‎When it’s time to move on

How long is too long in waiting for a promotion?

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl 

We’ve probably all heard the silly and exaggerated stereotype about millennials supposedly getting upset at not being promoted after six months on the job. The idea is it’s unrealistic to expect a promotion after such a short period of time — and younger people need to understand they have to “pay their dues” for awhile before moving up in the world. 

But regardless of your age, how long is too long when it comes to staying in a job without any realistic expectation of a promotion? When should an employee look for other opportunities after realizing a promotion isn’t in the cards? 

An example of this is when an associate in a law firm begins to realize he isn’t on the partnership track and decides to switch to another firm, become a solo practitioner or leave private practice altogether. There’s often an unwritten rule in such firms that particularly ambitious individuals should move on after a certain number of years if they aren’t going to make partner. 

Every employee is different and not everyone wants to be promoted, but even if a person does want to eventually climb the corporate ladder, many people aren’t interested in a promotion right away or in being fast-tracked to the top. But assuming you aren’t content staying at the same level for the next 25 years either, when is it time to throw in the towel and look elsewhere to further your career? 

According to one survey conducted by Monster in the U.K., 29 per cent of employees would prefer to change professions rather than wait for a promotion. The same study found nearly one-quarter of recent British retirees never received a promotion during their careers. 

The reality is many employees won’t be promoted by their current employers due to the perception they aren’t promotable, a lack of opportunities, flatter organizations, low turnover and fewer people in leadership positions retiring from the organization. Therefore, there’s a realization that people shouldn’t discount lateral moves as a way to further their careers — yet I believe a few factors keep the emphasis on promotions for many people. 

An emphasis on promotions 

Internal promotions are viewed favourably because they demonstrate that your employer thinks highly of you and may have designated you as top talent. Having one or two internal promotions in one’s career tends to be looked upon more favourably than if all of the upward trajectory in your career came when switching companies. 

Another reason behind the focus on promotions these days relates to social media. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “LinkedIn envy,” results when people compare their career progression to their social media contacts. 

There is no question it can be disconcerting to see former colleagues and classmates appearing to do much better in their careers — particularly when they’re considerably younger ‎or were in more junior roles than you not so very long ago. It can be a bit unsettling to see someone who used to be your peer (or even subordinate) sailing past you in her career while you stay stuck in the same job for years on end. 

It’s particularly important to remind yourself that envy is never a positive emotion (it is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins),‎ and everyone is different in terms of their talents, abilities, interests and ambitions. It is also true that connections and simply being in the right place at the right time can have a major impact on career progression. 

Job titles are also notoriously inconsistent, and people very often ‎present only the most positive aspects of their lives on their social media profiles. After all, career and financial success aren’t everything and don’t necessarily lead to happiness or a fulfilling life. 

When is it time to move on? 

So far, I’ve made a case for individual differences and the value of lateral transfers, but assuming you do want to move up in the world, when is it time to look elsewhere if there aren’t any promotional opportunities at your current organization? 

They say you should change jobs every four to seven years, and I think that’s a useful guideline when it comes to promotions as well. While changing profession to get ahead is a pretty extreme measure, I believe it may sometimes be necessary if you aren’t getting anywhere in your current vocation.

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