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To say no, even if it is the correct decision, is not risk-free and will cost some social capital, expert says.
The boss summons you to her office. On the long walk to her door, you wonder what you did wrong. Did you miss a deadline? Did you oversleep one too many times? Did they catch you stealing pens from the supply closet?
No, you're up for a promotion. You can't help but smile as the pride swells up in your chest. You took this job because of the opportunities. The long hours and years of drudge work paved the way for this moment. Yet, all you can hear is the voice in the back of your head screaming, "No!"
Despite working so hard to get this recognition, you know this is not leading you down the path you want. It's not on the right path to advancement; it's a detour. But how do you turn it down and still prove you're dedicated to the company?
Pros and cons
When you're deciding if you really want to decline this opportunity, ask yourself some key questions, Todd Dewett, author of "Leadership Redefined," suggests. Not only will you make an informed decision, but you will also have clear reasons to give your boss.
• What's the reason?
"Are you declining based on who the new boss will be or due to poor fit with the role?" Dewett asks. Your focus -- especially when you speak with your boss -- should stay on the job, not on your inability to work well with others.
• What will the higher-ups think?
If your intent is to decline this offer, but you still have an eye on promotion down the road, think about how you can get that message to the right people. Use your network to make the right contacts and reinforce your desire to still move up in the company.
• How much social capital am I losing?
"To say no, even if it truly is the correct decision, is not risk-free and will cost some amount of social capital," Dewett says. If your experience, tenure and reputation give you some clout, you can take a risk that a less seasoned employee can't. "If you are rich in social capital, fine. If you are not so rich, you must plan out how you will build back what you need in order to secure the promotion you desire."
When you're on the receiving end of bad news, you immediately question the motives of the speaker. Hearing "It's not you; it's me," makes you think it is you. When you're telling your boss that you can't accept the promotion, she'll be wondering what your reasons are. Your goal is to stress the greater good to your employer, says Rachelle J. Canter, author of "Make the Right Career Move."
"Build a careful case for declining a career move, emphasizing the positive impact for the company," Canter suggests. "If you are seeking an alternative position or move, make your case now, again emphasizing the larger company benefits rather than just -- or primarily -- the advantages to you."
When you're delivering the difficult news to your boss, speak in specifics, not generalities. Be ready to articulate your reasons for declining the offer.
"The best way to show ambition and career viability long term is to have a long-term career plan and a clear idea of what skills and experiences you need to build to increase your value to the company as well as to yourself," Canter suggests.
"Without a strategy, a refusal looks like a lack of team focus or personal ambition. With a strategy, it looks like what it is -- a principled focus on the long term. It also helps to offer to help out on something new at the same time."
Dewett agrees that volunteering some assistance can help your cause. Whether you offer to accept the role until someone new is hired, sit on the hiring committee or help train the new employee, show that you're not abandoning the company in its time of need.
Lateral move vs. promotion
Sometimes an offer isn't a promotion, it's simply a lateral move to a new position. Although you don't get better pay or a fancier title, taking the job can help your career by proving that you'll go where the company needs you. Turning down these offers can be just as tricky as turning down promotions. The risks might not be the same, but you don't want to burn any bridges, either.
Vicky Oliver turned down two lateral moves and she doesn't think her career suffered for it. Oliver, the author of "Bad Bosses, Crazy Co-workers and Other Office Idiots," was living in New York City when her boss offered her a position in Atlanta,Georgia, for three months. She wasn't opposed to living in Atlanta, but she knew she would need to return to New York for occasional visits. She put together a travel budget and the company decided the expense wasn't worth.
On another occasion, the position required her to move to another country.
"I felt flattered that I had been considered, but didn't feel like it would enhance my career to be away," Oliver says. "My boss said that it was obvious that I felt 'lukewarm' about it and told me he'd find someone else who was more excited about the possibility."
The moves were lateral in both situations. If they had been promotions, Oliver would have been reluctant to turn them down.
"I do not think it's wise to decline a promotion because doing so will stall your career," she cautions. "Your company has an agenda. And to the fullest extent possible, it's important to align yourself with it."
Oliver suggests thinking about the reason your boss offered the position to you and not to someone else. If your company's experiencing a wave of layoffs, your boss could be putting you in a safe position. Or you could just be the most convenient person to fill an available position. Whatever the case, look at the bigger picture -- for both you and the company -- before you make a decision and tell the boss.
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