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Should You Ever Turn Down a Promotion?

An unexpected promotion is not always welcome news. So it’s OK to weigh your options and do what’s best for you.


Business woman and face with stop hand for assertive and serious gesture for rejection at workplace. Corporate black woman in office portrait with palm zoom for warning, discrimination or harassment

Early in her career, Mary ­Humiston was working in HR for General Electric and agreed to a temporary assignment in China. She expected the gig to last only a few months, but things went so well that she was offered a raise and a ­promotion to general manager. The only catch was that she would need to stay in China for three more years.

Humiston says she was intrigued and flattered by the offer, but she ultimately chose to decline it. "Normally, I'm not a big 'no' person," says Humiston, now a senior advisor at Accenture who also runs her own career coaching consultancy. "But I'm a big believer in going with your gut."

Humiston says she had both professional and personal reasons for turning down the promotion. For starters, she wasn't fluent in Chinese. She also had concerns about feeling socially isolated.

Erich Kurschat also recalls turning down a promotion. After being offered a higher-level position with a broader focus, he chose to remain in his job as HR director at the food service company where he'd been working for the past 15 years. 

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Kurschat knew that moving up at his company would mean spending more time on work that he found less interesting. Unwilling to take that path, he left the restaurant chain in 2014 to start his own business helping workers and organizations assess their strengths and improve their workplace relationships. "Ultimately, I defined my own promotion," ­Kurschat says. 

 

Most people like the idea of climbing the career ladder and the monetary ­rewards that go with it. But promotions typically bring longer hours and expanded responsibilities—not always in the areas that an individual may find most interesting. It's a tradeoff that not everyone is willing to make, at least not at every stage of their career.

Deciding whether to accept or turn down a promotion can be particularly fraught for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized workers who may already face more workplace challenges than their co-workers, says Deepa Purushothaman, a former Deloitte executive and author of The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America (Harper Business, 2022).

If you do decide to take a promotion but have concerns about whether you'll receive the support you need to succeed, look outside of your organization for advice, says Sharon Givens, former president of the National Career Development Association. Like Purushothaman, Givens points out that people of color may have fewer opportunities to advance, making it more difficult for them to turn down a promotion they may have doubts about. Professional organizations are a ­particularly valuable resource for them, Givens says. 

If you are tapped for a promotion, there are some factors to consider before accepting or turning down the opportunity.

Do You Want the Job? 

First, decide whether you're being offered a job you even want, says Tammy Gooler Loeb, a Boston-based executive career coach who hosts Work from the Inside Out, a podcast about making work-related transitions. Consider whether the position interests you and if you would be good at it, Gooler Loeb says. Also consider the impact the job will have on your life outside the workplace.

Gooler Loeb says people on their way up the career ladder should realize that supervisors aren't always interested in—or even necessarily good at—matching the right person to the right job. Make sure your organization isn't simply scrambling to fill a vacant position, she says. 

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Key considerations include whether the position is right for you at this particular stage of your career and whether it's in line with your personal and professional goals. "Job elevation is in the eye of the beholder," Gooler Loeb says.

 

"More and more women I work with want to make work fit into their lives, not make their lives fit into their work," says Purushothaman. "It feels like a shift. These women have faced a sort of reckoning and aren't willing to look past some of the things they had to accommodate or tolerate in the past."

Gooler Loeb says if you're unclear about what a new job entails, ask for clarification, especially if you're being promoted to a newly ­created position. "If you can't get a job description, to me that's a red flag," Gooler Loeb says. She advises that employees on the way up also ask whether they'll have the resources and staff to get the job done.

Are You Ready? 

Be honest with yourself and your employer about whether you're prepared for the promotion. It may not be necessary to have all the core skills of a new position, Humiston says. But if you're less than 75 percent there, "you're being set up for failure," she warns.

However, women in particular should be wary of selling themselves short. Research shows that women are more likely than men to underestimate their abilities. A 2019 study by the research and consulting firm Be Leaderly found that women are less likely than men to be comfortable applying for a new role when they meet only the "bare minimum" requirements (55 percent versus 65 percent, respectively). Women also are less likely than men to ­overestimate, or "round up," their skills when assessing how ready they are for a new job.

If you like the job that's being offered but don't feel fully qualified for it, ask about training opportunities that can build your skills and confidence, advises Bob Goodwin, president of Career Club, a career counseling consultancy in Ohio.

Do You Want to Manage People?

Before accepting any promotion, give careful consideration to how much time you'll have to spend managing others. Think carefully about whether that's something you want to do and whether you'll be good at it, Goodwin advises. If the promotion puts you in charge of a new team, pay attention to that group's track record, reputation and turnover rate. 

A good people manager may be able to inspire workers and improve a team's subpar performance. But consider whether the benefits of the new position are worth the headaches you might inherit. If you're not thrilled with your new team, ask if you can bring in some people who you know will perform well, advises ­Purushothaman.

Who's in Charge? 

Know who your boss will be, and look for clues about their management style. When possible, talk with others who have firsthand experience working with your new boss, advises Charles Jett, a certified job coach in Chicago. Try to find out how long your predecessors stayed and why they left.

Also try to get a feel for the organization's management style. Will you have the authority to make decisions independently, or will you have to run every new idea up a bureaucratic flagpole? 

What About Work/Life Balance? 

It's not uncommon for a promotion to force a hard choice between spending more time on the job and spending time on family, friends or outside interests. Put another way, Goodwin says, you may have to decide whether it's more important to have the time to see your daughter play soccer now (because you didn't take the promotion) versus having the money to send her to the college of her choice later (because you did take the promotion).

What Happens If You Say No? 

If you do choose to turn down a promotion, know that your decision may have repercussions. If your boss thinks you lack drive, you may be passed over for more suitable or better-timed promotions in the future.

If you're sure that the job or timing isn't right for you, experts advise keeping the door open to future advancements. Explain to your supervisor why you're not ready for the promotion and ask about interim steps that you can take to gain the skills and experience to improve your chances of success. Look for opportunities both within and outside your organization that can help fill the gaps.   

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Va.

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