Why you didn’t get promoted

  1. The Big-4 *isms
  2. Social conformity
  3. Alignment with workplace culture
  4. Internal politics
  5. Being managed out
  6. Inaccurate job requirements
  7. Org chart title balancing
  8. Salary budgeting
  9. Length of employment
  10. Irreplaceability
  11. Not exceeding expectations
  12. Severity of past mistakes
  13. Attitude

The Big-4 *isms

There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to not getting promoted, but before we get started we need to address the Big-4 *isms:

  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Ageism
  • Sexualism

If you working in America, and are not a heterosexual Caucasian male in their 20s or 30s, the question of “Was I not promoted because I am _______”, is bound to cross your mind. It should, as discrimination against employees is a very real phenomenon in corporate America that is resistant to anti-discrimination policy and sensitivity training. At that time of writing the best I can say is we collectively agree it is a problem, but I think we can also collectively agree that we haven’t figured out how to solve the problem yet.

Having said that, if it is your objective to be promoted, what is the advantage in focusing on aspects of yourself that you cannot change? To say it another way, how will ruminating on the question of “Was I not promoted because I am ______” increase your odds of getting what you want for yourself? Is discrimination right on moral or ethical grounds? No. Is life unfair? Yes. Can you succeed even though life is unfair? Absolutely.

If you truly believe you are in a no-win situation with regards to getting promoted due to an *ism, then resign and seek greener pastures elsewhere. If you want to help the people you leave behind you may want to consider Susan Fowler’s approach, which yielded dramatic positive results. However, if you believe your situation is tenable, and that there are things you can change that will improve your odds of getting promoted in the future then read on.

Social conformity

Social conformity is often bundled up neatly into the maddeningly trite term of “fit”; as in “how well you fit in”. Here are some of more common characteristics that may result in an assessment from a promoting authority that you are or are-not a good “fit”:
  • How you dress
  • Your choice of shoes
  • Your accent
  • How cheerful you are
  • How many company functions you attend
  • Your propensity to socialize
  • If you use your vacation days
  • How often you are sick
  • Your hairstyle
  • Your piercings
  • Number of tattoos
  • Visibility of tattoos
  • Subject matter of tattoos
  • Your height
  • You level of physical fitness
  • How you organize your desk
  • The books you have read
  • If you have kids
  • How you apply your makeup
  • If you have a beard
  • How your beard is cut
  • If you are married
  • Your hobbies
  • Your social circle

Attempting to “fit in” in order to get a promotion often requires that you have be an inauthentic version of yourself. If you desperately want the promotion, then perhaps on the some of the more cosmetic items (e.g. how you dress, haircut) you can make a difference that would be noticed by the promoting authorities, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If being authentically who you are is a problem for your employer, then leave, and find an employer who appreciates you for who you are, not for who they might want you to be. When it is all said and done, what does it matter if you got promoted if you lost yourself in the process?

Alignment with workplace culture

While social conformity is arbitrary and orthogonal what should be the primary consideration in you getting promoted: your ability; how well you align with the workplace culture is a valid reason for you not getting promoted. The key difference is:

  • Social conformity speaks to characteristics that have nothing to do with your effectiveness at your job
  • Alignment with workplace culture speaks to a¬†characteristics that have everything to do with you effectiveness at your job

As the difference between these two can be easily confused, here are a few hypothetical examples of employees with low social conformity but high alignment with workplace culture:

  • Jacob cuts his hair in a mullet and has facial tattoos, but is the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave.
  • Helen wears board shorts and flip-flops to work, but whose verbal communication skills are so polished that she is beloved by every customer who calls her for help.
  • Sam has dreadlocks and nose piercings, but is the first to volunteer to tackle difficult assignments.

In these three cases, while the employees may not have conformed to social norms (depending on the employer) they were exemplary examples of what most employers look for in their employees.

If you already know that you are not in alignment with your workplaces culture – whether you conform to social norms or not – they this could easily have contributed to you not getting promoted. If you like where you work, and still want get promoted, then aligning with your workplace culture is a good adjustment to make. The exception to this rule is that your employer is looking for you to change the workplace culture, but don’t assume this is the case unless you have good reason to.

Internal politics


Being managed out

Inaccurate job requirements

Org chart title balancing

Salary budgeting

Length of employment


Not exceeding expectations

Severity of past mistakes



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