Blog Employee Experience

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

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. Even when a new job comes with a new title, benefits and opportunities for advancement, there are still plenty of reasons why an employee might not jump at the chance to be promoted. As their manager, have you considered why your employee might be turning down a promotion?

So why is it that turning down a promotion at work seems to be a growing trend for some industries?

Some employees are highly invested in specific roles

Promotions can often mean huge changes to an employee's workplace experience and work-life balance. And not always for the better. An increase in management responsibilities might pull them from the hands-on work they love.

Patricia Thompson, President of management consulting firm Silver Lining Psychology urges employees not to be pressured into promotions. In this HBR article, she discusses benefits of turning down a promotion when it isn't the right fit. Patricia uses the example of a doctor who took a management role, which replaced his patient care with endless meetings. He eventually left the position and returned to practising medicine.

Promotion to management usually comes with a broadening of responsibilities that can force managers out of their most meaningful work. It's worth considering how moving an employee away from a role they find very rewarding might impact engagement more broadly. 

Turning down a promotion at work can be a daunting task, some empathy from managers is advised.

Declining a promotion because it clashes 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, these things still play a 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 can employee's financial wellbeing. But have you weighed up 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. The phenomenal performance that earned that employee an offer of promotion might be down to 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 newly promoted people get the support they need to succeed.
Turning down a promotion at work isn't a rejection of a company altogether.

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

It's important to distinguish between when an employee doesn't want a promotion, and when confidence is a factor. 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 turn down a promotion without burning bridges:

  • 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.