Advising companies on their hiring and promotion process for 20 years has given me a front row seat to the way companies decide who to promote. When someone is promoted, there’s usually one happy employee and one or more employees who are disappointed they didn’t get the job.
The dilemma that companies often face when communicating with those who didn’t get the job is keeping the not-promoted motivated (and sometimes keeping them from quitting). Being honest with employees about sensitive feedback is not where most companies excel. As a result, companies often struggle to explain why you weren’t promoted while seeming fair and also letting you know they still think you’re valuable.
It is true that it can be a challenge to explain the reasons to the newly-not-promoted. Most people tend to feel like they are ready for that next job, have more capability and can play a bigger role work. This is a good thing, in general, and is related to our optimism and desire make the company where we work successful.
The problem gets bigger when the real reasons that you were not promoted will be hard to accept and may not even be entirely fair to you. There are reasons people are often passed over that your company is not likely to tell you, so even if it’s the truth, you’ll rarely hear it.  

1. “Sure you’re a solid candidate for the promotion, but you don’t bring anything besides those skills.”

Think of the importance of extra-curriculars when applying to college. There are more kids who can do the work than a good college has spots for, so competitive schools select kids who can do the work and bring other talents. At work, the person who got the promotion may not be as good as you at the core part of the job, but maybe she worked in finance, making her a more rounded candidate.

2. “You can do the job, but you create problems in other parts of the company.”

This is often true at companies in which the silos tend to do battle. This is an especially hard situation when everyone recognizes that your boss has built a sub-culture and directed you to play hard, even against your colleagues at the company. While your boss may love you in this bad cop role, this may cut you off from opportunities at the next level because you have enemies elsewhere in the company who can blackball you.

3. “You can do the work, but people just don’t follow you.”

This can be an issue of an understated leadership style. Leadership is about expertise and, well, leading. You may be the person who knows the answer but you don’t speak up. You may be viewed as a great team member but not one who can take charge. A lot of experts fit this profile, and my clients almost always want to make sure they don’t lose this kind of employee but also hesitate to promote them.

4. “You’re more important to us where you are, so we are going to pass over you for this promotion.”

When there is no successor for your job it can be very hard for the company to move you up. This is especially hard when the reason someone is promoted over you is because they found a replacement for the person they promoted (or their job just wasn’t as important as yours).

5. “What you’re doing now is not going nearly as well as you think.”

It can be true that the company does not believe you’re ready for the promotion, even though they rate you highly every year on your performance evaluation and keep giving you a bigger raise than everyone else.

6. “That thing you blew four years ago still haunts your reputation.”

Sure, you are doing a good job now, but there are people in leadership who simply can’t forgive the fact that you lost that important client. They may still be afraid that it could happen again on a bigger scale if you were promoted.

7. “Someone else made sure we knew that they would quit if we did not promote them next, and you didn’t.”

Guess who got the job.

8. “You’re very well thought of by company leadership, but your direct boss doesn’t like you.”

You and your boss are just not on the same page, so they didn’t advocate for you. The company leadership probably thinks, “Sure, we’re concerned that this is a bad situation and that you could get frustrated and leave, but we’re just not sure what to do about it because your boss has more pull than you do.”

9. “The thing you are really good at isn’t as important as you think it is.”

This is a common mistake a lot of us make. We believe that the reports we write or analyses we conduct make a big difference at the company, and others just see it differently. This often leads people to miss the need to develop new skills and abilities.
There are a few good practices to avoid being surprised by not being promoted.
First, be focused on your development. Talk specifically and openly with your boss and with human resources about what you need to do in order to add more value, and be prepared to take on more responsibility. To supplement this, ask for specific feedback about the things that might keep you from getting promoted in the future (and remember to do this before that job is posted, otherwise it just seems like you are angling for the job, not trying to get better).
Make sure the company knows that your desire to have a bigger impact on the company’s performance specifically means you taking on more responsibility over time (and isn’t just a way for you to get a bigger payday). Make sure they know that this is a big deal to you. Remember to frame your desire for a promotion in win/win terms. It is easy to tell the company you want a promotion with a bigger title and higher pay, who doesn’t? But it’s a better conversation when they don’t think you are just out for yourself.
While there’s no single solution to this diverse set of challenges to your ability to get that next, bigger job, knowing that these forces could be at work behind the scenes and knowing that you’re usually not getting the whole story can better equip you in the meantime.

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).