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Turning down a promotion at work: Why it happens and how to react

(Not) Climbing the corporate ladder: Turning down a promotion at work

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When openings appear at the higher levels of an organisation, it often makes sense to promote from within. After all, there are bound to be plenty of ambitious employees eyeing up that vacant spot.

But even when a new job title comes with those benefits and even the promise of further opportunities for advancement down the line, there are still plenty of reasons an employee might have for declining a promotion that can’t be boiled down to simple laziness.

So why is it that turning down a promotion at work seems to be a growing trend for some industries both here in the UK and around the globe?

Some employees are highly invested in specific roles

Promotions can often mean huge changes to an employee’s workplace experience and work-life balance, but not always for the better. An increase in administrative responsibilities might, for example, pull them away from the hands-on work they have a passion for, for example.

In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Tell Your Boss You Don’t Want a Promotion, Patricia Thompson, the President of the corporate psychology and management consulting firm Silver Lining Psychology urged readers not to be pressured into jobs they didn’t want and discussed the benefits of turning down a promotion when it isn’t the right fit (or right time).

Patricia uses the example of a doctor who took a prestigious management role, which replaced his patient care with endless meetings. He eventually left the position and returned to practising medicine.

Getting promoted to a management position tends to come with a broadening of responsibility that can force new managers to deprioritise their most meaningful work. It’s worth considering how moving an employee away from a role they find very rewarding might impact employee engagement in both the short and long-term. 

Turning down a promotion at work can be a daunting task, some empathy from managers is advised.
Turning down a promotion at work may be to protect love for the job

Declining a promotion might clash with other commitments and goals

Sometimes, an employee’s out-of-work obligations just don’t make it feasible to accept. While it’s important for career paths to be made accessible for people in different circumstances, these things can still play a major role in whether someone accepts.

One example would be family commitments, especially for single parents or those caring for other vulnerable relatives. If managers want to make promotions more accessible to people with these commitments, their best bet is to offer options for working flexibly, such as remote work.

Employees may also have personal goals unrelated to their day job. 

According to data from SME Loans, 64% of UK workers want to start their own business, including 83% of 18-25 year-olds. We can’t all go straight into our dream job, but plenty people seem set on getting there eventually. So employees may be reluctant to take on more significant roles that might compromise their ability to achieve personal career goals.

Additional job stress can negatively impact wellbeing

It can be easy to fall into the trap of only thinking about how promotions can benefit an employee financially, without considering the other aspects of their wellbeing that refusing a promotion might affect. Any of these issues might be reasons why an employee declines getting promoted at work:

  • Physical health: The physical effects of increased workplace stress include fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, and even stomach problems. These can become compounded over time, posing a long-term risk to physical wellbeing. The additional unseen stresses that can come with a promotion, such as a requirement to travel more frequently, can also make promotions harder to access for people with certain physical health conditions or disabilities.
  • Social relationships: One reason an employee might turn down decline a promotion is that the new position would move them away from the people they work best with, or into competition with them. It’s worth considering because the phenomenal performance that earned that employee an offer of promotion might have been directly enabled by stellar teamwork. Social connections in the workplace can be a real boost to productivity.
  • Work-life balance: Maintaining a good work-life balance is essential for avoiding burnout. Research by Deloitte has found that almost 80% of employees have experienced burnout at work. It’s important not to pile too much on one person, and to make sure people getting promoted into new areas get the support that they need to succeed.
Turning down a promotion at work isn't a rejection of a company altogether.
Turning down a promotion doesn’t mean an employee is rejecting the whole company

How to approach employees declining a promotion due to lack of confidence

It’s important to be able to distinguish between when an employee doesn’t want a promotion, and when they just aren’t confident in their ability to do it. After all, most of us have suffered from a bout of imposter syndrome at some stage in our careers, which can be a real demotivator in sticking our heads above the parapet. 

When offering someone a promotion, managers should offer their support and make it clear that they understand new responsibilities come with a learning curve. Taking an empathetic approach can go a long way towards understanding an employee’s reasons for declining promotion

You may be able to bring some employees around, but it’s important not to pressure someone into a job they can’t handle.

Turning down a promotion at work tactfully

Having to turn down getting a promotion at work can be pretty nail-biting:

Will you seem ungrateful? 

Will this affect your career or current position? 

What will your colleagues think? 

If you’re an employee reading this article, and you’re concerned about having to decline an offer, then here are a few tips on how to go about doing so:

  • Express gratitude
  • Affirm your commitment to the organisation
  • Take some time to consider the offer
  • Clearly explain why you are declining

If it’s just not the right time, make it clear that you’re interested in further opportunities. 

Also bear in mind that people may be given promotions for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes positions in an organisation become obsolete. In cases like these, the promotion you’re being offered may be a way of keeping you in the company. 

It may also be that you currently occupy a “track” position, such as an assistant manager role, intended to be occupied by people looking to progress through an organisation’s career path. In that case, it might not be feasible for you to keep that position long-term.

For more information on managing employees and maximising engagement, keep your eye on the Weekly10 blog.

Want to create a workplace culture that empowers your people, builds engagement and improves productivity? Let Weekly10 help.

Research Associate