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I've worked with my current employer, a large tech company, for 3 years now. The job is good in general, pays well, etc. My division (about 15% of the company) started a new program to encourage women in engineering. It seems like it started with good intentions, but has failed in a number of ways. A number of women were promoted to manager and/or "principal engineer" positions, some teams were disbanded to form new teams, etc. This resulted in a modest amount of attrition by senior engineers, so we're already missing some of our top talent.

The worst part about this, is that the promotions appear to be very political. A friend of mine, who accepted one of these promotions to a senior engineering position, is absolutely miserable, and looking for a new job, since her whole team hates her (and most of her team members are more experienced than she is; some by a decade of industry experience). Whenever she has a question or needs help with something, her team members just tell her "you're the ranking engineer; you should either know this or be able to study after-hours and learn it". This has apparently started to become a pattern with other teams, and might even be deliberately coordinated (based on some "jokes" in our water-cool Slack/chat channels). It doesn't help that her former mentor, who was 1 level/promotion above her, is now one of her subordinates, due to her effectively getting 2-3 promotions at once.

I've worked very hard at this company, and have been approached to accept one of these "promotions", but I would only ever want it if it was a real promotion, and not some political stunt. I'm worried if I decline this politically motivated promotion, I'll be turned down for future promotions. I've already tried to transfer to another division or business unit, so I can get away from this toxic hell, but transfers are not being approved right now (due to too many already being processed over the past month). Also, I'm worried that I will burn up all of my contacts and potential references here if I accept the promotion.

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  • Would it be a one level promotion, or one of those 2-3 at once? Jun 17, 2022 at 14:37
  • @JoeStrazzere I tried to ask this by asking "why am I suddenly under consideration? I would hard, but this is a surprise.".
    – Darja
    Jun 17, 2022 at 15:40
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    @MichaelMcFarlane 2 promotions in total (with a modest pay raise).
    – Darja
    Jun 17, 2022 at 15:40
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    Please explain "2-3 promotions at once". Does it mean being promoted from engineer level 1 to engineer level 3 or level 4 at once ? Jun 17, 2022 at 20:08
  • I may be reading too much into this, but could it be these promotions are targeted at women for gender reasons? Do you have a gut read as to WHY these promotions happened?
    – Anthony
    Jun 18, 2022 at 22:11

6 Answers 6

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First - how do you tell if it's a genuine promotion?

A company large enough to have the structure you're describing should have in place a promotion structure that contains as a minimum:

  • clear definitions of the roles and responsibilities at each level
  • clear definitions of what is expected from people in each role, in terms of skills
  • regular conversations between employees and their managers about career plans, and the personal development required to take the next step in the desired direction

So, it is possible that you might be promoted ahead of a more experienced colleague, if for example the next role up requires management and pastoral skills and fits you well but that colleague wants to remain purely technical. But each transition should ideally be planned in advance, be one step at a time, allow the possibility of return if it proves not to fit well, and most of all the element of surprise should be minimised.

Here, there are a number of red flags:

  • multiple-level promotions
  • they apparently came out of the blue
  • when they don't work out, the promotee appears either to have to stick it out and be miserable or leave
  • there are negative consequences for not taking it.

So, sadly, I think your suspicions are spot-on. This is not a promotion aimed at keeping you happy, progressing in your career, and benefitting the company. Whether other people walk away or behave badly because they think they have been passed over is not something you have control over; it sucks that it happens, and the fact that management aren't clamping down on it suggests they aren't really interested in the promotees succeeding.

So, what to do?

Really, assuming you don't want to go along with it, the best way to avoid burning bridges is simply

I don't think this promotion would be a good fit for me at this time

It's honest, to the point, and leaves the door open that you might accept in future. You could add specific things that you want to achieve first, or training you would like to undergo that you think would make you successful. Their response to being asked for training may give you more clues as to whether the offer is genuine or not.

Either way, if you don't think you would be happy taking the promotion, don't take it. If saying "no" or "not now" means you'll simply not be asked again, then at least you remain in a role which is suitable for you, and you may have to look elsewhere when you decide you want to move up. If saying no brings more severe consequences, then it's a huge red flag that you're being set up to fail.

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    "You could add specific things that you want to achieve first, or training you would like to undergo that you think would make you successful." - this is very helpful. Wish I thought of it sooner. Thank you!
    – Darja
    Jun 17, 2022 at 15:42
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    Be sure they don't underpay you. You shouldn't get a "modest" pay increase; you should get a fair one. Jun 17, 2022 at 18:03
  • Very true. Do have a look round and try to get a benchmark salary for both your own role (you may already be underpaid) and a senior / lead position. If they're lowballing you or refuse to talk salary before you accept, that's another red flag. Jun 18, 2022 at 8:55
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It seems to me like the people at this company know how to do their jobs. The statement "You're a Senior/Principal engineer now, you should be able to learn how to do X" is an appropriate and apt one; if you're an engineer at a certain level, you should have the core competencies of a person at that level, one of which is being able to figure out on your own how to do X (for various values of X, which vary increasingly with the higher level you are).

Now, given that you are likely to be questioned by your colleagues (and future subordinates) on whether you possess the core competencies of your ranking position, the obvious thing you want to do is to make sure, when you are asked by them "do you know/are you able to learn by yourself how to do X?", the answer absolutely must be yes. If it's not, not only yes but an emphatic yes, and who are you to question my competency?, then you should not take this promotion because you are being set up to fail, as you described yourself.

From the opposite perspective, be careful also that you are not succumbing to impostor syndrome, thinking that because your female colleagues in similar positions failed, that you will also fail. Perhaps you are more deserving of the promotion than they were, and perhaps their promotions were political, but yours is not. Take honest stock of your skillset and think as critically and objectively as you can about what skills you have to reach this level. If you need to, ask the department, or your (current) manager what skills you possess that make you deserving of this role; if they can't answer why they want to promote you in concrete terms, chances are it's not a good fit for you, and if they can answer in concrete terms then you may be undervaluing yourself.

Now, what should you do in this situation?

Firstly, if you believe, after introspection and outside criticism, that you are deserving of the role, then take it. That's first.

Next, if you do not think you are deserving of the role, you may want to nominate some people who you think are worthy of a promotion in your place, whether they be women or men. Clearly your company wants to promote someone, and they've chosen you, but if it's not for you, then it's an act of good will to your colleagues to nominate one of them for the promotion. It also shows, both to your company and to your colleagues, that you're not interested in office politics and you want to get the job done the best way, rather than playing some game.

Finally, over the next number of months or years, keep an eye on company performance. When unqualified people get put into roles they are unqualified for, bedlam tends to follow, as those people fail to do the jobs they need to be doing to keep the company afloat. As Amazon says in their leadership principles: "Hire and Develop the Best". Not "Hire and Develop the people with the correct gender identites/skin color". Companies which don't hire and develop the best tend to get the results they expect, and if you see a trend come about of your company beginning to buckle under the weight of incompetence, you may want to jump off the sinking ship.

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    "The statement "You're a Senior/Principal engineer now, you should be able to learn how to do X" is an appropriate and apt one; if you're an engineer at a certain level, you should have the core competencies of a person at that level, one of which is being able to figure out on your own how to do X" It depends. As a tech lead I ask questions all the time. If they were time-wasters I wouldn't have lasted this long. Answering good questions like that is just passive-aggressive.
    – jcm
    Jun 18, 2022 at 1:35
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    Being a senior is not about knowing everything. 10 more year of experience do not make you omniscient. If colleagues are non cooperative to make her fail, it could be because they wanted her role or because they are sexists but it's NOT appropriate at all. And imo is an indication that it's best if they do not go up in rank because soft skills are important too.
    – Jylo
    Jun 18, 2022 at 6:00
  • It's not about knowing everything, but it is about being able to quickly Google (or StackOverflow? :) ) the things you don't know and being able to understand the answer. There's lots of things I couldn't learn as a junior that I am able to learn now because I have more background.
    – Ertai87
    Jun 20, 2022 at 14:50
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approached to accept one of these "promotions"

You're overthinking the issue.

Just decline. You should know if it's based on merit or not and if you can even handle the position. So if you don't want it, decline the offer.

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    The OP most definitely isn't overthinking anything here. While this isn't a 100% clear case of gender bias, even though most likely it is, it may be the company's attempt to show that women don't have a glass ceiling, but if a woman would decline a promotion, especially bluntly like this, they may never be offered another promotion at all, specifically because of gender bias. builtin.com/diversity-inclusion/gender-bias-in-the-workplace Jun 17, 2022 at 22:31
  • @computercarguy you're second guessing the OP on zero info. OP clearly asks how to decline a dodgy promotion... in the first sentence. Suggest you read the question again.
    – Kilisi
    Jun 18, 2022 at 10:15
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    I recommend you follow your own suggestion, since the OP doesn't ask the question in the body of their question at all, but rather in the title. Also, I'm not 2nd guessing the OP, since I clearly back her up. You are the one 2nd guessing her by stating she is "overthinking the issue". She clearly has concerns that by declining this promotion, she would never be offered another. You do nothing to alleviate those or other concerns. You try to invalidate her and her intuition by stating she's overthinking. psychcentral.com/health/… Jun 20, 2022 at 15:21
  • I read the whole question not disregard bits I don't want... feel free to downvote.
    – Kilisi
    Jun 20, 2022 at 22:31
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Whenever she has a question or needs help with something, her team members just tell her "you're the ranking engineer; you should either know this or be able to study after-hours and learn it"

And that is the cultural problem. If my direct reports would do that with me i would nail them into the ground so hard they would not dare to do that again. The problem here is not that this was political/controversial promotion but that she is not ready to handle something like this.

Appropriate reactions:

  • "I will note down and communicate to my boss that you doubt their decision and that you think that leading people only happens by technical superiority - it will reflect on you".

  • "Please refrain from making assumption what I should or should not do in my personal time. I am setting the priorities my boss and not with you"

  • Email (with boss in CC): at x am today I assigned you a task and you refused to started it. I am fully expecting that you do the best to prevent further delays by unprofessional behaviour. Should you not comply, I will escalate the issue

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    I guess the -1 was due to the blunt tone of this answer, but +1 from me. Her team members are the unprofessional ones IMO. Direct and to the point, good!
    – Anthony
    Jun 18, 2022 at 22:14
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    I think it's a bit blunt, but definitely they shouldn't be putting up with this. It's absolutely normal for a superior to ask a more junior person about the junior's expertise or what they've been working on. Every job I've worked in, helpfulness to colleagues, including superiors, was seen as a virtue, and refusal to provide reasonable help would be considered a demerit, if not contrary to corporate values.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 21, 2022 at 16:08
  • I agree with your general statement but not with the way you phrased your answers. It has too much of a "that will show them" for my taste. Give them the frown and stare first, only reach for the Semtex if that does not work. Sep 3, 2023 at 20:39
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You mentioned in a comment these are 2 promotions at once. Would you think 1 promotion would actually be suitable, even if a bit early? Then possibly you could accept that single promotion instead. I personally might be concerned that you’d be in a position where you were thought to be passed over ‘even when all other women were promoted’ and I’m not sure that’s a good spot to be in either. This will depend on the company culture though.

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Do you really object to your promotion being "political" or are you afraid of being bullied by your peers/reports when you take it? Because that's what it seems to me. Just because you are someone's manager doesn't mean you have to know more about every single subject than them. Even if your promotion might be partly "political", so what? Some other people get lucky by being promoted because they are the nephew of the CEO, or inherit a large sum of money from their parents. This time you get a lucky break. So my advice is to just take the promotion.

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    If you're genuinely unable to do a job, then taking the job will create stress and suffering, cause bad consequences for both you and the company, and possibly ruin your career ever after. Some people may be able to coast by doing nothing, but it requires the right corporate set-up and the right personal skills (e.g. total lack of conscience, ability to lie).
    – Stuart F
    Jun 21, 2022 at 16:10
  • This is exactly what I was thinking. If she thinks she can do the job, she should probably take the promotion and then leverage it to gtfo and find a less insane company to work for. Plenty of men get undeserved promotions because some older guy in management is reminded of himself when he was younger and "likes the cut of his jib." I think everybody has to work with what they're given, but if I were her, I'd leave ASAP afterward.
    – ribs2spare
    Jun 22, 2022 at 17:54

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