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No promotions available you say?

You’ve heard this before, right? “No promotions available.” You’ve been working as a manager, for example, for years but have experience, skills and expertise of a senior manager. Your large employer has been through a lot of changes over the last decade. You’ve stepped up to champion and lead many of those change efforts. You’ve helped the company survive and succeed and to this day you continue to loyally deliver top-notch senior manager-level work, but you remain a manager–or whatever your level is–with a large compensation chasm between where you are now and where your senior manager compensation would be.

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Glass ceiling’s turning to stone?

Why are you still a manager after you were promised you’d be promoted after leading that huge program last year? In your end-of-year annual review it was explained that company budgets just won’t allow any new positions to be created and no senior managers have left or been promoted. So, you were told, you’ll just have to keep doing your A+ senior manager work at the manager level of pay.

Seems totally reasonable. NOT. But why do companies say this to employees. And why do employees accept it?

Let’s decode this

I’m not an anarchist (I’m actually very conservative) but as I look at some of my discussions I realize I’m very concerned about the individual and how his or her ability to see the real drivers and levers in a situation is so vital to his or her ability to make rational career decisions.

The behaviors of the individual impact how employers behave. Large organizations profit from–capitalize on–human resources. What you, as a human resource, decide to do influences your peers’ decisions, and what they are willing to accept, which in turn defines what companies are able to, essentially, get away with from a workforce/employment standpoint.

You, a top performer, have been sitting in queue for years, flanked by hundreds of others, waiting for a promotion. The company has said there are “No promotions available.”

But, wait. Isn’t the company profitable? And didn’t leadership get massive bonuses this year? So what’s the real story?

Keeping a traffic jam of employees vying for promotions is profitable

Extreme, irrational loyalty on the part of employees is sooooo profitable for companies. 20 managers paid $100,000/year queued up to be promoted, fully ready and skilled, delivering senior manager-level work for three years costs the company $6 million. Promoting those managers would cost at minimum $8 million ($135,000/year per new sr. manager). Then consider that example of $2 million in savings for 20 managers would have a massively larger financial implications for an employer with 200,000 employees whose annual compensation levels range from $30,000/year to $15 million per year. If every employee is paid one career level below their actual experience level for 3 – 5 years… well you see the value in letting the promotion bottleneck build up. The dollars trickle up toward the top while senior manager-level work is performed at manager-level pay, and so on.

The company is never a victim. They are making money, and at the end of the year they sit down and say “we’ve got this money, how much harder should we squeeze people waiting for their promotions?” If they squeeze hard, and people still remain and deliver great work, the company’s approach is validated and will continue.

It is a conscious, intentional financial vs. human resource-related decision on the part of the company, just like the decision to buy a new warehouse, or keep squeezing inventory into an existing warehouse to save cash so executive bonuses and profit reports are better at the end of the year.

Be rational – Focus on the facts

The confusing part is when we, as employees, hear the “we would promote you if we could” and accept that. It’s not rational to hear those words, yet see a differing reality, and believe the words.

What is rational is to say “I see that my promotion is a low priority, as I know we have delivered great shareholder value and I also recall a nearby top leader speaking of her new yacht. Clearly the company’s profits when somewhere, just not to me.” Observe the realities vs. the words.

They will never say out loud: “we value X more than you, but keep delivering great work.” So don’t expect them to. It’s your job to manage your career, not theirs. Just don’t let your judgment be clouded by pretty or well-intention-sounding words. Stay focused on the facts and their actions.

For example, when a company says it’s been named a “Best Place to Work,” look for the supporting facts in your personal experience. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do and what you experience. If it’s a great place to work, it will feel that way. You’ll feel rewarded, recognized and supported. You won’t have to tell yourself “I don’t feel rewarded, recognized or supported, but the marketing content says I should, so I must be confused.”

It’s not a great place if it doesn’t feel great for you. If you were sold the job based on “flexibility” but you work 24-7, is that really flexibility? I’ve written recruiting and engagement materials. It is generally aspirational: promoting what the company aspires to be. But your life, this year, next year, is too valuable to sit around to see if those aspirations come to be in the next decade.

Trust your gut

If you think “well, other people at the company must have flexibility, but it’s probably just the high profile nature of my job that results in me not having flexibility.” Really? Is that how much you love yourself? Trust your gut.

So when they say: “There are no promotions available…”

Decode that for yourself. Look at the actions vs. words.

  • If the facts show that many people around you are being promoted, then the company does in fact deliver on its career growth promises. Just not for you. If you are just not as good as your peers, face the music. There’s no crying in career growth. Be a solutioner. Time to look at your skill set and strengths and determine if you need to take a right or left turn toward something you will be promoted for.
  • But if the facts show that you and most of your peers have been sitting around for years, waiting for the promotion gates to finally open, you are likely in a company that’s made an intentional decision to profit by placing your rewards and career growth low on the priority.

Next time they say they love you and value you, with nothing material to show for it, put your hands over your ears and give them the old “nanny, nanny, boo-boo, you are talking but I can’t hear you” chant.

Stay focused on the actions, like their follow-through on your compensation increase, or promotion, or needs for flexibility. If they are not holding up their part of the bargain, there is every chance that some other employer out there will.


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