Blog Employee Experience

5 reasons why people turn down promotions, from stress to a lack of commitment

Updated 8th May 2022

Choosing the right candidates for promotion is one of a manager’s most hallowed responsibilities. A big promotion is the holy grail of immediate career development. Seeing a colleague rise up the ranks can light a fire under your employees by showing that hard work pays off. So, why is it that some employees decline these offers?

The fact is, there are plenty of reasons for turning down a promotion. Many of them don’t stem from a lack of drive or commitment at all. So, let’s break down some common reasons why employees don’t want to be promoted.

Stressed-out employees have enough on their plates

Unmitigated job stress is one of the biggest killers of engagement and productivity in the workplace. Beyond being one of the best reasons for turning down a promotion, overwhelming job stress can lead to burnout.

Burned-out employees will inevitably reconsider their place in the business. In fact, last year, research from Gallup found that 76% of employees experienced burnout at least sometimes, with 28% experiencing it very often or always. A further 20% reported experiencing burnout rarely, meaning that only 4% of employees never feel burned out at work.

It’s a good impulse to want to reward people for powering through the most stressful points of the year. But you might want to refrain from immediately trying to promote someone. A candidate may already feel like they’re being pushed to their limit. At that point, the last thing they’ll want is to take on more responsibility. 

An employee turning down a promotion because of stress doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll never want to advance. It just means you should see how they feel after a holiday, or during a quieter point in the year. You might also win them over by highlighting the support you can offer, and if it’s a manager role, their ability to delegate tasks.

Anxious employees doubt their own abilities

To say that anxiety isn’t fun is a massive understatement. And what’s more anxiety-inducing than a promotion you don’t feel ready for? Turning it down. ‘How do I say no to a promotion?’ is a question we hear a lot. In fact, our article on the topic is one of our most enduringly popular, so it’s clearly a common issue.

One of the simplest reasons for turning down a promotion is self-doubt.

Much like their stressed-out colleagues, anxious employees can the pressure and responsibilities a promotion can bring. Again, this doesn’t mean they aren’t committed. And it certainly doesn't mean they're trying to duck out of hard work. Anxiety about being promoted usually means they don't think they have the right skills or knowledge to fill the position effectively.

You might be able to bring them around by highlighting their strengths and achievements. Or perhaps by supporting their efforts to upskill into the role. But, even if they still say no, it’s important not to write them off in the future. Just because an employee isn’t ready now doesn’t mean they never will be.

Being promoted can affect work/life balance

For a lot of us, the balance between work and our home lives is quite fragile. Maybe it’s due to personal commitments, like children. Or maybe you have interests, hobbies or personal goals that take up what free time you have. As reasons for turning down a promotion go, it’s one that employees can feel understandably nervous about openly sharing due to accusations of laziness or lack of commitment. 

CIPD's UK Working Lives Survey had over 5,000 respondents. 60% reported working longer hours than they wanted. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, as 25% reported overworking by at least 10 hours a week. 26% admit that work affects other personal commitments, and 24% report struggling to relax outside of work because they can't switch off.

An optimist would say that career advancement comes with more control over your hours. But that's a sweeping generalisation. Taking on a serious management position usually means taking on more serious responsibilities. Even if that does include setting shift patterns, it's not without obligation. So, if an employee protecting their mental health and long-term wellbeing means declining a promotion, then so be it.

When is a promotion not a promotion?

That’s not a riddle, but a serious question. A very cynical person could describe workplace promotions as an easy way to get employees to do more work. But promotions generally come with an increase in earnings and greater authority, so obviously, that’s not true.

Except when it is.

A 2018 survey found that 39% of employers frequently offer promotions without pay increases. What’s initially more mind-boggling is that over 60% of employees would accept them. Men aged 18-34 were the most likely demographic to accept a promotion without a pay increase.

Piling more work on someone without offering more in exchange shows that you don’t value their contributions. Don't feel too smug if your employee accepts an awful deal from you. There’s a good chance it’s just because the job title will look good on their next application to a different company.

That’s especially true when you consider that people between 18 and 34 are fairly likely to be trying to advance their careers. Of all the reasons for turning down a promotion, this is one that you can't argue with. Compensate your high performers fairly, or you’ll lose them to your competitors.

Disengaged employees have no incentive to commit

So, we’ve talked about various reasons for turning down a promotion. We've also highlighed why they shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a lack of commitment to, or respect for, the business. But now, it’s time to talk about when employees refuse promotions because of a total lack of engagement.

Disengaged employees feel little sense of obligation in their role beyond what they have to do to get paid. There probably isn't attachment to their colleagues unless they're the only thing keeping them around. And there's definitely no attachment the business at large. It might be tempting to blame these employees for their own lack of engagement. It's easy enough to write them off as a bad fit for your workplace culture.

But don’t forget that, more often than not, it’s managers who should bear the blame. They account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. After all, no employee plans to become the boss they hate. And, if that's the case, then of course they don't want a promotion.

Tools such as a regular employee check-in, meaningful 1:1s, employee recognition processes and effective performance conversations can all help to improve employee-manager relations.

Get a better read on how your people really feel about work before offering them that killer promotion. Check out Weekly10 and how we can help you.