Katherine Plumhoff
December 04, 2019 12:15 pm
Morsa Images, Getty Images

After growing her set of accounts by 75 percent and hitting the million-dollar mark of revenue as a customer success manager for a human resources startup, Stephanie* felt like she deserved a promotion. With evidence and a clear request, she asked her manager for a raise by Q1 of next year. Her boss agreed that she had been doing an exceptional job and supported the request—she just needed to get it signed off from the department head.

Two weeks later, Stephanie followed up to check on the status and found out that her request had been denied. Their department didn’t have enough money, but her manager encouraged her to check back in Q2 to re-evaluate her case. Stephanie, just like many other people, had just been breadcrumbed. 

“Breadcrumbed” is communications coach Dia Bondi’s term for when you ask for a promotion at work and receive soft versions of a no: “Maybe next cycle,” “Not yet,” or “It would’ve been your turn, but we ran out of budget.” Essentially, you’re strung along, hoping those promises will come to fruition. “We can get breadcrumbed to death,” says Bondi, who developed a program called Ask Like an Auctioneer, which is geared to helping women ask for more money and responsibility at work. “It might be four years of waiting, and you’ve [either] missed the window or lost the energy, and the strike point has passed.”

And even though a “no” can be merited (e.g. the request falls outside of promotion cycles or you need more room to grow), you don’t want to lose your momentum. For this reason, Bondi suggests having a plan ready to implement if you hear a “no” from your manager when you ask for a promotion. But what exactly does a plan like this entail? Bondi gives us the full breakdown below. 

What to do when you’ve been passed over for a promotion.

1 Be clear about your goals and see if there are other ways to achieve them.

Did you ask for a promotion because you want more money? More responsibility? A chance to apprentice with someone? Depending on what your goals are, you might be able to achieve them, even when your boss told you no. “It could be that the things you need are agnostic of the promotion,” Bondi says. For instance, she explains that if you want new learning opportunities you could potentially make a lateral transfer to another team or sign up for different project work altogether. 

2 Ask your manager why and commit to a timeline.

While it would be nice to receive a raise every time we asked for one, there may be logical reasons why this doesn’t happen. If you’re told “no,” make sure you understand the reasoning behind it. Sit down and ask your boss why the promotion fell through and make a plan on how to improve and tackle these concerns firsthand. “You need to ensure that once you’ve closed those gaps in your performance, there will be no room for a ‘no,’” says Bondi. Whatever the reason may be, have your manager articulate when is the right time to circle back on the conversation, and commit with them and yourself to check-in on the selected date.

3In the meantime, line up sponsors.

“It’s great that your manager knows you want to level up, but you’ve got to get other sponsors (aka people across the organization who will advocate for you stepping into that next role),” says Bondi. Approach managers and senior leaders you’ve worked with on other projects who know your capabilities and ask them to help you get to the next level. If you don’t have any of those connections yet, use this period to build those relationships by taking on extra projects, like volunteering to recruit or working on a company initiative.

When you’re curating your sponsors, think about not just what they can do for you over the next three to twelve months, but what you can do for them. Send them articles that might be relevant to a project of theirs or let them know how their advice helped you. Either way, this connection shouldn’t be one-sided. You don’t want to expect them to give everything they have without giving anything in return.

4Be willing to leave.

If you’ve waited out your agreed-upon timeline, and if relevant, shown improvement in what was previously discussed, but still heard another “no,” then it might be time to go. “It’s not about ‘damn them, I’m out of here.’ It’s an acknowledgment of what they need and what you need,” says Bondi. “They may want to promote you all day long and not be able to. So what are you going to do? Sit around [and wait]?”

However, don’t stand up and quit on the spot. Start your job search by looking for a company that can match your ambition and growth path with the responsibility, title, and compensation you deserve. And make sure to give yourself some time to plan out your next steps. “The sticking point isn’t the mechanics—it’s the emotional fortitude to do it,” says Bondi.

Let’s be honest: Leaving a job is hard, but it’s good for both you as an individual and for the broader system. Putting pressure on organizations to respond quickly and fairly to women’s ambition is the only way to force change from the inside. And once you’re a department head or board member, you can change it from the top down.

*Name has been changed upon request.

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