Why You Won’t Get Promoted… Fully Explained (Identifying the factors that impact your promotional chances)

If inflation has forced you to seek more pay, have you considered fighting for a promotion?

Unfortunately, most employees don’t fully understand that getting a promotion can be extremely problematic. Because at most companies, the corporate candidate nomination and promotion assessment processes are cloaked in secrecy. So be aware that your odds of success will be dramatically lowered if you approach the process in a loose, uninformed, and unstructured manner.

Instead, I recommend that you fully educate yourself so that you will know about and can handle the many identifiable factors that will dramatically increase (or decrease) your chances of getting a promotion in your organization. So if you’re thinking about a promotion, use this checklist that is designed to help you identify these proven multiple factors to significantly influence your chances of actually receiving a promotion. 

Understand That Multiple Factors Impact a Promotion

Although most employees strive to be promoted someday at their current company, few seem to realize how difficult the process can be. And that you can improve your odds significantly if you realize that many measurable factors severely impact an employee’s chance of getting a promotion.

Begin by realizing that the probability of success for the unprepared is low. In most cases, at least five employees will be given serious consideration. And if the process is open and fair (it often is not), that means that your odds of getting the promotion are only 20%. However, if you want to improve those odds, I recommend you use the following checklist that covers the factors that will either increase or decrease your chances of actually getting a promotion.

Part I – The Factors That Increase Your Chances Of Getting A Promotion 

Of course, every company operates differently. However, there are six identifiable factors that typically improve the chances of an employee getting a promotion. The most powerful positive factors are listed first. They include:

  • Your chances go up… when the employee has an executive champion – deciding who will be promoted can be a long, drawn-out, and highly political process. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the #1 factor that leads to success is having an “executive champion” that will proactively and continuously champion an employee’s candidacy. The most powerful champions usually come from “C-level executives” and executives from the revenue generation and product development areas.
  • The odds improve… if your manager excels at influencing executives – the #2 most powerful factor is whether your manager excels at influencing promotion committee decision-makers. This is a primary factor because those on the promotions committee often rely heavily on the sales pitch provided by the candidate’s current manager. And that is a problem in cases where your manager simply isn’t good at selling candidates. Also, be aware that there are cases where your manager may sabotage your chances. Because they really don’t want a candidate to leave their team for a promotion. And in the common case where your manager is not measured or rewarded for developing and moving talent internally. An individual manager can have even more selfish reasons not to fully support your promotion outside the team.
  • Your chances increase… if network members propose you as a candidate – in many cases, you can’t actually apply for a promotional opportunity. Instead, your name must be proposed by an executive or senior manager. And obviously, your chances of being proposed increase dramatically if you have a wide network of executives that know you and your work well. Your chances will also increase if your current manager also proactively proposes your name for the promotion that you seek. 
  • Your chances will also increase… if your network allows you to gain insider information on the promotion process – because the available information covering most promotion processes and their selection criteria is usually vague or completely unavailable. So to fully understand this complicated process, you must have and utilize an extensive network that includes executives involved in promotions and their support personnel. Then ask your network to give you a heads-up about the process and the selection criteria. Because if you are forced to guess about either of these two factors, you are almost guaranteed to fail. And because many promotional opportunities are never posted, this executive network can also make you aware of upcoming promotional opportunities. You will gain the competitive advantage of having additional time to prepare and also see if your network can identify the current incumbent’s strengths and weaknesses in the targeted job. The selection committee will likely look for candidates with similar positives and almost none of the same negatives.
  • The odds improve…when your organization has a tendency to hire internally – in this highly competitive talent marketplace. If you work at a company that struggles with external recruiting. Realize that the odds of getting an internal promotion will increase simply because outside candidates are not available. And if you think that most companies give a preference to internal workers when they fill open positions, you would be wrong. Research has shown that the majority of companies (55%) do not favor internal talent when filling open positions (Source). And if you work in an organization that does a majority of its hiring in the external market. This negative internal/external hire ratio will mean that because more than a majority of hires are external, there will, as a result, be many fewer internal promotions. So work with HR to determine if more than 50% of those promoted have come from outside the company. This tendency will further lower your chances of promotion.
  • Your odds improve… if the company has a career path map – knowing how others in your job family have historically progressed through the organization. This can reveal the most successful (and the least likely) typical paths that quickly lead to promotions. So, if you work at a company like Google, where HR has put together a career path map for all employees. And it shows how long previous employees in this job family took to move. And what paths most took when they moved up in the organization. You should be wary whenever any more than 1/3 of the promotions into management did not come from current employees in that job family.

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Part II – Factors That Reduce Your Chances Of Getting A Promotion

There are 10 identifiable factors that will hurt your chances of getting a promotion at your current company. The factors with the most damaging impacts are listed first. They include:

  • Your chances decrease… when many of your company’s promotions are “wired” – it’s a catastrophic mistake to assume that there will be open competition for each promotion. Because, in fact, more than 50% of the open positions may be “wired.” This means that the employee chosen for promotion has been predetermined before the assessment process began. So realize that it will take a strong executive network to identify whether your company has an abnormal number of these “false openings.” And whether the one that you are targeting has already been secretly filled.
  • Your odds will dramatically decrease… when you don’t know details on each step of the promotion process – it’s a mistake to assume that the promotion process will use the same selection process used for new hires. And because the promotion process is usually secret, ad hoc, and has many unwritten rules. Your odds of success decrease dramatically unless your network can help you learn each of the process steps and the details of how each selection factor will be assessed. In particular, be prepared to excel at executive assessment methods like live whiteboard exercises, interviews with key customers, and mock Board Of Director presentations. 
  • The odds decrease… whenever your manager is actively hoarding their talent – today when almost all managers suffer from the effects of record turnover. And along with these turnover losses, managers are also saddled with hiring freezes, budget cuts, and talent shortages. So when they are together. It becomes extremely difficult for individual managers to replace key employees that move on. So to avoid continuing losses, it’s important to know that many managers are now purposely giving promotions only to those employees that they judge as “a flight risk.” And that focus on limiting turnover will, unfortunately, decrease the promotional chances for those employees that have not yet been judged to be a flight risk. And if your company requires that you get your manager’s approval before you can apply for a promotion. Realize that some managers hoard talent and will come up with multiple excuses for not allowing you to pursue a promotion outside the team.
  • Your odds of getting more money go down… with an internal promotion – if earning more money is your primary goal. Before you decide to stay and seek an internal promotion, you should realize that there is currently “a gap in wage growth” that is widening between people who are staying put in their jobs and people who are switching (Source). This larger pay increase occurs when you take an external job. Primarily because your company already knows your current salary. So they will often purposely offer no more than a 10% increase with the promotion. Based on the assumption that you will be satisfied with that because you don’t actually know your real market value.
  • Your chances might be lower… if you have only been receiving positive feedback from your boss – revelation… managers are not always completely honest with their employees. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that when your manager has been providing you with only positive feedback, this manager may secretly withhold negative information because it may frustrate you and cause you to want to quit. So don’t be fooled. Instead, be prepared for the possibility that you really do have negatives that will eventually come out during the candidate assessment process.
  • Your chances might decrease… if the promotion criteria are focused on future skills and new capabilities – many candidates assume that the selection decision will be based exclusively on historical performance and your established skills. However, in today’s fast-changing VUCA world. Almost all chosen to be promoted are also expected to have developed “future skills,” which include the ability to use emerging technology, moving fast, but then rapidly pivoting and adapting. 
  • The chances of a diverse candidate may decrease… during the mostly secret promotional assessment process – because most promotion assessment processes are not clearly defined and occur behind closed doors. There is often only a small chance that anyone will find out. When the process contains potentially discriminatory elements, or there is bad behavior by the assessors, including using stereotypes and not minimizing both conscious and unconscious biases. So don’t be naïve if you are a diverse employee. Be prepared and come in with a plan to counter or overcome each of the likely diversity obstacles. In case of doubt, secretly use your phone to audio record your interviews.
  • Your chances go down… if you rely on the company’s weak internal job posting processes it’s a fact that most formal internal job and promotion posting processes are severely flawed. So be aware that relying exclusively on them will likely hurt your chances for promotion. Instead, supplement any use of this process with alternatives that can, at the very least, ensure that your name will initially be included in the promotion list.
  • Your odds may be zero… if you are applying for these unusual promotions – if you’re applying for promotion in a completely separate corporate business or in a different country. It is important to realize that in almost every company that I have studied. Literally, only a handful have ever successfully crossed the line between different company businesses and into different countries (even though most candidates met the qualifications). Another special case to be aware of is attempting to be promoted up more than one level. In both of these, an extended executive network and the support of a champion will be even more essential. If you expect to succeed where almost everyone else has failed.
  • Your odds may decrease… if you apply for too many promotions – one final problem area to be aware of is continuously applying for promotions. First, because continuously applying for different promotions can make you appear to be desperate. But also, being rejected more than twice may negatively influence your future promotional chances. You should also be aware that for some managers, whenever an employee even considers applying for a promotion outside of the team. That your manager might take this independent action as an indication of disloyalty. And if you fail to get the promotion, be aware that you will now likely be treated differently by both your teammates and your manager.
If you only do one thing – seek out and talk to any employee near your level that has recently been a finalist for a promotion. And then ask them for details about what to expect in the assessment process. As well as for preparation tips and any mistakes that you should avoid.

Final Thoughts

It is certainly true that due to a number of factors, including the need for increased pay and job security. An increasing number of employees are considering trying for a promotion due to the pressures. And that means there will be increasing competition for each internal promotion opportunity. So with this increased competition, it’s critical that you know, in my experience, I have found that those that blindly seek a promotion without the necessary information and extensive preparation don’t have much of a chance. Even if they have the required skills and experience. And applying and then failing may have the unintended consequence of labeling the employee as a loser.

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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