional stock to drop faster than the price of Christmas decorations on the 26th. In those rare cases, it’s likely best to find a more accommodating culture.
  2. Have a Reason for Declining:If your current role is the ultimate career stop for you, say so. Companies need A Players in various roles and will likely value your continued contributions. Of course, once you top out, your yearly merit increases may thin, but perform better than others in the role (or better yet, become a mentor and talent developer) and you’ll likely continue to see healthy bonuses.
  3. Give a Timeline: Many companies review talent, succession, and development plans at least once per year. If you are declining based on a temporary (perhaps personal) circumstance let people knowg. I’d love to take that assignment in China, but I have to opt out this year due to a personal issue. (No need to say more than that.) Just be sure to let them know when you want to be placed back in the high potential pool.
  4. Update Your Manager: Chances are he/she gets points for grooming rock stars so explain why you want to remain on the bench and discuss next steps.
  5. Be Honest and Continue to Perform: Many people stretch the truth on their development profiles e.g. say they are internationally mobile for fear of being overlooked in the future. Actually when you’re honest and temporarily opt out, you save HR and management a boatload of work. So express your affinity for the role, the company, and then continue to do great work. When and if your situation changes, you will be taken seriously. There are always political games to be play in the corporate world, but nothing trumps integrity.

So how often can you say no? This depends on the company, but a good rule of thumb is to treat it like you would a new friendship. Declining the first invitation is understandable. Say no twice and I’ll begin to suspect you’re not interested. If I ask a third time (rare) and you opt out again, I’ll save the proverbial postage and look elsewhere.

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