What to Do When You Lose Out on a Promotion

A reader asks:

I recently applied for an internal promotion to be manager of the small team I serve. I was unsuccessful. Two questions. First, I was “let down easy”–the hiring manager said things like “it was close” and “we want to keep you.” But isn’t being turned down for the role essentially a repudiation of me? If they really wanted to keep me, I feel like they would have considered offering me some incentive to remain. I am reading it as a clear sign that I should move on.

That notwithstanding, how do I establish rapport with the new manager, an external candidate who I was in competition with and lost out to? Do I specifically acknowledge that I applied for his role but that now I am ready to be a great team member, colleague, and partner? The truth is that I might have a hard time being an enthusiastic team member now that I’ve been rejected for this particular advancement.

First, no, being turned down for a promotion isn’t a repudiation of you! Firing you from your current role would be a repudiation of you, but you were explicitly told that the promotion decision was no reflection on you and that your employer wants to keep you. That’s no repudiation.

After all, imagine if you were hiring for that position and had a good internal candidate, but a much stronger external one. You’d have to make the decision that was in the best interests of the organization and hire the stronger candidate – but that wouldn’t mean that you didn’t value the internal candidate. Not at all! In fact, hiring managers have to deal with this all the time; if they have one slot but multiple great candidates, that means that they’re going to be rejecting some great candidates. It’s just the reality of the math when you only have a single open slot.

So it’s key for you to stop feeling that you’re being nudged to move on. It sounds like just the opposite of that. But if you let yourself continue to feel that way, it has the potential to make you feel bitter and could even cause you to leave a job that you were happy in before this happened. That’s not necessary to do to yourself – and it’s something within your control.

As for getting along with your new manager, you don’t need to acknowledge to her that you applied for her job, although you certainly can if you’d feel better having it in the open. The best thing you can do, though, is to show that you’re ready to be a great team member by … well, by demonstrating it. Be open to her ideas, do great work, and continue to contribute to the team at a high level. If you’re doing that, she’s not going to worry that you’re uncomfortable with her – because your work will speak for itself.

Now, if you find that you can’t do that, then you might be better off looking for a different position somewhere else, before you harm your reputation with your coworkers and your current company. Right now, they think highly enough of you that you were a serious contender for a promotion, and you shouldn’t risk that good reputation with them by allowing resentment to affect the way you operate at work.

But I’d give it a good faith effort before you conclude that you need to go in that direction. And meanwhile, why not ask the hiring manager you interviewed with for feedback about what you can work on to have a stronger chance at promotion in the future?


Have you ever found yourself in this situation?  How did you react?

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  • Sarah G.

    So insightful and rational. If I were the OP, this answer would definitely help me step back and gain some perspective on the big picture, and stop taking the decision as personally as she is. I hope the OP is able to take your advice to heart.

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  • environmentcare

    No doubt its difficult to face but to move on in a positive way is the key to real success. Any way positive attitude will always be rewarded some where, some how down the line.

  • Jsmith

    Same thing happened to me. However, the person that got the job was a person that I hired into the organization. I was let down easy too. However, I was never told anymore than I didn’t have enough experience and have heard that it may have been my youth and not my experience that was the deciding factor. I have a lot of resentment because I clearly have more practical experience in the field that I work in and have more organizational experience. Clearly there were other reasons that I didn’t get the position but No one is honest with me.

  • Jake123

    Same thing happened to me, I had more practical experience, people skills and even support of the team that I applied to manage. Lost out to an internal candidate who had more seniority and MBA. Hiring team couldn’t offer the job to me, but was very upfront about future promotion to a supervisory role in the next 12 month. I feel extremely disappointed about not getting a job and working side by side with the management team and a new hire. I have always been a top performer with a great upbeat attitude and afraid to lose my drive due to recent events and feel like I need to move on.