A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a failure to get promoted:


I have worked at my current job for over 10 years. I am overqualified for the position but planned to find an internal position that met my skill level eventually. Many people came to this company as a result of losing employment during the “Great Recession” and had a similar plan. I’ve applied for 20+ internal positions with only one phone interview.

When I recently asked my HR representative to review my resume for any problems, she agreed and also tried to find out why I wasn’t interviewed for any positions, I was eventually told by her that I’m considered to be too ethical and managers felt threatened by my paralegal background.

I work in quality and we work on government contracts. My employer pushes ethical behavior but when it comes down to it, they don’t really mean it. You would think someone in the quality group who is considered very ethical would be a good thing. Now, I feel I’m considered unpromotable or even blackballed and as a result, have become disengaged at work. I’m an older worker and the jobs in this area are not friendly to anyone over 40.

Signed Unpromotable

Dear Unpromotable:
I don’t believe you are unpromotable and neither should you.

Yes, it would seem that your company would want an employee perceived as ethical. The situation you describe implies more than that each of your 20 applications for internal promotions has been rejected you because you are too committed to high ethical standards. You attribute this impression to your paralegal background being seen as a threat.

All this has you feeling disengaged and worried that since you are over 40 that there are not jobs elsewhere.

From a distance, of course, no one can provide relief for the distress you feel, but possibly, as an outsider, I can lend a perspective that will help do more than provide sympathy. Up front, you should know that you are fortunate not to be sending us a question about one of the many dismaying concerns that are sent our way. Scanning some of our thousands of Q&As will convince you of that.

1. Let’s start with a follow up. It is impossible to know if what HR has said is the determining reason you have not had even one live interview as a result of your 20 attempts. Did the HR rep disclose any details about how she gathered that impression, which and how many managers she spoke to and any specific incidents that caused them to rule you out as a threat because of your ethical values?

2. HR’s data gathered boiled down to that you are seen as “too ethical and managers felt threatened by my paralegal background.” This conclusion provokes the question of how might such an impression have been gained by all those managers to whom your applications were sent. How many managers said that and was that the only reason given? Did such an evaluation of you derive from your resume or from gossip about you as a threat? This is to say that your HR rep provided less than sufficient data. Have you followed up with this HR rep? Might you ask her what she advises? Should you minimize or delete from your application mention of your paralegal background? Or should you point it up as an asset to your company from questionable practices? Might meeting with her to learn if you applications were the cause of no response? Might it be good for you to put such a question in a note to this HR rep? Doing so quietly should provide tangible you evidence if what she told you.

3. Don’t allow yourself to be disengaged. In a follow up, might it be good to enlist this HR rep for advice about your career direction? Also is it not time that you to evaluate your 10 years in quality work? What projects have you been assigned? How do these demonstrate your capability? What do you like and dislike about your current position? Why do you want a promotion? You should have evidence in your superior’s evaluation of your good work. You should have developed coworkers who know of you as a team player. You should have engaged your boss in ways to make her/his job easier and more effective.

If you want to be promoted, apparently you see ways that might make your company more profitable—ways that cut waste, wasted time, wasted money, ways to get more government contracts and handle them without problems. Have they learned what you sees needs doing? In short, have you engaged your boss or bosses in your commitment to make your workplace a good, even a better place to work? Do they know you see your career as less than it might be? Have you enlisted their advice about the next steps in your career? The hard fact is that organization have employed above than below. Those above are not anxious about your promotion unless they see that as important to you or they don’t want to lose you. You haven’t been fired so they don’t want to get rid of you.

4. You say “My employer pushes ethical behavior but when it comes down to it, they don’t really mean it.” Such a statement implies you know of unethical practices. Are there specific instances of this that you have seen? If so, have you diplomatically raised them, gossiped about them, or challenged them? If not, have you bitten your tongue and felt guilty? If you are uneasy about sleazy or unethical practices, you are faced with how to prevent them or to vote with your feet.

After 10 years doing quality work, you should be acquainted with associations in your field. Do you belong to any of them? Have you joined ASQ – a Global Leader in Quality Improvement & Standards asq.org. ASQ have local groups and national conferences. They have certificates and black belt training. There are other quality association such as American Health Quality Association (AHQA) www.ahqa.org or perhaps you are concerned about safety or associations specific to your current employment. If not already, is it not time to become active in a network –a network that connects you with the best of its kind, with benchmark places to do on site visits, and to become acquainted with good, even great places in which to work?

Disengaging you can be directly or subtly caused by the day to day grind of assignments and complacency of your employment. But remember it is hard for a boss and/or coworkers to disengage an employee who is engaging. Your carefully composed question, suggests that you should be the kind of employee every employer is seeking. I doubt you are someone who is likely to have behaviors, emotional or physical, that make you unwanted. Have you consulted resources at your fingertips abound, such as The Good Company blog: http://www.apaexcellence.org/goodcompanyblog and the Greater Good Science Center greatergood@berkeley.edu?

Don’t think an age in the 40s is too old to be wanted. Seeing promotion or greener grass elsewhere is not necessarily the best solution to your distress. Rather this might be a time to find ways to make your current job more exciting. Or to see this as time for making connections beyond those you now have. Or it might be a time for finding ways outside of your workplace to enrich your own and/or other lives. Being engaged is activity we enjoy makes us more engaging.

You are young and have many years in which to enjoy life and also to help others to. I know these thoughts raise more questions than they answer. I hope what I’ve said might inspire or speak to your aspirations. If not, please see them as motivators to finding more creative answers to your question. I predict you will find answers to your disappointment about not being promoted. You are not the kind of person to allow this to sour you. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. If you choose to update us on what happens, it will be good to hear from you again.
–William Gorden