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Climb the corporate ladder? No, thank you

Not obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder? Experts say employees who turn down promotions could be at risk. But there is hope. Your Career by Eve Tahmincioglu.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

Everyone wants to be promoted, right?


Megan Gatewood did the unthinkable. She chose to stay a marketing specialist at a Tennessee hospital system instead of going for the bigger job of marketing manager — even though her supervisors encouraged her to apply for the higher position.

The way she saw it, she had only been at Memphis-based Methodist Healthcare for a few months and wanted to learn the ropes before she took on more responsibilities and a staff. “I didn’t feel I was ready. I tend to be some what of a perfectionist and want to make sure I can do a good job,” she explains.

It wasn’t an easy decision. She wondered if her supervisors would think she was not ambitious, or if they would never consider her again for the manager ranks. And turning down an extra 10 percent in salary was also hard to swallow.

Maybe you're thinking Gatewood’s dilemma is not a bad one to have. Or you’re thinking she’s crazy for not doing everything she can to climb the ladder of success.

Well, believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there today who aren’t obsessed with making a mad dash to the top. Sometimes parents don’t want to ratchet up and take the extra hours or responsibilities that come with promotions. Perhaps they want time to take care of young children or ailing parents. Or they just love what they do or don’t think they can handle being a supervisor.

I talked to quite a few career experts and human resource managers about the issue, and they all said they’re seeing this phenomenon more and more. They also all conceded that, for the most part, employees who turn down promotions risk losing the respect of higher-ups.

But there is hope. Perceptions are beginning to change, and if you handle the situation just right, your decision not to advance may not doom your career.

In the past, says career expert Roberta Chinsky Matuson, “It was unheard of not to accept a promotion even if it meant relocating your family. That would have been the end of your career.” But with all the focus on work-balance issues in recent years, she adds, employers are starting to realize “it’s OK for employees to be an individual contributor.”

If you’re penalized for not moving up, then the company might not be the best place for you.

So look closely at the history at your company. “If everyone left in individual contributor roles are those who upper management thinks don’t have potential, then chances are you don’t want to stay there long term,” says Dr. Robert Kelley, Adjunct Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

As the economy shifts to depend more on intellectual capital, companies are realizing some of their best talent is among the rank and file, Kelley says.

"Take someone who is good scientist, or researcher and has lots of ideas for new products. Now you put him into a management role and all of a sudden he’s being distracted by schedules, or Jane and Joe don’t like each other. He’s no longer coming up with new ideas.”

When you approach your boss with your decision not to take a move up (and you should definitely take time to think about it for your own sake, and to at least give your supervisors the perception that you took the offer seriously) you need to sell the idea of you staying put as a win-win for the company and you.

“Take a more proactive stance and persuade them why it’s a good idea and how you can add value to the company,” Kelley says. Maybe point out how a former colleague moved up through the ranks and it turned out to be bad for everyone involved. (Be careful not to overly bash a co-worker because no one likes a back-stabber.)

And don’t forget about molding a management job in the shape you want, Kelley advises. If you want to be home by at a decent hour every night, bring that up when you’re exploring the possibility of taking a promotion.

Here’s what to keep in mind when you approach your boss with a no thanks, says Bonnie D. Monych, author of “Shift Happens!” Straight Talk about Jobs, Work and Careers.”

  • Communicate with your employer based upon their perspective not yours. “What is most important for my employer?”
  • Make sure to say, “I’m flattered” and be thankful.
  • Point out the two or three things you are doing now in your job to contribute to the betterment of the company and how you can do more in your present position.
  • Remember to say you are willing to help in any way you can, and you are definitely open to taking on additional work if needed.

Here’s a possible conversation: “I love what I’m doing now and feel I have a lot still to contribute in my present position. I may be open to a managerial role down the line, but right now the timing isn’t right. I’m definitely willing to help the organization out in any way that I can, possibly taking on more responsibility or helping to support whomever you put in that position.”

And never, ever say, “I’m not ready”, or “I can’t handle the job”, Monych stresses. “They’ll think they misjudged you and start to think you don’t feel as confident or capable as they thought you were.”

Marjorie Brody, author of “Career Magic: A Women’s Guide to Reward & Recognition,” has found that typically you can say “no” the first time and it’s accepted; a “no” the second time starts to give you a reputation as someone that doesn’t want to advance; and by the third time you’re probably asking for trouble.

“In large corporate environments you get sucked into all the atmosphere of 'get a head, get ahead, promote, promote.' You’re measured by money, status and we get caught up in that. When in fact you have to figure out what you want in your life.”

So did Megan end up adrift in the corporate sea of career abyss? Not at all. After talking to a consultant at the hospital who had held the marketing manager’s job in the past, she realized that her bosses would not penalize her for bypassing a promotion in order to learn the ropes.

Indeed, when the post was vacated late last year, she approached her manager and asked if she could throw her hat in the ring. “I felt I had all the tools I needed at that point and I would be happy in the job,” she notes.

Say hello to Megan the new marketing manager.