Do you think you might have been offered (or surprised with) a meaningless promotion?
Are your responsibilities and title consistent with your compensation? Listen to this episode to find out more about “meaningless promotions” and how you can approach the situation if this happens to you.

In this episode of The Career Rx we’ll discuss:

  • The definition of a meaningless promotion
  • Pros and cons of accepting new work or better title without compensation
  • Considerations for your boss and for HR

Today we discuss a few listener questions and an article from the Harvard Business Review regarding a title change without matching compensation. By the end of this episode, you will be able to consider the benefits and the downsides, and how to approach your manager (or HR), especially if you feel marginalized, tokenized, or simply unvalued.

In this Episode:

[1:30] What does a promotion mean to you?
[4:40] Compensation for additional responsibilities
[7:20] A list of pros and cons – don’t skip this part
[10:45] Can you negotiate?
[11:36] Ways to ‘de-risk’ saying ‘yes’
[13:29] How to talk to your boss, or HR

Links and Resources:

So Your Boss Offered You a Meaningless Promotion by Mita Mallick
Industry Insider – learn exactly how to land a rewarding nonclinical career without a new degree, connections on the inside, prior experience, or a pay cut



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TRANSCRIPT: Episode 92 – Meaningless Promotions – How to Know, and What to Do

Hey there, I’m Marjorie Stiegler and you’re listening to The Career RX podcast, where we tackle the important things they don’t teach you in medical school. Like how to treat your career, like the business, it really is, with strategies to accelerate the kind of success that you want, because you deserve a career you love, and a career that loves you back. Are you ready? Let’s get into it.

Hey, everybody, welcome back. Today I’m going to be featuring some questions from listeners, students and colleagues, as you know I like to do. Today I have several that are on the same theme. So I’m going to share them with you and then give you some a framework really to think about something that I’m going to loop in with a recent Harvard Business Review article that I read, that the author calls meaningless promotion, hence the title of this episode, what is a meaningless promotion?

So before we get into that, I’m going to start with the questions. So I’m paraphrasing here, but I’m going to give you three. So listen to the three things that have kind of come across my plate either directly or indirectly, as questions that people have been asking in the past just couple of weeks. So question number one. I know some companies have specific promotion paths, but despite asking my manager about future career trajectories, it seems unclear what a promotion looks like, both in terms of title, but even more so, the specific scope of responsibility. What does it mean? Does it mean taking on more senior leadership roles and decision making, or handling multiple assets or simply getting more projects? What does the progression and trajectory actually look like? And I realized there may be more than one.

Question two. After about three months starting in my new job, my boss left, the company decided to move me into his role, and described it as an opportunity to, “act at the higher level”. This didn’t come with any actual change in compensation.

But it did come with the title, at least, informally, and it came with more work. They said this was a good way to give me a sort of a trial run. And if I was successful, the job would permanently and formally become mine, along with the official title and compensation. How should I approach this?

And question three, soon after starting my new role, one of the senior PI’s in my group is leaving for another opportunity. I’m relatively new, just a few months in and I’m a sub investigator. Now I’m being told my scope of work is increasing both in level of responsibility to become a PIO. And in the number of studies I’m responsible to lead, I asked about additional compensation.

But I was told this is not a promotion. It’s simply a change in working conditions. What should I say? What should I do? And for the purpose of this podcast, I’m assuming here that this is an at-will employment arrangement without any particular scope, attached to a contract or agreement.

So I’m putting all these three together for this episode, because I think they really are getting at the core of the same thing, which is a change in scope of responsibilities or a change in work. The first question is focusing on career trajectory. And because we do need new experiences, and higher level responsibilities to demonstrate readiness for promotion, or at least, to make us a more competitive candidate for that promotion.

That is, it’s an important thing to do, right? To be able to get that expanded scope of responsibility, which often leads to a promotion. And of course, it’s really important to understand what people actually do, the people who are one or two above you on the ladder, or maybe on a different career ladder, like what are they actually doing? Because without this, you can’t make an informed decision about whether you actually want that job. Right?

Do you want that promotion? And while that might sound like a rhetorical question, it’s not, this is a very real thing. I know a lot of people who love what they do right now. And they have no desire to trade that in for more people management, more meetings, more politics, or just frankly, more work, right, the kinds of things that come along with promotions.

And the other two questions are really focused on getting that expanded scope, right. It’s not, but it’s not just been offered to them, it’s really been foisted at them placed in their lap earlier than expected, and without the kind of compensation or other reward that a person might expect. So what to do, I think there’s a tension between these two, right? Because you do need to gain experience outside of your current scope in order to demonstrate that you’re ready for the next thing, but too much of that, obviously, people might feel taken advantage of so how do we how do we figure out whether or not we’re getting an opportunity or are we being taken advantage of? So this brings us to the question of how can you tell whether it’s a meaningless promotion?

So as this Harvard Business Review article says, there are a handful of red flags. And by the way, I’ll put a link to the article in the show notes. But I’m going to summarize here, there’s a handful of red flags that they list that means you might have gotten a meaningless promotion. They say, no change in compensation, no organizational or team announcement of the change, no official change in title with human resources like within the software system that maintains the organization.

Although you might be instructed or encouraged to change it in your email signature, or in your LinkedIn title. And then asking yourself whether this is intended as a quick fix to retain you. If you’ve been thinking about leaving, and maybe your boss knows that, thinking about retaining you? And even worse, is this a shortcut to meeting public Diversity, Equity and Inclusion goals? So that is a topic obviously in and of itself. But it’s worth mentioning here certainly, because if you’re getting a promotion in title only, without any of the responsibility or compensation as a shortcut to meet the company’s stated goals for DEI, that is, that’s a big red flag.

And then finally, are you doing the same work as others at your new supposed level? Are you invited to the same leadership meetings, etc. These are a handful of things that you can consider to help you find out whether or not you’ve just received a meaningless promotion, or you’re being offered a meaningless promotion.

In the three questions that I am addressing today, or that inspired today’s episode, I guess it’s really only the middle one. That is that has the potential to be a meaningless promotion. The first one is about how to figure out how to get that promotion. And the third one is about just knowing that you’ve not have a promotion, but you have more work.

The middle one is about, you know, acting up at that higher level, basically being asked to function as if she got a promotion, but hasn’t yet. So I think it’s really important to understand. So now, let me give you some pros and cons for consideration of these kinds of situations. And this could be really applicable to any of the three questions.

Pro Number one, you get the chance to learn. So obviously, if you’re going to be doing work outside the scope of your current responsibilities, you’re going to be learning on the job, you’re going to be learning perhaps some actual content, some materials and subject matter. And you’re going to be kind of learning the ropes of what that higher up job entails.

So it’s a chance to expand, expand your boundaries, and expand your competencies, expand the scope of your knowledge.

Pro Number two, you get to demonstrate competence at that higher level, because someone has literally giving you that higher level of work. And now you get to show whether or not you can rise to the challenge and do it.

Pro Number three, depending on the situation, you may get a different or an interim title, even if you don’t have more compensation. And that may have benefits in and of itself.

And Pro Number four, really all of the above help you to position yourself externally at another company. So if it turns out that you’ve got a meaningless promotion, but in fact, you have, you know, a title on paper and expanded responsibilities, you can use that to really position yourself as a highly competitive candidate for that kind of role or the role above it in a new company. So really using that temporary situation, as an asset, using it in your favor as you position yourself for something outside.

Now, there’s obviously plenty of cons. Con number one is you might be in over your head without support. So it’s really important to find out if while you’re doing this brand new job that’s just been dumped in your lap, you’re going to have support from other people from the organization to sort of set you up for success and to help you to do it well.

Another con, you might feel you aren’t being treated fairly and that can certainly breed resentment, whether it’s true or not.

Con number three, if your compensation doesn’t change, there’s a cumulative price to pay. It’s not just in the short term because every raise is based on the raise before it. Most compensation packages are based in terms of percentage of the base salary. And so this can add up over the years. So if you’re going to spend some time, effectively a promotion but without that salary, that really can add up in the long term.

Con number four, you might feel or other people might perceive that you are being tokenized con number five, your next step and actual promotion trajectory might be even less clear than it was before because now you’re functioning In this different role, but you don’t have the title, but you’re doing the work. And there you are.

And the final con is that, what if HR can’t actually confirm your employment history for a subsequent employer, right, when they call back to confirm your references? What if they can’t confirm your employment history in the way that you’ve reported it on your resume, because they didn’t actually change it in the system, this could raise some eyebrows, and be problematic.

So those are some pros and cons should be at least some good food for thought. Now, I know in the back of some of your minds, you’re thinking, What about negotiation, and some people would reject these ideas outright, and really either insist for more clarity from their manager on what’s required for promotion, or try to negotiate an increase in compensation or some other feature of the increased scope of work that’s been offered to them.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that. But I also don’t take quite as hard of a line, I really do see the value in learning more and in spending that time getting to know the higher level role so that you can decide if that’s really right for you.

And so that you can demonstrate you know how to do it. If you’re plugged in the way that you are supposed to be, then you should learn new skills, you should also have an opportunity to network with more people, people at a different level. And of course, you should have that title that you can use as a springboard if you’re not feeling rewarded within your own company.

So, to me, there’s a lot of benefits that I think you know, not everything is about money. I also have some personal experience with this. I’ve been asked to do this before at my company, and it worked out really exactly as it was billed, I was asked to cover for a higher level role for a finite period of time, which was, you know, pre-specified.

And it was explained right up front, that there wouldn’t be any change in compensation, or officially in title, but that I would have an interim title, that it could at least be communicated and was communicated to the organization with that interim title change. And it did go in my email signature, but not in HR, I was told that the benefit would be to keep the business and continuity and also to set me up for success when the next promotion opportunity came up.

And it really worked out just as promised, I learned some things I got to kind of grow and stretch my skills. They also honored the timeline that was pre-specified. And very shortly after I finished that assignment, I guess you could call it, I did get promoted into, you know, a different opportunity, a different position opened up that was a promotion of that same level. And they gave it to me, it was great.

But I can certainly see situations in which it might not work out. A few of the things that were most important for me was that very, very clear timeline. And also the opportunity to prove myself to the same group of people who could promote me, right that sort of immediate family within my work zone, it wasn’t some obscure faraway corner of the company, it was sort of right in, right in my home zone.

So the people who are interested in my career, and would be interested in helping me progress are the same ones who could see me working at that higher level.

Now, if you think you’re being treated unfairly, there’s a couple things that you might want to consider doing. I mean, of course, you may want to consider how it makes you feel about the organization that you’re working for.

But you could also have just a very, very candid conversation with your manager to ensure clarity. And by this, I mean, they might be offering you a title as a way of showing you that they value you. And even though it doesn’t come with additional compensation, they may view it as some kind of a reward and they may possibly have not thought it through from your point of view. And if they have the ability to do so, bosses don’t always right? It can depend on things outside their control. But if they have the ability to do so, they may reconsider and offer you a compensation package or something that makes it feel a little bit more equitable.

The other thing you might do is to consult HR. Now, you may think that it is in the company’s best interest to pay you as little as possible, and that HR works for the company. And while I guess that I mean I think that’s a slightly pessimistic view.

Yes, the human resources professionals work for the organization, but part of their obligation there is to ensure a certain amount of equity within the organization and they are going to want to protect the company from making any missteps that could put them at risk from that point of view. Also, human resources professionals are often aware of mechanisms to increase pay or to offer bonus compensation or something like that, that the manager might not be aware of.

As an aside, I’ll say when I was in academics, I don’t even remember being aware of the fact that there was a human resources department because we never did anything that way. But having worked in the corporate world, that’s extremely commonplace. So now I’ve really wonder, some of the things that came up for some of my colleagues and academics probably should have been handled with the involvement of HR.

Anyway, it’s obviously a very personal decision. And I hope I’ve helped you to weigh the benefits, which I think are real, of being able to get more responsibility and be able to sort of function as someone at a higher level before you actually qualify for that role, so that you can learn and that makes you a more valuable asset or more competitive candidate for the next thing.

On the other hand, I obviously don’t want anyone to feel taken advantage of, marginalized, tokenized, or simply unvalued. Because as I always say on the show, you deserve a career that you love and a career that loves you back. That’s all for today. Bye for now.

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