Career Advice

4 Tactful Ways to Uncover the Truth About Promotions at Your Company

Asking for a letter of recommendation

If you’re an ambitious, career-minded person, you’re probably always thinking about the next step in your career path: what it is, how you can get there, how long it will take, etc. But when you’re still in the interview process with a company, or a relative newcomer, it can be tough to ask those questions directly without sounding ungrateful for or uninterested in the current role.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should just stay mum on the issue. Professional development is an important part of career satisfaction — Glassdoor research has shown that staying in a particular role for too long makes it more likely that employees will leave their company, so if you want to stay somewhere for the long haul, getting the scoop on advancement opportunities is critical.

The key is finding a balance between self-advocacy and subtlety; getting the lowdown without inadvertently suggesting to your employer that you’re not satisfied with your current situation. Want to know how you can pull it off? Keep reading.

1. Make Your Intentions Known

It’s possible that the reason you haven’t been presented with information on promotions up front is simply because you haven’t made it clear that you’re interested in them. While you probably don’t want to be as explicit as saying, “I want a promotion in six months or I’ll start looking somewhere else,” dropping phrases like “I really hope to grow my career here” can help subtly, yet effectively, set the tone.

“Managers worry about people who seem obsessed with promotions and distracted from their day jobs. My recommendation is to let your manager and HR know that your long-term goal is to move up,” says Mikaela Kiner, Founder/CEO of UniquelyHR.

If you’re still in the interview process, now is the perfect time to bring that up (especially if you’re asked where you want to be in five years). But if you’re past that stage, try bringing it up with your manager during your regular one-on-ones and performance reviews.

2. Reach Out Broadly

It’s important to get all the details of what goes into a promotion, but as part of the subtlety play, you’ll want to make sure you don’t exhaust any one person with multiple questions — especially if they’re not the ones who are most qualified to answer them. So when you approach folks for info, keep in mind what their areas of expertise are.

“HR has the official info — job listings, company policies and procedures. Your boss determines your trajectory and opens the door (or not). And colleagues have the inside scoop: how they did it, pitfalls, experience navigating the system,” etc., says  Laura MacLeod, creator of From The Inside Out Project®.

While doing this, make sure you understand “the promotion process at your company… who the final decision maker is and who else plays a role,” Kiner says. A few questions Kiner suggests asking:

  • When do promotions usually happen?
  • Who needs to initiate the promotion?
  • Who do you consider a role model at the next level?
  • How can I demonstrate that I’m ready for a promotion?

3. Think Company-First

To avoid sounding self-serving during the information-gathering process, try to frame everything from the perspective of how you can best serve the company.

“With HR or your boss, frame this in a way that highlights your desire to excel and benefit the organization: ‘I feel I could do more here and would like to know how best to pursue a strong career path… Could really use your help to navigate the best way to get there,’” MacLeod suggests. “Also, [it’s] important to stress your desire to stay with the organization long-term.”

Try not to ask any questions or make any comments that come across as crass or self-serving.

“Keep questions factual: seniority, experience and educational needs, responsibilities of the job. Don’t ask about pay or specific conditions [like] late hours or days off. This looks like you’re seeing if it fits into your plan, not the needs of the company,” MacLeod says. “Always focus on your desires and plans being aligned with company progress — this makes you a strong team player.”

If there is sensitive information you want to know about, try looking on Glassdoor or turning to trusted colleagues.

4. Create a Plan & Seek Feedback

Now that you have the necessary info, it’s time to put it to good use.

“Consider creating a development plan based on the feedback you receive. Ask your manager and HR if they’re willing to review your development plan and give you feedback periodically,” Kiner recommends.

Once your plan is in place, it’s time to start executing against it.

“Start to work as if you’re in the targeted position,” suggests Natasha Bowman, Chief Consultant at Performance ReNEW and author of the book You Can’t Do That at Work! 100 Legal Mistakes That Managers Make in the Workplace. “Go over and beyond your current role. Find ways to add value and to demonstrate your leadership capabilities.”

Then, make sure to follow up on how you’re doing.

“Rather than asking for a promotion, start by asking for feedback about whether you’re ready for a promotion and what the gaps are. Enlist your manager and HR to help you develop and get ready for the next level,” Kiner suggests.

Once you feel you know the whole story about promotions, and you have enough wins under your belt to make the case for one, you’ll be ready to initiate the conversation.


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