How to turn down a promotion without losing face

Being offered a promotion might be satisfying, but if it doesn’t align with your career goals, you should not feel obligated to accept the job, writes Shwetha Mudabagilu Krishnapp

Shwetha Mudabagilu Krishnapp's avatar
8 Feb 2024
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Promotion processes within academia are slow and it can be challenging to move up the career ladder. According to a Royal Society report, just 3.5 per cent of PhD candidates get permanent university research positions. Only 12 per cent reach professor level. Many academics aspire to get promoted as quickly as possible. And who can blame them? Getting a promotion is a great achievement. It means that someone has recognised your hard work and dedication. But not everyone wants to be promoted. What if you enjoy your current position? What if you are not ready to take on the additional responsibility that comes with it?

Research suggests that a satisfying career is one in which you do what you do best and enjoy most. Therefore being promoted into positions that don’t make optimal use of your talents or don’t allow for work-life balance can hurt your career in the long run. A promotion may divert your attention from your primary duties or jeopardise your ability to consistently perform high-quality work. The new role may not offer any learning or new skill development opportunities.

Accepting that a promotion may not align with your professional objectives can be difficult. Refusal of a promotion may convey a lack of ambition and an unwillingness to take on additional responsibilities. However, you must not let this prevent you from following your instinct. If you are offered a promotion that you do not want, here are some ways to turn it down without hindering your career opportunities.

Explain how staying in your position will benefit the institution

First, thank the institution for the opportunity, then take a day or two to prepare a case for why staying in your current role and department ultimately benefits it. The objective is to demonstrate how you can contribute to the institution's long-term success and strategic goals. Handle the situation delicately and assertively. Take time to explain your reasoning to avoid creating any unnecessary tension.

Explain how you can create value in your current role

Explain that, although you are turning down the promotion, you are still interested in career advancement, and that you don’t need a promotion to succeed or feel fulfilled. Demonstrate proactivity by offering some suggestions about how you could add more value to the faculty in your current role. What are the specific ways in which you can improve your work? What new initiatives can you propose? Can you use your skills to contribute in new ways? Can your manager provide you with feedback and coaching to help you excel further?

Reflect on and explain your personal reasoning

Before saying no to a promotion, reflect on the personal reasons why you wish to do so. Fear of failure or a lack of desire for added responsibility could be factors. Timing and personal circumstances may also play a role. Explain the suitability of your current position, highlighting your love for it and how it aligns with your strengths, skills and career goals. Emphasise how it relates to your values and motivates you. Although you may not be interested in getting promoted right now, you never know if your interests, situation or aspirations might change. Have an open discussion with your manager about your mindset.

Back up your decision with data

Considering factors beyond financial gain and career development is crucial when making decisions about whether or not to accept a promotion. While securing a more senior position can be fulfilling, it can sometimes mean sacrificing work-life balance which can harm your mental and physical well-being. Make two lists, one in which you outline the responsibilities of the new position and the other where you list your personal responsibilities at home. If the list is unbalanced, taking that promotion may not be the best idea.

Being offered a promotion might be satisfying, but if it doesn’t align with your career goals, you do not have to feel obligated to accept the job. Your career can also grow through lateral moves. Recognise that staying where you are can be a strategic decision that optimises your performance and well-being.

Remember, if your institution has offered you a promotion, it is a clear sign that your employer thinks highly of you. This means that even if you turn it down, your institution will not want to lose you. And finally, there is no one-size-fits-all career path. Define your version of success, and the decision to accept or refuse promotion will naturally fall into place.

Shwetha Mudabagilu Krishnappa is an assistant professor at T. A. Pai Management Institute at Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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