What Does Somebody Have to Do to Get Promoted Around Here? When You’re Feeling Overlooked at Work

We all have our share of junior high school traumas, right?

Here’s mine:  Picture me, a somewhat nerdy (OK, extremely nerdy) student in my seventh grade French class, being told by the teacher that I didn’t have the chops to continue on to the advanced French class for the following academic year, and that I would have to stick it out in the ‘regular’ class instead.

Excusez-moi? No advanced class? After all, I had done well in class – I had gotten A’s on my report card, even aced my recent test on the pluperfect tense – so why wasn’t I being fast-tracked?  I tried to think back over the course of the year:  Had I flunked a test?  Mispronounced  “croque monsieur?”  No disaster stood out in my twelve-year old brain, so I asked Mom and Dad to investigate (I was nerdy…and wimpy…).  Alas, there was no reason offered to explain Madame’s decision, and faster than you could say, “croque monsieur,” I was off the “advanced” list, and that was that.

What does my junior high drama have to do with the workplace?  Everything, especially when you consider how much life on the job and junior high really do share in common.  After all, both have difficult grownups to contend with, plenty of angst, and all kinds of unspoken rules about who gets ahead and who doesn’t.  And both have hard workers, like the twelve-year old me, who aren’t necessarily given reasons or explanations for being passed over when opportunities for advancement were handed out. Like me, employees find themselves wondering what they did wrong – and nobody is there to provide the answer.

The bottom line?  Landing a promotion at work– and all of the benefits that come along with it, including bigger salaries and better opportunities – can seem more elusive than getting a spot in the popular group at school.  No wonder one in four employees reports being overlooked for a promotion, according to one 2007 workplace study. (www.careerbuilder.com).

Why do so many employees feel frustrated by the promotion process?  In part, the difficulty stems from the fact that there isn’t always a clear path to promotion.  Just like good grades do not necessarily an advanced French student make, the hard-working employee isn’t always a shoe-in for manager.  The result?  The road to riches on the job is paved with plenty of employees who feel ignored or overlooked– it’s like junior high all over again.  Consider the shock of the employee who finds out a younger, less dedicated coworker makes more money than she does, or the manager who hasn’t gotten promoted in three years, despite receiving good feedback during his annual performance reviews.

These ‘overlooked employees’ are out there in big numbers, standing on the sidelines of their careers, watching people that seem less talented move up the corporate ladder with ease.  “Why didn’t I get promoted?  What does it really take to move up around here?” are the questions on the mind of this group, who wants bottom line, effective strategies on what else it takes to get ahead in their careers, since doing good work doesn’t seem to be enough to land the money or rewarding careers that they seek.

What to do if you’re feeling overlooked?  Here are a few tips:

  • Assuming you’re getting feedback from your boss on a regular basis (not just waiting once or twice a year during an annual review) and you’re dig a little deeper to gain some additional awareness.  Seek out colleagues, clients, other people within your sphere of influence, and see what else might be going on that you missed.  Is this an issue of your skills not being strong in a particular area?  Did your team give some less-than-great feedback about your management style?  There’s only one way to find out – ask questions and try to get answers.
  • You might be a rock star, but don’t assume anyone knows this but you.  If you’re feeling unloved, overlooked, or passed over, it might be time to ramp up your visibility.  Check out my article on how to self-promote, workplace-style, that was published on Military.com for more information: http://www.military.com/opinion/0,15202,219973,00.html.
  • Sometimes, being overlooked is a case of not having enough people in your corner.  How is your network within your organization?  Do you have mentors – and sponsors?  Many career/workplace experts (including yours truly) push employees to have both.  A mentor might show you the ropes, but s/he may not be someone with any clout or power, to be frank.  Sponsors are a different breed – these are the folks with title, muscle, and a voice that gets heard.  Use your current sphere of influence to build relationships with potential sponsors – LinkedIn is a great tool to help you connect with people inside your organization.

About Elizabeth Freedman, Communications Consultant & Career Expert
Elizabeth Freedman improves her clients’ businesses by helping employees and leaders Have Better Conversations® with their teams, clients, and each other. She is also the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes without Hanging Yourself, The MBA Student’s Job-Seeking Bible, and was a finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. For more information, please visit you can email her at info@ElizabethFreedman.com or call 617-784-6598.

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