When You're Passed Over at Work

Don't start sending out your résumé yet. Find out why, don't assume the worst, and support the new person

Sharp managers have long noted the double-edged sword that goes with managing knowledge workers. As leaders, we love the fact that our teams get heavily invested, mentally and emotionally, in their jobs. We love the way they come up with tremendous business ideas at 3 a.m. (as evidenced by the time-stamp on their breathless e-mails). We love it when our employees take ownership of their jobs. Of course, there's a downside. Knowledge workers can (and should) get more than a little upset when their brains and enthusiasm aren't noticed, acknowledged, and deployed appropriately.

No area is more rife with opportunity for employees to get miffed than internal promotions. I'd own a Major League Baseball team by now if I had a nickel for every time I've had a conversation along these lines: A manager says to me, "I don't get it. Paula is perfectly qualified for the account director job I just posted, but she hasn't said boo about it."

I say, "She's waiting for you to approach her."

"That won't happen," says the manager. "I want her to tell me she wants it."

This is the knowledge worker tug-of-war. Managers think: "I want you to tell me you're up for more responsibility." Employees say: "Isn't it obvious?"

The flip side of this is when you're up for an internal promotion or an appealing lateral move, and you don't get it. Because our self-esteem can be so tied up in our jobs, that can be a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

The Embarrassment Factor

We're hurt. We're angry. We're astounded. We think, "How could management make such a bad decision? How could I have been so wrong about my future here?" People quit over losing out on internal jobs, and it's easy to see why. On top of the personal frustration, there's the embarrassment factor. Even if your team members didn't know about your bid for a bump in status, the managers did. It can be very, very difficult to recover from a blow like that, especially if you thought the promotion was in the bag.

I have talked more working folks off the ledge over lost jobs than any other single topic. It's bad to be laid off. It's frustrating to be "capped off" by way of a new level of management being hired above you. But being passed over for a job for which you thought you were a shoo-in tops the list of maddening knowledge-worker experiences. "Why have I wasted years in this place just so when the perfect opportunity comes along, they can give it to someone else?" fumes the passed-over worker.

Here are some tips for recovering from the blow without losing career momentum or hurting your "team player" reputation.

Your anger is pointless if you don't know what led to your manager's decision. The best message you can receive following the message "We gave the job to Charlie" is, "because we have you pegged for a key international assignment in six months." You simply don't know what your leaders are thinking, and it's a very good idea to ask. That question isn't phrased "How could you hire Charlie over me, when I outpace him in every metric we've got?" but "I'd love to know more about your thinking regarding this position and get your views on my career progress in general." That's going to lead to a more fruitful conversation than a sulky "How could you?" ever will.

The Wait-and-See Approach

Second, before you shoot your résumé over to your favorite search person and decide the company isn't worthy of your talents, do this: Stick around to see how the newly promoted person fares—giving him all your support, of course. That's real support, not back-biting passive-aggressive support that will brand you Mr. or Ms. Sour Grapes.

What's the advantage of this wait-and-see approach? No. 1, a person who bolts after losing out on a promotion could be viewed as someone whose personal advancement is more important than any larger company goal. People move around, and professional circles can be small, and you don't want to be forever known as the person who went into snit mode when his brilliance wasn't celebrated. Second, no one is more likely to make a frying-pan-into-fire career move than a person whose job search is motivated, at least in part, by spite. Six months after being passed over, you'll be in far better shape to make a rational decision if you still feel like switching employers.

Finally, there's the old saying, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Many people have suffered the indignity of being passed over and prospered in the long run. If you do change jobs down the road, wouldn't you rather tell a prospective employer "I learned a tremendous amount at XYZ Corp., but was ready for a change" than "I had to leave—they insulted me by promoting Do-Nothing Charlie over me?"

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