Another career promotion conversation question...
August 12, 2020 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I have a "check-in" conversation with the head of our IT department tomorrow. I have been waiting for a promotion for a long time. I don't know if this is the right time to bring it up. Or how to bring it up. Can you advise and give me some good phrases to use?

I'm a software developer and it's time for me to move up from a level II to a level III. Most people get to III and stay there; some extraordinary few make it to IV. The vast, vast majority of us are III and IV. Like, aside from two other people who started within the last two years, I'm the only II I know of.

Why am I still a II? I would like to know the answer to that. I've never had any performance issues. I'm neither a rockstar, nor do I suck. I'm well-liked. I get work done. With minimal bugs. I'm 40 but I look very young (I still get ID'd regularly). I'm a woman.

I've been here 7 years, but only about 5.5 are counted because of a maternity leave and a disability leave. Two male colleagues (in their twenties) who started about 4 months before me, were promoted before my mat leave (May 2018). Another 20-something male colleague who started after me was promoted during my mat leave. I'd talk about women who have been promoted in that timeframe too; I just don't happen to know of any. I have now been back at work since January 2020.

It's tough to say it's sexism though; our workforce and managerial team are around 50% female.

I've asked at least three times (from 3 different managers) what I need to do to meet the requirements for level III. I have never had a proper answer.

What should I do about this? Do I keep quiet longer? I didn't want to bring it up right after I came back from mat, but I did anyhow. I got another non-answer. Then COVID happened. We had layoffs last month for the first time in the company's history. Things are not great economically. There's probably no approval for any promotions at this time anyhow. Or raises. Yadda yadda.

I feel incredibly ashamed that people can see my level II status on emails, etc. I should be a III by now. I think my salary is probably behind industry standards at this point, but this is a point of pride too. Maybe more so.

I'm too embarrassed now to bring it up with my other colleagues. Except for my best work friend, who thinks it's BS. Of course, she does; she's my friend.

Should I bring this up? If so, how?
posted by kitcat to Work & Money (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In general, asking for a promotion makes people see you as more competent and valuable. %Bossname, I haven't had regular performance evals, but I'm doing really good work, as evidenced by X, Y, and Z. It's time for me to be a Developer III.
posted by theora55 at 12:49 PM on August 12, 2020 [12 favorites]

Which manager is directly responsible for you? You mention you've asked 3 different managers -- is this 3 successive managers or are you in a position of reporting to more than one person? If you have management by committee that's not great for trying to get career help.

You will probably get different opinions on whether you should ask right now if the company just had a layoff. If it were me, even though it sounds like you are well-overdue for a promotion, I'd be hesitant to raise it right now. It's too easy to brush off for the reasons you've mentioned ("we don't have any money for raises" etc.) and no doubt your managers / head of IT are stressed right now. They may not be at their most receptive, which is super-unfair since it sounds like they've brushed you off during better times, but that's a factor nonetheless.

All of that said, I'd approach whoever your direct manager is with something like "I want to have a conversation about my career track here. I know things are tough right now, so I'm not asking for an immediate answer - I'm asking to have the conversation and learn how to get on a path to promotion."

Then, when you do have the conversation: "I've been with the company for seven years and I see myself being here long-term, but I don't want to stagnate. I've noticed several of my peers have received a bump from level II to III over my tenure, and I'd like to know how I can do the same. If it's a question of skills or performance, I'd like to know where I would need to improve to be considered for level III. I believe I'm performing at level III now, but if that's not the case I'm eager to learn what the gap is."

I'm too embarrassed now to bring it up with my other colleagues.

Understandable, but you really shouldn't be. A well-run organization would be giving you feedback and development -- either you should be getting help to get to the next level, especially when you explicitly ask for it, or getting feedback that lets you know why that's not the case. Either way your organization is falling short here.
posted by jzb at 1:25 PM on August 12, 2020 [13 favorites]

Yes! Most definitely bring it up. The way I would phrase it is something like:

"Head of IT, I've been at the company for 7 years and am eager to move forward with my career here. I'm currently a level II and would like to move to a level III. I understand that with the recent layoffs, there may not be approvals for promotions right now. That said, I'd like to do what I can to prepare myself so that when we are considering promotions, I am ready for that. What are the areas I should work on in order to be considered for a level III?"

I'm sorry you're in this situation--it sounds like there is not a lot of structure in place (ie regular reviews, clear steps/criteria for the various levels) and you should not feel ashamed at being where you are right now! The company values you enough to have kept you on all this time, so you're obviously doing good work!
posted by too bad you're not me at 1:28 PM on August 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

As much as we all worry about what words to use, it probably doesn't matter too much as long as the message is clear, and just broaching the topic is likely all that's needed. If you feel the need to not be be blunt, you can bring the outside factors you mentioned. "I was really expecting to be promoted even before the pandemic and I understand times are hard, but can I look for that sometime soon" But that is just offering him a reason to say no, so I think blunt is better.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:29 PM on August 12, 2020

Best answer: I have never gotten a promotion or raise I haven't aggressively requested.

When I was in a tough spot at work about 2 years ago (admittedly not unprecedented covid times, etc etc), I went above my manager's head (after many and repeated asks, clearly expressed disappointment, broken promises) and said I need to be paid $X in recognition for the work that I am doing now, not 6 months from now, not at some time in the future, but now. Manager's manager said "I'll talk to the finance team about budget and see what's possible, what if it happens that the answer is no?" And I said "if that's the determination then I would like an explanation in writing of why."

Multiple YEARS of being passed over for promotion? It's time to bear your teeth. If you're denied, ask them to explain in permanent forever written writing why. (No one actually wants to write "because we can! neener neener neener!" so this works in your favor.)
posted by phunniemee at 1:52 PM on August 12, 2020 [14 favorites]

Others have given you some good answers so I won't reiterate. I will say this: I work in tech too, and while the economy isn't great right now, there is absolutely hiring going on. I just started a new job a month ago, and my own company is hiring developers. If you can't get traction here - if you can't even get a straight answer about why you're not ready for a routine level bump - there are options.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:09 PM on August 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh and if it helps you at all, in the week leading up to every conversation like this I've ever had in my life, I've engaged in the positive self talk of "fuck you, pay me" like a mantra. No matter what the other person might say, the constant refrain of "fuck you, pay me" playing in my head keeps my confidence high and has kept me focused on the goal. Works great for me, YMMV.
posted by phunniemee at 2:27 PM on August 12, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a female data scientist and I'm 35. I have seen younger, less talented people promoted at every job I've ever had simply for reasons of visibility or the sense they were hungrier and more willing to please. Depending on your risk tolerance and how aggressive you feel comfortable being, I would come at your boss with this script:
"Boss, clearly there must be something lacking in my performance if [colleague and colleague] got promoted to III in [less time than you have been there]. I know they are talented and deserving, but the problem is a lack of a clear career chart that would help me meet the same expectations. Can we draw up something that clearly demonstrates the responsibilities and expectations of the II, III and IV levels for my role?"

Any boss who is not an idiot will read between the lines and see they are open to accusations of discrimination unless they can show documentation why your colleagues have been promoted before you. Otherwise the facts of the case are that they didn't go on maternity leave (presumably) and you did, and you got passed over, and that leaves them open to accusations of violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, assuming you are in the US and this law applies to you.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:28 PM on August 12, 2020 [14 favorites]

(PS. I see you are Canadian and as far as I can tell, Canadian law also considers passing up someone for promotion because they took maternity illegal)
posted by slow graffiti at 2:35 PM on August 12, 2020

oh also for the US startup to medium size company perspective: at the last two places I worked, 5 years of consistent good performance would be enough to get you promoted at least one and maybe two levels above the level you came in at, unless II is actually higher than ~2+ yrs exp for your company. Every company has different pay bands but 5 years at the same level is not typical in this industry at all and you should point that out to your boss. This looks really really bad on your company from over here.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:45 PM on August 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

You could go with "I want to advance my career, but in the past every time I've asked what steps I can take I have never received any guidance. What can I do so the next time we meet I'm in a different place? I have a real goal of Becoming a III, so I am asking for real steps I can take."
posted by Cris E at 3:12 PM on August 12, 2020

One other thing to add to your conversation/negotiation tool box is "standard operating procedure" or "industry best practice."

Frame every ask and point you make with one of those phrases.

"Industry best practice indicates that developers generally receive promotions at such and such schedule..."
"Industry standards show that someone with my experience level should be making in the range of $X-$Y..."

People in general want to conform and putting them on the spot to let them know they aren't can be a way of pushing them to see your side of things.
posted by brookeb at 3:27 PM on August 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'd like to have a conversation about my career.

I have recently accomplished a host of work that demonstrate the competencies expected of a III.

Name, explain, support, conclude: "I added a functionality to a product. This grew a key metric by some percent, saving the company an amount of money. This aligns with expectations of a II. While doing this, I shared my workflow with another team and helped them achieve similar impact. This demonstrates technical competency and cross-team collaboration, which are competencies of a III."

What is the plan to promote my job level to the level at which I am performing?

[if the answer is "well, you're not quite there yet..."]

Can you point to specific gaps I need to fill, and work with my managers to assign me work to grow my skills in those areas?"

Afterwards, follow up with notes: "Thanks for the check-in. Here are my notes from our discussion. Can we check in in a quarter?" Schedule check-in meeting on their calendar, etc.
posted by batter_my_heart at 3:32 PM on August 12, 2020

Best answer: Everyone else has made good points, and I’d follow their scripts about bringing stuff up. But there was one part of your question that stood out to me, and that’s that you’re sensitive to the company’s finances. So: remind them that the cost of adding another I to your title is exactly $0. I know the money is part of the frustration, and I’m not by any means yelling you to ignore it. But if they try to bring up the “no promotions at this time” angle, point out that it feels like the II title is keeping people from taking you and your work seriously, especially since other people with comparable seniority are IIIs. If they’re not willing to give you the raise now, ask for the title immediately and a compensation review at a specified date in accordance with company finances.

Don’t feel bad about playing up the sexism angle, either. It may not be the only thing holding you back, but it can sure appear that way to other people, and that’s not great for the company, if you know what I mean.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:56 PM on August 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

It's time to go on the job market! 7 years at one org is a long time as a working developer even if they handed you everything you want on the recognition side, unless you're sure that this is a lifetime organization for you.
posted by Kwine at 5:06 PM on August 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

A promotion usually only happens if it solves a problem for the company.

This is brutal to hear, but many people say they've been doing good work for many years and deserve to be promoted. This is comparable to saying that your product deserves a sale because it's been sitting on the shelf a long time and no one has bought it yet.

Most promotions we see happen are because we see this person could achieve more for the company if they were given more resources (larger staff) and had more authority (greater decision making capability). Or a boss who is passionate about developing people is taking a gamble on someone.

Other than that you're basically relying on luck or mercy.

It's probably time to look outside - it's going to be hard to change the perception people will have of you if you're been there so long without being promoted.
posted by xdvesper at 5:13 PM on August 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A promotion usually only happens if it solves a problem for the company.

Well, yes. The problem for the company is that the skilled worker will leave, or sue.
posted by phunniemee at 5:59 PM on August 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I've marked the answers that are most useful to my own situation. I need a more aggressive tactic this time, because I've already done the soft approach "I would like to advance my career, what gaps do I need to fill..." Even before my mat, I was seeking this promotion and it's written in my review "I would like to see this happen before my maternity leave". I cringe to take this approach and come out empty, yet again.

Just a note, I didn't know 5 years was more than normal for this industry. If you have more facts to throw at me, I'd be grateful. I guess I don't know these things because uur workplace has ridiculously low turnover. I guess we're not a hugely ambitious bunch. We like our benefits and our decent work life balance.
posted by kitcat at 7:08 PM on August 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Good luck tomorrow, go bust some heads.
posted by phunniemee at 7:54 PM on August 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've asked at least three times (from 3 different managers) what I need to do to meet the requirements for level III. I have never had a proper answer.

This is weird. Every organization I've been in has made this abundantly clear. It's been a regular part of the conversation with my manager: what do I need to do to perform at my level, and what are the expectations to move up.

From what you described, I'd wager that if you put together a resume with your work experience, you'd be looking at positions as a III. Maybe more! One never knows. Things like that happen in this industry.
posted by billjings at 11:04 PM on August 12, 2020

Have you ever interviewed somewhere else? It might be illuminating, either the process itself can firm up a "shit yeah, I can do that more-senior job description", or in actually getting an offer.

The good-and-also-bad news is that a lot of companies are doing interviewing over video, which is an extra load of manure on top of the SWE interview but means you might have more options available without having to book a couple of days vacation to fly somewhere.

I don't know your company, but a lot of places will absolutely give you a raise/promotion on hearing you have an offer that makes your current role/pay look ridiculous, and *most* places don't put you on a Suspicion List for it. (This is safer if your company is large enough to have, say, an HR department that's more than one person. This correlates with rational money-seeking behavior you can exploit, rather than personal hurt feeling from the owner guy.)
posted by away for regrooving at 12:35 AM on August 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have never had a proper answer.

This is a deep red flag.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:35 AM on August 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd talk about women who have been promoted in that timeframe too; I just don't happen to know of any. ... It's tough to say it's sexism though; our workforce and managerial team are around 50% female.

If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, chances are it's a duck.

Sexist decision making is not a thing perpetrated solely by men. Patriarchy is embedded deep in the entire culture, and female managers are every bit as susceptible to implicit bias against the women they manage as anybody else.

But because everybody now understands, or should understand, that explicit bias against women is generally and correctly regarded as a mark of deep unprofessionalism, the way to work around it is to do as phunnimee says: "If you're denied, ask them to explain in permanent forever written writing* why."

And if you get nowhere in your "check-in" conversation, don't be afraid of putting a promotion request in permanent forever written writing of your own. Not only does this allow you to delay delivery until you've shaped and honed it into the sharpest deadliest blandest beigest passive-aggressive HR-speak blade it possibly can be, it denies your manager any opportunity to waste everybody's time even further by wheeling out the tired old Travis Kalanick "Golly gee, I had no idea this was happening, I will look into it immediately" defence when put on the spot by their manager.

*I am totally stealing the phrase "permanent forever written writing". That's gold.
posted by flabdablet at 5:51 AM on August 13, 2020 [9 favorites]

A lot of good things have been said already, but I feel like I need to chime in as well. For context, woman, recently over 40, in a very male-dominent technology field, software engineer / developer type who was generally promoted every few years, and now manage of bunch of people and have had these exact conversations with my engineers.

It sucks, but where I work there is generally an undocumented (but not unspoken at promotion time) agreement that "you have to do the job before you get the job". The idea is that the org does not want to promote someone into a position they have not already shown they can be successful at.

You need to be direct. Ask your manager outright what the expectations are for a II vs a III. Ask what responsibilities a III has that a II is not generally expected to do. Tell them you would like their help in getting the opportunities to do these things. And then fight for opportunities to do those III things yourself. Do you need to lead a feature? Next one that comes up - speak up and let the group know you're super excited about it and would like to own it. (And then rock it , obviously!) Do you do standup / scrum? Try and work your way into defecto backup scrum-runner when the scrum master is out. Have a general knowledge of what everyone on the team is doing - information is power. Be that person people realize can help them when they're stuck, being able to have an educated thought or opinion on things you're not directly involved in day-to-day in can be powerful (but with knowledge comes great responsibility - no one likes a know-it-all) Be enthusiastic about tech, and tell your peers about it, what you've learned. More experienced devs are generally expected to mentor junior ones. And then make sure you tell your manager about these things. "Last time we talked, you mentioned a III was generally responsible for X. I've recently had an opportunity to do this, and learned a lot; mainly A ,B + C - i'm excited to do more of this in the future". That sort of thing.

Do you have an annual review / promotion cycle? Do you do self assessments? When the time comes, you talk about how you've been successful all these III level things. And then in the end, mention that you've spent the year preparing for the move into the new role by doing these things and you feel like you've shown that you can be successful at this level.

And if you dont get anywhere, start looking elsewhere. There needs to be a reason to promote someone, and the potential to lose you due to inaction is a good reason if you are bringing value to the organization. Hiring someone new is a long, expensive process.

But don't discount there may be a bunch of other situations in play you have absolutely no knowledge of or control over. I haven't been able to promote people that should be promoted due to lack of budgets, hiring freezes, or even just balancing acts - I cant have a team of all senior engineers, I need to maintain a good mix. I dont have enough opportunities to keep a team of all senior devs happy - there are not enough fun challenging problems to solve to go around.

Regarding the gender issue - I wont lie and say it's definitely not part of the issue, it may be, if you're lucky it may not be. But the chances are your male counterparts getting promoted are being much more forceful and direct about it, which is something you will most likely need to do as well yourself, even if it means stepping outside of your comfort zone.
posted by cgg at 7:32 AM on August 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also - If your manager can't tell you directly what the II vs III delineation is, ask what specific IIIs do (by name if known, especially helpful if they report to your same manager) thats different than what you're expected to do. You may need to slyly guide your manager to define the expectations - sometimes they are admittedly fuzzy.
posted by cgg at 7:39 AM on August 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wow! I'm impressed at the answers given!

One thing you need to understand (and cgg pointed to it) is that one of the reasons men get promoted faster is that they actually, point blank, no-hinting, ASK for it. Only rarely in life will a manager actually voluntarily spend more money if it is not necessary. It is a very rare manager who would, out of their own motivation, say: "hey, you're doing such a good job! [well, many would say that but then they'd not say the next bit] Here, you should have extra money!" if it's not necessary. Why would they, if they don't have to and you stay anyway?

It's kinda like dating, too (especially if your superior is a man): hinting is often not enough (as men are stupid and women in this case can afford to pretend to be stupid) and will fall below the perception threshold (intentionally or not). But a direct ask cannot be ignored.

Another thing to realise (and ohshit this might sound sexist ... but it's real) is that people who are there for a long, uninterrupted time have a leg up on you. I know in the US maternity leave is disgustingly short. Still ... you weren't there when promotion opportunities arose. And if you worked there for 7 years but were only on-the-job for 5.5 ... well, then your actual on-the-job experience IS 5.5 years. Your work experience is 5.5 years. The time you spent on your craft is 5.5 years (unless you spent the disability leave honing your craft ... if so, that is a major point to bring up!). You might have started earlier, but being on the bench does not count as time playing in the field.

You mention you're a data scientist. That's in demand (and many jobs adjacent are, too). Even now. Even so it is understandable to want to be careful right now. So, yes, as many others in this thread have said, your best bet might be the two tiered approach: get a free titular promotion to III (it costs them nothing [and you can/could tell them that ... but tbh I'd save that for later, if you get pushback on an actual promotion, THEN you can say 'well at least gimme III']) to improve client communication/respect and later (at an exact date, but get it in writing! Plan it in!) a remuneration increase (or at the very least a date for a monetary discussion).

Finally (and this is heavily biased anecdata as I live/work in the EU, not the US) ... true, there might be brogrammer shops. There are companies with women-hostile atmospheres. There might still be a lot of companies with glass ceilings.
But when I (M) and a friend (F) [IMO at least equally proficient programmers/people persons, tbrh I would rate myself grokking it a bit better/having a deeper understanding ... but she's damned good, too!] spent time in the US at companies like Twitter, Uber, Pintrest, Google talking to the tech teams there (we'd invited ourselves over for informal chats during a conference) ... I was almost completely ignored because she was a woman. In tech. Technically competent.
Which made her rare. A commodity, almost. A diversity hire, maybe. Fascinating nonetheless. And all that on top of just being a good hire, skills-wise!
This fascinated me, really. I'm a social guy. I get along with many people, easily (well, definitely techies and organisers, at least). I can read people a bit. Do well with pitches/client communications. I like Americans and they tend to like me. Point being that it's not because I was a quiet introvert or didn't have technical skills/knowledge/ability to convey them (one proof being the conference we spoke at and the reactions resultant). Even pointed out a fix for a technical issue at one. This all might sound defensive, but there's a point to it.
I know I could be wrong here but IMO it was because she was a woman in tech in the USA with technical skills.

I'm sorry for the long, long post and seemingly (maybe) irrelevant final paragraphs but here's the thing: from what I have seen a woman in the USA with actual proven technical skills is in high demand, at least with certain companies, and actually has (or can have) a leg up in the hiring process.

So use that to your advantage. Especially since ... what was it, 2018? when Google had that thing with the misogynist dude's blog. You are in demand! As a data scientist, especially. And as a woman. In tech. Who (I hope) knows her shit.

So go ask for that promotion (with detailed reasons as to why you deserve it, maybe even data showing you're actually already doing that). If they say no or are evasive: ask them to specify exactly what you can do to make you suitable and for reasons why they can't/won't at this time. If it's money, ask for the paper promotion with a set date, on paper, for when you will talk about compensation.

And at the same time leverage your in-demand skillset and gender by dipping your toe in the job pool. You might find a better fit/more money/cooler work/better title (don't go lateral ... III or bust). And you might use that as leverage at your current employer ('I got headhunted at a couple of places offering me more') ... but ONLY do that if you get actual offers, as it might backfire.

Good luck!

(and oh, crap, I hope I haven't offended/given the wrong idea about myself to too many people with my discource on my experientialy perceived marketability of women in tech in the USA ... I promise it's not Dunnig-Krueger, either! I've also been lucky enough to work at places with a lot of women in the tech side of things).
posted by MacD at 2:31 PM on August 13, 2020

Response by poster: Hey guys, I have an update! I used some of the scripts provided in here, particularly the "there must be something wrong with my performance if person X, Y and Z (all male but I didn't spell that out) got promoted with the same tenure I me. I also brought up (had brought this up with all managers but none payed attention) that I have some experience/education in iOS and Android app development - which my department head was shocked to hear. Finally, I asked, again, for the list of competencies for a level III.

First email this morning was that list of competencies! And within 10 minutes of logging on my manager contacted me to say that they were going to do a 360 review (which is I guess the precursor to a promotion, where they survey your colleagues to ask what they think of your abilities).

All this despite the fact that I was told in my meeting yesterday that promotions are on hold, unless they were initiated before COVID. Well, mine should have been and it looks like they agree.

Thank you! I couldn't have done this without you! Even if they turn me down, at least they are actually looking into it.
posted by kitcat at 8:32 AM on August 14, 2020 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Well guys, here's my update. It's a non-answer again. They are going to "look into it for the new year". I was told - they are simply not doing any promotions right now. My work is good, all of my feedback from my colleagues was good, but my manager said that he needs to go back and talk to upper management because "there's a process here." So I'm going to hear back within the next couple of weeks what came out of his meeting with upper management. More waiting. I'm kinda deflated.

I think I'll start updating my linkedin account. I've been head-hunted a bit in the past, so maybe I can see some offers come in and use that as more fuel. Also, if they happen to see my activity on there, they might thing extra hard about whether they want to let me walk.

Thanks for everyone's well wishes! I got quite a few private messages and I really appreciate you guys!
posted by kitcat at 12:56 PM on November 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

They are going to "look into it for the new year". I was told - they are simply not doing any promotions right now.

Did they tell you that in pfww, or have they cunningly retained the deniability they'll need if they're going to go ahead with promoting the next six or seven bros while still "looking into" your case?
posted by flabdablet at 4:38 PM on November 5, 2020

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