When a Promotion is Not a Promotion: What Can You Do?

Business.com / Careers / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Great news! You're an asset to your company. You've been given more responsibilities...but no promotion. What can you do?

Have you ever been given a boatload of new responsibilities without the title and pay increase to go with it?

Or perhaps you got the title along with a vague promise that at "some point in the future" you'd get a raise to match your new responsibilities?

It happens far more often than it should: A promised promotion that turns into nothing more than more work.

What should you do about it?

Is This Legal? 

Yes, yes it is. Unless you are under contract (such as a union contract), your employer can change your job description at will. They can pile more work on you, change your hours, and make you responsible for the one thing that they promised you'd never have to do.

You can, of course, always quit, but finding a new job isn't always easy and you should only quit without another job lined up if you're independently wealthy or your job is so awful that it's threatening your health (physical or mental). So, yes, your boss can do this.

Does This Mean You're Stuck? 

We often give our bosses far more power than we should. Remember, they rely on you to earn money for the company. This money, in turn, provides your boss with her paycheck (as well as yours).

No employees mean no income for a company. In other words, your boss needs you. The fact that you're receiving more and more responsibilities tells us that your boss values your contribution.

Does This Mean Your Boss Is a Horrible Person? 

In the movies, the hero goes to his boss and throws some files down on a desk and demands a raise. The movie boss, knowing that he'll lose the best employee ever, immediately offers a big raise and it's a happy ending. In reality, unless you report directly to the CEO, your boss can't promise you an instant raise. (And even if you do report to the CEO, she's likely to clear it with HR and finance before giving it to you.)

There are policies and procedures in place and for very good reason. You don't want a rogue manager that starts giving random amounts of money to her employees. You don't want titles changed willy-nilly either. The result of that can be salary inequities that can look a lot like illegal discrimination.

In a normal company, in order for a boss to give an actual dollar increase or an official title change there must be money available, and it must be approved up the hierarchy. Usually that means your boss, her boss, and HR, but sometimes that means your boss, her boss, her boss's boss, the head of the finance committee, HR and the CEOs admin who wields a huge amount of power. Your company may vary, of course.

Related Article: 5 Signs of a Bad Manager

First of All, Speak Up!

Years ago, my boss went on maternity leave. I absorbed a lot of her duties. She extended her maternity leave to six months, and then came back in a part-time role.

This meant that I kept those "temporary" duties and kept reporting into my former boss's boss. I received no title change. No raise. Nothing.

I got angrier and angrier about the lack of recognition for the hard work I was doing. Finally, in a one-on-one meeting with my boss I blurted out, "I'm not doing the work of a grade 10!" She was surprised.

She hadn't given much thought to all the extra work I was doing. As soon as I brought it to her attention, she set the ball rolling to get me a raise and a title change. She was a fantastic boss (one of the best I've ever had!) but she was busy. The titles of her direct reports weren't constantly on her mind. 

It's possible that your boss has been slowly giving you more responsibilities because you're the most capable person for the job. It's possible that if you simply act your boss will too.

Now, I made a mistake in letting myself get angry and finally exploding. It would have been more professional to simply go to in and say, "I took on a lot of new responsibilities when Jen went on maternity leave. Now that she's back, and it's clear she's not going to take these responsibilities on again, what can we do to get my title and salary changed to reflect the work I do?"

Don't let yourself get frustrated.

Push Back

You certainly don't want to push back against stretch assignments--that's part of development. But, after you've done several higher level projects, say to your boss, "You know I did X, Y, and Z successfully. Those are normally given to people who are a higher grade than I am. Now you're asking me to do Q. It seems like my role has changed substantially. What do we need to do to start the process to get me a title and salary to match the work I'm doing?"

Your boss may have been deliberately giving you higher level assignments as a test, or she may be doing it out of desperation.

Take the Title

If your boss makes it clear that you aren't going to see any increase in salary, fight for the title increase. Why does it matter? I mean, other than your mom being proud of you. It matters because recruiters use titles as a proxy for responsibility level.

They don't go down each line on a resume and make note of the individual responsibilities on the first pass through. (They do, once they've narrowed down the pile.)

But, on that first pass through, you're more likely to be hired into a job as a manager if you already have a manager title on your resume. If you're acting as a team lead, it's best to have that on your resume--even if there's no salary to go along with it.

Take Your New Title and Run

Not literally, of course. Do a methodical and careful job search to find the job best for you, but if a company is willing to pour a boatload of responsibility onto your head without proper compensation, they don't value you.

Now, this doesn't mean you should quit as soon as you're given more responsibility. If you've brought it up and there has been an opportunity for a raise and title change (some companies do this yearly, for example), and still no results, that's a sign it's time to move on.

Related Article: Follow the Yellow Brick Road (to Your Ideal Career Path)

And What if It's Just Responsibilities With No Title Change? 

Make sure that your resume contains all your new responsibilities. You can't change your title, as that will be checked in a reference check and you'll lose the offer if you lie, but you can say things like, "Acted as team lead by managing the schedule, training new hires, and providing feedback for team members." 

Can You Just Say No? 

Of course, you can. You can always tell your boss know, but understand that the consequences to that may be a "you're fired," or a "then you can be in charge of cleaning the bathrooms instead." Everything comes with a consequence, and we don't always get to choose the consequence.

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