Harvard Business review

So Your Boss Offered You a Meaningless Promotion

“She’s a vice president,” my manager chided me in front of guests. “She just doesn’t give herself credit with the title.” This was after I had introduced myself as a director, which was my actual title. For months, my manager had insisted that I use the title of vice president in my email signature, my LinkedIn profile, and when introducing myself to external parties.

Except with the vice president title, there would be no actual promotion. There would be no formal announcement. There would be no increase in base compensation, no additional stock grants, no additional headcount or resources, and no change to my bonus target. This was a “fake promotion.”

Promotions in title only aren’t a new phenomenon. Some leaders may think that by offering you a better title, they’re honoring your contributions and showing that they value you. Some might offer promotions in title only as a way to retain talent when attrition starts to spike. Or, with the pressure to show progress on their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments, some companies will be looking for shortcuts — without doing the meaningful work.

Since the “diversity tipping point” of 2020, companies have pledged more than $35 billion toward advancing racial equity. With renewed attention on the lack of representation of Black talent across many industries, companies are under pressure to have their employee bases reflect the changing demographics of the U.S. Adidas, Facebook, Salesforce, Target, and The New York Times are examples of organizations across industries that have published pledges on their commitment to increasing representation of Black talent and people of color more broadly.

Additionally, with the pandemic having had a devastating impact on women, companies are under pressure to hire and advance more of them. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women’s workforce participation has already dropped to 57%, the lowest level since 1988. Movements including The Marshall Plan for Moms, founded by activist Reshma Saujani, are upping the pressure on the public and private sector to help women get back into and stay in the workforce.

Offering fake promotions can be a form of diversity washing, where organizations look for quick fixes to their public DEI commitments. Here’s what to do if you fear you may be the target of diversity washing and are being offered a fake promotion.

Determine if it’s a fake promotion.

Start by assessing what you’re being offered. What level are you currently at, and what is the proposed title they’re offering? For example, if you’re a manager being told that you should start calling yourself a director, what’s the difference in responsibilities? Will you be compensated as a director now? Remember that base salary is only one part of a compensation package. For example, at some companies, the director level comes with stock grants, access to a company-appointed financial advisor, and life and disability insurance.

Watch out for these other telltale signs that you’re being offered a fake promotion: Your manager makes no organizational or team announcement to share the news of your promotion. Or you’re pressured to change your title in your email signature and on LinkedIn to indicate to clients and vendors that you’re now a senior team member, but you see no change to your title or level in internal human resources systems, such as Oracle PeopleSoft or Workday.

Finally, figure out who else has been recently promoted to the title you’re being offered and talk to them. If they aren’t comfortable sharing what they’re making, ask them what the elements of the compensation package are at that level. Comparing the promotion you’re being offered to how others with the same title are being valued will be key in determining what you do next.

Follow up with your manager.

If you determine that you’re being offered a fake promotion, consider following up with your manager. If they meant for the new title to be a reward, they might realize that their intent didn’t match their impact. They might also then decide to compensate you based on the new title.

When I was finally certain I was being offered a fake promotion, I asked my manager: If the company is offering me a vice president title and sees me as operating at that level, am I also being offered the vice president compensation package?

“We don’t have the budget or allocated headcount at that level to pay you as a vice president,” they explained. “Besides, you should just be happy you’re being offered the title.” I left the conversation feeling embarrassed and deflated and questioned myself for even following up.

If your follow-up conversation with your manager doesn’t go well or you aren’t comfortable discussing the details with them, it’s time to connect with HR.

Enlist support from human resources.

Tracy Avin, Founder of Troop HR, a national human resources network whose mission is to empower people professionals to drive change, told me:

One of the primary responsibilities of the people function must be to ensure that systems, processes, and policies within an organization are created fairly and equitably. When promotions happen without the oversight and involvement of the chief people officer and their team, trust in leadership will erode and employee morale can take a significant hit.

Connect with your human resources representative and present them with the facts and details you’ve been able to gather. They may not even realize that this offer was made to you. Many HR departments use tools to ensure that all team members are being leveled appropriately and paid fairly and competitively. HR may be able to intervene and advocate for what you deserve.

It’s in companies’ interest to do right by their employees. “With the Great Resignation, combined with the fact that companies are under pressure to diversify their workforce, many managers are in fear of losing their talent,” explains Avin. “And a manager offering a promotion to someone, with only an inflated title and not compensating them appropriately, will have the exact opposite effect — your talent will walk out the door.”

Decide whether to accept the new title.

If you’ve determined that this is a fake promotion and you can’t find allies in your organization to help, your decision is now whether or not to accept the offer. You should weigh the pros and cons of accepting the new title being proposed.

“The con would be that you are accepting a title without receiving the internal recognition and the compensation you deserve, and can feel like you are being tokenized,” Josh Saterman, CEO of Saterman Connect, a consulting firm that partners with organizations and their leaders to evolve their cultures, told me. While a bigger and better title may seem like a good idea, it may also leave you with self-doubt and make you question why you aren’t being treated fairly and equitably compared to your peers.

“The pro would be that you can accept the proposed title, share it externally with the marketplace, and position yourself to look for another job,” Saterman added. “Externally, it will show career progression, and you can use the new title to your advantage to go and work for a company that will value you.”

In my case, I didn’t accept the fake promotion. I fought accepting it for months until I finally left the company.

With the pressure to ensure the inclusion and advancement of people of color and women, organizations must ensure internal practices are actually fair and equitable. Fake promotions can be another diversity-washing tactic that might ultimately give you a reason to eye the exit. If your company is willing to give you the title, they should also be willing to pay you, value you, and recognize you.

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