The Peter Principle states that individuals rise to their level of incompetence. In other words, if you are working at a job where promotions are given out for achievement, then a competent employee will continue to get promotions until he can no longer handle the job. And that’s where he’ll stay put.
The classic example of the Peter Principle is a teacher who does a great job so he’s promoted to administration, where his teaching skills won’t really help him to manage other teachers, enforce discipline, meet with parents, handle state testing, and keep up with administrative paperwork. Essentially, this teacher has been promoted away from his skill set.
This principle is one reason why many employees would want to stay at a current level, rather than advance through the company. But concerns about work/life balance, lack of job satisfaction at the new level, career and life goals that are incompatible with the promotion, and even potential personality conflicts that might come to the fore with the new job, are all equally valid reasons why an employee might want to refuse an offered promotion.
Unfortunately, turning down a promotion can be nerve-wracking, because it may seem as though your career will suffer after a refusal. But taking a promotion you really don’t want might actually be worse for your career, since you’ll end up hating your job.
How to Refuse a Promotion – and Keep Your Job
It is possible to gracefully refuse a promotion and continue to love your job. It just takes some effort and communication:
1. Lay the groundwork. If you already know that the usual promotion track at your company is one that you are not suited for, then don’t wait for an offer to make your goals and expectations clear. During your annual review (or any other time that you can sit down with your boss and talk about your future), make sure you spell out your long-term goals with the company.
For example, my husband is a mechanical engineer, and he works in an industry that has two paths for career advancement: management and technical expertise. He knows that he simply does not have the skills or temperament to manage others, so he has made it clear to his bosses that he is more interested in someday becoming a technical expert—basically, the head honcho overseeing the engineering (but not the people) in a big project.
Even if your industry’s promotions are not as clearly delineated, you can still set personal goals with your boss at review time. That way she’ll know what it is you’re interested in doing, and she’ll be more likely to offer you promotions based on your interests and abilities.
2. Take time to decide. If you’ve already been offered a promotion you’re not sure that you want, tell your boss that you need to sleep on it. This will give you time to discuss the issue with your spouse or family, and it will give you an opportunity to consider ways to approach your boss with a no. You should never have to make a decision on the spot.
3. Turn the rejection into a positive. While you can certainly offer some personal reasons for turning down a promotion—“I’m afraid I can’t commit to the additional hours while my kids are still under 5”—you ultimately want to express the entire situation as what will be best for the company. So point out the things you do in your present position that contribute to the company’s bottom line and how you are really valuable right where you are. It is also a good idea to offer to help out however you can and offer to take on some additional responsibilities in your current position if that will make the situation easier. That will indicate your commitment to your job.
4. Consider taking the promotion with caveats. If you only have a couple of specific concerns about the promotion, remember that you can negotiate. If your promotion would require a move, ask if tele-commuting is possible. If you’re concerned about the stress of additional responsibilities, ask if you can have additional vacation time built into your year. Requesting to make tweaks to the promotion offer shows that you are interested in doing what is best for the company and that you are willing to work with them.
The Bottom Line
If you are open, responsible, and willing to work with your boss to find a solution, there is no reason to fall victim to the Peter Principle.