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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

A Co-Worker Got the Promotion I Wanted—Now What?

Earlier this year and out of the blue (to me, at least), my colleague was promoted to VP level. She was older and more experienced, but I had been working at our company longer. Not to mention, I certainly felt like I had brought just as much value. So when she was promoted over me—well, I’d like to say that I was bummed, but that would be an understatement. I was pissed.

Take it from me—when you’re passed over for a promotion and your former colleague suddenly becomes your boss, it's pretty painful. But, assuming you want to keep your job, you’re going to have to move forward. And the first step is having conversations with these three people involved.

1. Yourself

First and foremost, get adult with yourself. There’s probably a reason you didn’t get the promotion, and you need to be honest about why that is. You’ll also need to work through any feelings of jealousy or anger, so you can continue doing your job, and doing it well.

In my case, long before any promotions were on the table, I chose to leave the city where my job was located and work remotely. And while my company graciously agreed, it also ended up being a sacrifice for my career. Not only was I considered to be not as serious about my job, but I was often (sometimes unintentionally) cut out of important conversations. And I realized that, without face-to-face contact, I would never be promoted within the context and culture of that company.

I also realized I was so upset because my colleague was the one person who had kept me grounded and informed from miles away. Not only did I view her promotion as adding another layer of bureaucracy to our department, but I also felt like I was losing a friend. Who would be my eyes and ears for the latest office gossip? Who would I simultaneously complain to and celebrate successes with if we weren’t on equal ground?

Once I was honest with myself about these factors, and had taken the time to think through why I was so angry, I could have the next two conversations—and in a calm, collected way.

2. The Decision Maker

Next, it’s time to tell whoever promoted your colleague that you’re good with the decision. Hearing the news that someone else has been promoted over you is difficult to accept, but you still need to respond with respect and support. Relay that you are happy for your colleague and are looking forward to working for her, even if you’re dying inside. Be the good sport.

That said, it’s OK to ask for feedback as to why you didn’t get the position. Just keep the conversation focused on you, asking questions like, “What should I be working on to be eligible for a promotion in the future?” While it’s totally okay (and only natural) to express your disappointment that you didn’t get the job, don’t argue or try to explain why your colleague shouldn’t have. Not only will you insult the decision maker’s judgment, but you won’t exactly come across as a team player. If you act like a brat, you’re just begging to be let go.

3. Your Former Colleague, Now Boss

Finally, have a heart-to-heart with your colleague. This will be tough, but try to let go of your ego and congratulate her. Your new boss should know that you’re totally stoked for her advancement and are looking forward to working together in a new capacity—after all, she is now your boss.

Then, set up some time to talk about how you will communicate going forward and how to manage your new roles. While this might be a little awkward, she likely wants to talk about it, too, and she’ll be grateful that you took the first step.

And, honestly, having worked together as colleagues actually made my relationship with my new boss better. While I was worried our conversations as peers would come back to haunt me, she used those discussions to better her role as a manager. She knew I appreciated feedback from my old managers, so she always made sure to encourage my ideas and work. She understood it was difficult for me to stay in touch, and continued to give me the details on office politics.

Ultimately, it was my existing good relationship with my colleague that led me to accept her as my new boss. I knew the situation was just as awkward for her, and I didn’t want to make the transition worse. Plus, she deserved the promotion—and I even came to realize she deserved it more than I did. Whatever feelings of anger and envy I had, I channeled into learning how to improve and grow in my own career.

Of course, not every situation works out so easily. But you can make the process easier on everyone, particularly yourself, by showing respect and support, remaining open and honest, and continuing to do phenomenal work.

Photo of women working courtesy of Shutterstock.

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