7 Dark Reasons Why Good Workers Don’t Get Promoted


You might be one of the top performers in your company or department – maybe the top performer. But you don’t get promoted – why? It could be that you lack a critical skill, or maybe even a significant credential. But just as often – maybe even more often – is something less objective, less holy. Though we prefer to believe that the world truly works on a merit system and rewards top performers, there are dark reasons why good workers don’t get promoted.

Here are seven of them, and I’ll bet you can come up with a few more without even thinking about it for too long.

1. They Need You Right Where You Are

Every department relies heavily on a small group of people to carry the load. There may be 10 people in a department, but the heavy lifting is done by just one or two. These are the “go to people”, and everyone loves them, especially when there’s a difficult task to be parceled out, or a busy season to be survived.

7 Dark Reasons Why Good Workers Don't Get Promoted
7 Dark Reasons Why Good Workers Don’t Get Promoted
Sometimes go-to people do get promoted. But in too many situations, management wants such people right where they are, keeping the system in balance. Yes, promoting them may be the right thing to do, but it might not happen if doing so will significantly upset the workflow in the department.

For their own convenience, the powers-that-be may choose to leave you exactly where you are. Instead, they might promote somebody who is less capable, because the move won’t be as disruptive.

There’s even a name for this phenomenon: The Peter Principle. It holds that every employee tends to rise one step above their level of competence. It also goes a long way toward explaining why so many managers are mediocre – or worse.

2. You May be Too Independent

It’s often true that the most productive people in any organization are also the most independent. That’s because independence is a big part of what drives them to be so efficient. It’s one of the qualities that creates the much coveted self-starter.

But organizations and bosses don’t always see independence as a positive trait. They might politely tolerate it because you are so productive. But at the same time, they may not want to reward it either.

In an organization, everyone is first and foremost a link in the chain. Systems tend to promote people who recognize their link status, and are comfortable with it. Sadly, if you are an innovator, your efforts to change the workflow are not always considered in a positive light. It’s a phenomenon of the times that we can refer to as systems over people.

In such an environment, management may prefer people who are more compliant to those who are self-reliant. The compliant will be promoted precisely because they aren’t expected to rock the boat.

3. You May be a Threat to Your Boss

I’ve seen this in different organizations, and I’ll bet that you have too. There are people in the department who are more competent and capable than the manager who oversees them. It’s not just the rank-and-file who are aware of this either – the boss is only too aware of it.

The boss may have reached his position of rank due to some factors that we’ll discuss below. But suffice it to say that he may be keenly aware of the potential threats that exist in the food chain in his own department. He may even have evolved into an expert practitioner in regard to keeping those threats – the most productive people – from taking his job.

While on the one hand, as one of the most productive people in the department, you may insulate your boss from her own incompetence. But at the same time, if she believes you’re threatening her position, you can rest assured that your name is featured prominently on some sort of unwritten hit list.

This can also explain why from time to time your job is threatened. It’s not just how you feel, it’s what’s really happening. Every so often, a less-than-capable manager will execute an assault on people in the department who he considers to be a threat.

It’s something of a periodic beat-down process, in which the boss is letting you know who’s in charge. The least secure bosses tend to do it the most frequently. It can take the form of either unwarranted criticism of your performance, and extend even to threatening your job.

It’s not that you’re not getting the job done, but rather that you’re getting it done too well. It’s what can happen if your own competence and standing within the organization represents a threat to your boss.

4. You Don’t “Fit the Suit”

I once worked for a large pharmaceutical company where everyone in critical management positions where tall, white men. I also worked for a national mortgage company in which everyone of rank within our department chain was a woman. I worked for a smaller mortgage company in which most of the sales staff were 20-something Ivy League (or equivalent) graduates. Get the picture?

While it’s comforting to believe that organizations hire the best and brightest candidates available as a matter of survival, it’s not always true.

Many organizations have an unspoken concept of who represents the most desirable employees. Very often, it’s an attempt to build a certain image. For example, a company may try to position itself as young, vibrant and attractive. They will attempt to make this image a reality by hiring people who are consistent with that profile.

This is a major reason for age discrimination, a particular form of employment discrimination that’s much more rampant than believed, but rarely challenged legally. If you don’t “fit the suit” you probably won’t be hired – and certainly not promoted. And if the “suit” is modified in a way that excludes you after you’ve been hired, you probably won’t be there for very long.

5. You’re Not an Insider

“Insider” can refer to different attributes, depending on the organization. Nepotism – the practice of hiring and promoting family members – is one example. Promoting people who fit the suit is another.

But insider status can also be acquired and maintained by those who are most adept at getting “in” with the boss. This can include coworkers who act as informants for the boss. Such types are particularly welcomed by less capable managers who feel threatened by certain members of the staff. The informant is seen by the boss as a welcome ally. The fact that the employee may otherwise be below average is secondary. When promotion time comes, the informant may very well be at the top of the list.

Some people are very good at brown-nosing their way to greater influence within the organization. They succeed at least in part because bosses value loyalty very highly. And the more insecure the boss is, the more that loyalty is likely to be rewarded in the form of both praise and promotions.

6. You Have Incompatible Outside Interests

What you do outside the job should have no effect on the job itself. But I think we all know that isn’t true.

Everybody likes surrounding themselves with people of similar interests, the workplace is no exception. Management may have a preference for promoting people with certain interests, such as sports, religion or even family status. For example, management may prefer single people who don’t have family obligations to compete with the job (or they may see single people as more likely to be party animals).

Management may also see the job as extending into social activities. Have you ever worked in an organization where management was particularly fond of drinking after work, or at extracurricular activities? I have, and I learned that if you’re not a drinker yourself, your status in the organization will be lower.

I’ve worked in companies that made a regular practice of attending after work happy hours. Some purposely scheduled meetings after working hours and at venues that serve alcohol. Each meeting seamlessly melds into happy hour.

In such environments it often seems as if management is looking for drinking buddies more than competent, productive employees.

If you notice that the prominent people in the department or organization seem to have a common bond of certain extracurricular activities – that you don’t share – the likelihood of getting promoted will be greatly reduced.

7. Someone Doesn’t Like You

I saved this reason for last precisely because it’s the most obvious. But if your boss, your boss’s boss, or one of your boss’s informant first lieutenants don’t like you, you won’t be promoted. You may even spend a lot of time in the doghouse, despite being one of the most productive members of the staff.

Personal preferences do have an effect on promotions. In fact, they are central to the existence of the organization. The problem is that organizations can often resemble popularity contests – it’s like high school all over. And the rules are the same.

I’m guessing that everyone has been on the losing side of this arrangement. It doesn’t matter how well you do in your job, or even what other people in your department or your organization – or even the customers and clients – think about you. If the people who are in a position to promote you don’t like you on a personal level, your future with the organization is extremely limited.

So what’s the point of detailing all of these dreary circumstances? It’s to let you know that sometimes you’re just in the wrong place. This list can help you identify that fact. And if that’s where you are, you may need to move to a different department or employer in order to move forward in your career.

As an example, a very competent and highly productive coworker of mine, working in an organization where he was never going to be promoted, changed jobs and was made the department head of the new company. You may have to do the same thing.

The other is to help you to understand when you seem to be under attack on your job, that it may have nothing to do with you or your performance. You may be doing everything right, but you’re being attacked because of the incompetence and insecurity of the people higher up in the chain of command.

Have you ever experienced any of these situations? What did you do about? And how did it turn out?

( Photo by AFGE )


12 Responses to 7 Dark Reasons Why Good Workers Don’t Get Promoted

  1. I found every point to be true. When still working (in a government setting) we always commented that the person who got the job was the one most like the managers making the selection. Or perhaps even worse, the person who got the job was the one the managers wanted to hand off to someone else so they didn’t have to deal with that person any longer.

  2. Hi Kathy – It’s the same in private sector jobs. I think it’s all driven by human nature, so the setting doesn’t really matter, the end result is always the same. Managers are looking for continuity and loyalty. Continuity is best maintained by keeping the strong performers exactly where they are.

    I think this is one of the major reasons I chose to become self-employed. After moving from one employer to another, I began to realize that it was the same all over, and my best strategy was to exit the asylum for good.

  3. Having been that person who made life easier for others to get the job done and trained others to be ready for promotion, I tolerated it until the point came in my life that it was time to step up to the plate and push all blocks in my path aside. I had been passed over by several reasons–One, I did the work of multiple people, second, I could supervise department without a manager present third,even though I was working 40 hours, I had another job so it was thought I didn’t need a promotion, fourth, I wasn’t part of the social group outside of work (too busy working 80 hours to make ends meet). I could go on with many more excuses but I finally went up to the head manager of the store and asked if I could be considered for a full time position listed in another store that was easy for e to get to. (One of my job conditions was that I could get to job by public transportation easily). 3 days after I made request, I was given the position by HR who wanted to know why I hadn’t been promoted 3 years ago as I was more than qualified to not only be a full timer but could also be considered for a manager position. Within 6 months of getting that position, I got my own department and I didn’t quit my other job until the 2 companies merged into one company.

  4. Wow Maria, that’s quite a story! You could have been the subject of this article! You took a risk stepping up to the plate but it worked out. It doesn’t always. Sometimes the department or company is so entrenched that they resist change. Fortunately that wasn’t the case with you. I’m glad it had a happy ending because it usually doesn’t.

  5. I’ve seen it happen time and again…someone simply doesn’t mesh well with a particular supervisor or organization and spends an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to make it work but once that person finally leaves, he or she often does quite well. A friend of mine, for example, has a BIG personality yet was trying to fit into a fairly subdued corporate environment. She stayed there for years trying to make it work and being passed over by supervisors. To their credit, they did tell her that she might do better somewhere else but it took her years to leave. Once she did though, to a start up organization, she did quite well and is much happier. (Conversely, I’ve also seen the ‘wrong’ people get promoted simply because of timing such as when a position has to be filled quickly after the departure of someone.) In any case, I think the takeaway is that, as you say, no matter what, we are all responsible for ourselves – our supervisors are not our parents and it is not up to them (or anyone else) to make things happen for us. If our career isn’t happening where we are for whatever reason, it’s no one’s responsibility but our own to do change it, even if that means making the effort to move on…

  6. Hi Suzy – It can be tough to leave a job in this job market. As good as “they” say things are, it’s not easy to find a new job, and there are problems with all employers to one degree or another. But even with that all being true, you can’t thrive if you’re in the wrong place. You have to determine that for yourself, and create a strategy to make the change. If not, you can stagnate, or even burn-out till the point where you get fired.

    Each of us will work best if we can find the right niche. If you’re in the wrong one, you have to remedy the situation. Circumstances rarely improve when you’re in a bad fit.

  7. Kevin, thank you so much for this article.

    I am a 40-year-old stay at home mom, a role I have played for nearly 4 years now.

    Before that I worked steadily in Accounting at various companies. My strong Excel skills and advance degree was never enough to earn me a promotion. Nor was familiarizing myself with most of the duties in our department, taking part in outside activities with co-workers, nor receiving a hand-written compliment for my hard work from the CEO of one company. In time, I was either pushed out due to lay-offs or in one terrible case, outright fired (my fault for offering to help fix the manager’s billing mess, to which I was later blamed for despite issues dating before my employment).

    My last position was a lay-off and I felt defeated at that point. I decided to stay home with my then 2-year-old. I genuinely felt I was a failure as a working woman.

    Flash forward to now and I am going back to work. I decided to read some articles why I was never promoted, and they all have the same answer. Basically, it was my fault. I worked too hard. I was not a team player. I was too positive (seen as naive) or negative. I was too independent. Basically, everything I did was wrong and it was my own fault.

    Your article is the first article I read where things clicked more for me. I am not a big drinker and my past co-workers were. I am not a church goer and almost all were steadfast about their religious beliefs. I am her independent. How am I supposed to be a team player when my job is reviewing and adjusting spreadsheets for a manager to present to the CEO?

    I see now while it was me, in the same instance it was not. I am not worried about promotions now, however it always haunted me what I was doing wrong to be passed over in favour of less experienced people.

  8. Hi Heidi – Organizations have a way of making us think that it’s always our fault. That’s probably to deflect blame from the organization or the people who are orchestrating the conflict. What ever the reason or the methodology, it works surprisingly well. It helps to know how it works though, and to realize that it’s not your imagination. It’s hard not to take it personally though. And sometimes it IS our fault. But if you know you’re getting the job done, and others know it too, then more likely it’s bogus.

    A former coworker of mine who was in management referred to it as a “set up” – as in you’re being set up to fail, or be fired. I’ve also heard the word “targeted”, when they’re looking to get rid of you. She called me up one day, completely flummoxed, asking my opinion about participating in a company management program to run off several employees, but to make it look like it was their fault. Knowing the company (I got a very generous offer to work there but ultimately turned it down) it was hardly a surprise. She felt a strong moral dilemma and didn’t want to do it. But if she didn’t, she’d be targeted. She stayed on with that company so my guess is that she fell in line and cooperated. She was making too much money to do otherwise.

    Knowing this reality can help you to know when it’s time to “get out of Dodge”. It can also help you to avoid internalizing it. I think most organizations practice some sorts of periodic beat down, maybe even extending to their protected employees. It’s to remind all staff that the organization – or the individual boss – is supreme. It’s like an exercise in discipline to remind you how powerless you really are in an organization.

    I realize that all sounds cynical, but between my wife and I we’ve been in enough organizations to know that it’s a pattern. In this article, I’ve attempted to summarize the different methodologies organizations use, and especially in the way they work to marginalize the most productive employees. It’s a sad state of affairs, but we always have to remember that organizations are really artificial families. They have all the dysfunction typical to families, but none of the emotional glue that ultimately holds families together.

    I hope your new experiences will be more positive. There really are some good employers out there, but they’re becoming less common as the general economy becomes more competitive and cut throat.

  9. Hi, i currently work in company where i work too hard thinking that by working hard i will be faster promoted. Every time job needs to be done i’m the first person ask to and always tapped on shoulder you are our best worker we are dependent on you, but then they brought another woman with 70% less experience who doesn’t even know how to do her job sits whole day watching youtube videos and from beginner in just 1.5 years they promoted her to be above me. My first thought off course is to leave but here in every company is the same

  10. Hi AJ – I think it may be that you’re SO GOOD at what you do they want you right where you are. In a way that’s a compliment, but it also keeps you from moving forward. It’s such a typical situation that it’s not easy to get out of. You may have to take your case to the higher-ups and let them know you want to be promoted. Maybe they think you’re happy right where you are? Otherwise you may have to go with another company.

  11. Thank you for this. There has been a continuing theme in my work experience. Recently, I was getting feedback from an interview where I was passed over, while outwardly praising me this manager told me it is often the ‘intangibles’ or the ‘soft skills’ that can prevent one from being promoted.
    I see now it is code for you are undoubtedly competent I don’t fit the suit. I find comfort in truth no matter what it is.

  12. Hi Cassandra – I know what you mean about finding comfort in the truth. A few years ago, in a non-business situation, I discovered a difficult truth. I was comforted learning it. Not because it changed the situation for the better, but because it confirmed what I had long believed. Sometimes it’s comforting just to know you aren’t going crazy, and that was the payoff for me.

    But getting back to your specific situation, you may also find comfort in realizing what happened to you is hardly an isolated or uncommon occurrence. It happens all the time, and doesn’t reflect negatively on you or your work performance. Employers look to promote certain types of people. If you’re not one of them, you won’t be promoted. It’s often best to survey the management lineup to know if you fit in. If you don’t, you shouldn’t expect to be promoted.

    It’s not a happy place to be, but it’s better than waiting for something that will never happen. That said, keep your eyes and ears out for opportunities with other employers where you might be a better fit. “Fit” matters more on a job than any of us realize. For example, some places make it a habit of promoting the least qualified people. That’s not an organization I’d feel at home in. Why they do it is based on some deep level of dysfunction, but it’s not a good environment, even if you’re not looking to get promoted.

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