Why I turned down an opportunity at a promotion

Photo by Saffu on Unsplash

Recently, I made the decision not to pursue a promotion at work.

And because that sentence doesn’t make much sense without context, here’s the full story.

In June this year, I joined the international organization in Geneva where I currently work. I didn’t apply for the job that I have; rather, I was chosen from a roster of pre-approved candidates and matched to the vacancy without going through a formal recruitment process.

To be clear: I am very happy to have this job. I think I’ve scored a great deal here: it pays well, allows me to live in Switzerland, lets me be a small, curious fish in a large and diverse ocean of people and teams, and provides me with long-term job security. At the same time, I hope it’s not ungracious to say that I don’t envision staying in this role for the rest of my career. I had burned out on my current career path (communications) years ago, and I am looking at ways to transition into social or humanitarian affairs in 2023, ideally taking on roles that would enable me to specialize in areas such as programme management, community engagement, and innovation and impact.

In fact, even if I wanted to stay in this role, I wouldn’t be able to. The length of my contract is two years, and when I finish those two years, the human resources department will proactively reassign me to a different post, potentially even in a different country. I will have a say in that decision. That’s why I mentioned setting 2023 as my goal year for making this career transition.

So that’s the background.

One day in early October, my boss called me into his office. “I got a promotion,” he announced. “I’m moving to Team X.”

“Oh congratulations, good for you!” I said. Then, later in the conversation, I asked: “So who’s going to replace you?”

“You are,” he said.

(I had been working there for four months at that point.)

Then my boss explained exactly what it would mean to replace him. It entailed taking over the day-to-day management of two people, A and B — both of whom were my parents’ age and had been working at this organization for more than two decades. Furthermore, A and B both led their own teams. Altogether, it meant being responsible for the supervision of 14 people.

Oh, and neither A nor B are proficient in English, so all communication with them would have to be done in French. A language that I was NOT fluent in. “You would need to ameliorate your French significantly,” said my boss, who was fluent in English, Uzbek, Russian, French and German.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. My boss also told me other pieces of behind-the-scenes information that only managers are privy to, which I won’t repeat on this blog out of respect for people’s privacy. Let’s just say it made me uneasy.

“I need to be honest,” my boss said, “The suggestion to have you replace me came from senior leadership. I personally don’t think you are ready to take on these responsibilities. Not because you don’t have the professionalism or the skills, but because you’ve only been here for a few months, and there’s still a lot that you need to learn. So take some time and think about whether you want to do this.”

I left his office in a daze and had a small, quiet panic attack once I was alone (which I briefly mentioned in this blog post a while back).

In the two months that followed, I had many conversations with other people, asking for their advice or just getting their gut reactions to what I had shared. Interestingly, the feedback was all over the map. Here are examples of what people said:

Senior colleague and informal mentor, M, who was the first person I talked to just hours after the panic attack: “I think what they proposed is quite unusual at your level. I’m one level above you and I only manage one person, and that’s the norm. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, then you should definitely be open and communicate that, and they’ll understand.”

My therapist, J: “I can appreciate that this was a really big shock for you. You’re still in shock right now. Give yourself time to think it over and don’t agree to anything yet.”

Friend P: “Absolutely, you could totally handle this job. Tell them that if you’re going to do your boss’s old job, then they need to pay you the same salary as they paid him. Don’t agree to do the job until they agree to give you a promotion and a raise.”

Senior colleague and informal mentor, S: “I think if you’re not comfortable, then you should feel free to communicate that. You’re not going to be penalized for turning down this opportunity. But don’t let age be a deterrent in your thinking; lots of people manage people who are older than they are.”

Friend T: “What??? This is nuts! It sounds like they’re really impressed with your work! Does this mean they’re giving you a promotion, though? You need to clarify that first.”

Friend R: “Do what you think is best for you. I’m sorry you had a panic attack :(“

Formal work mentor, D: “You can 100% do this job. Take it. It’s an incredible opportunity. Nobody I know has ever gotten promoted this fast.”

Friend K: “You’re such a badass!!!”

Interestingly, I noticed a pattern: out of all the people I consulted, the men were much more likely to say if you don’t feel like it’s the right fit, then it’s not the right fit. Whereas the women were more likely to say hell yeah! snatch that promotion! I don’t care to speculate about the reasons behind that, so I’ll just leave it at this.

So I thought about it. Over the next two months, I slowly and somewhat unwittingly began taking over some of my boss’s responsibilities. I took on a more hands-on role, working closely with colleagues who had been unfamiliar to me previously, and writing a lot of emails in French. I got closer to one of the people that I would hypothetically manage: when I complained of insomnia, they sent me the information of their trusted acupuncturist in France.

But I still didn’t feel that the job was right for me.

We didn’t speak about this for two months, and then at the end of November, my boss abruptly brought up the subject again. “So what do you think?” he said. “They’re going to post a vacancy for my position. If you want it, you need to speak up soon.”

This was news to me: I had always thought that it would be an informal process. Want the job? You’ve got it. You start tomorrow. But it seemed more complicated now, involving an open application, a review of CVs, a competition.

The next day, I managed to catch my boss’s boss at the office. We sat down face to face, masked, and I got right to the point. “I believe we’ve always had a relationship that was based on trust and communication,” I said. “I sincerely want to know what you think: should I ask for this job or not?”

And he was honest with me. “When — if — I create this job opening, I’m not going to tailor this position to your CV to manipulate the situation so that you’re automatically the best candidate. I’m going to review all the CVs and compare them on merit. And if other people are more qualified than you — if they have more management experience — there’s a decent chance that you won’t be selected.”

I did feel a tinge of annoyance at this: a catch-22 I’d seen too many times. Can’t make you a manager because you don’t have management experience. Can’t get management experience until you’re a manager.

“And it’s going to be a temporary job for one year,” my boss’s boss explained. “So regardless of whether you get the job, after a year, we would have to open it up again and do a formal recruitment process. You would have to apply, take a test, interview, go through the whole thing. And again, there’s a chance you won’t be selected.”

And if I got the job the first time, but not the second time? Or if they couldn’t renew the job due to a lack of funding? I would essentially be demoted. Bumped down from a temporary promotion back to the original, lower level.

In that moment, I knew that I was not interested.

I wasn’t interested in a temporary promotion that would hang in the balance, leaving me anxious and not in control of my career.

I wasn’t interested in working overtime and stretching my emotional bandwidth to manage the deliverables, performance and challenges of 14 people.

I wasn’t interested in digging myself deeper into the hole of communications, even if it meant a promotion.

And I definitely wasn’t interested in throwing my hat in the ring and putting in the work to apply and interview for this job, when it was clear I did not have the support of my boss’s boss, who was both the hiring manager and my soon-to-be direct supervisor.

I listened to my gut. And my gut had told me its answer loud and clear — on the first day I’d heard this news, by responding with a panic attack.

“I’ve decided,” I told my boss’s boss. “I’m not going to go for it. Just because it’s a promotion, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for me.”

In that moment, I immediately felt lighter. I had made a decision, and I felt good about it.

Whoever they hire to be my boss’s replacement, I hope they’re a good person. And I look forward to learning from them.

I will get promoted, but it’ll be on my own terms, on the career path that I want for myself.

Epilogue

It turned out all of this was moot anyway. When I consulted the terms and conditions of my initial hiring, I learned that I’m actually not allowed to apply for temporary jobs during my first two years of employment. So I’m going to tell people that this is my official reason for not applying for this job. Because it is.

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