Interview Questions About Not Being Promoted at Work

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As employers evaluate your job application, they will carefully review your employment history. If you have been in your role for a while, they may ask why your current employer hasn't promoted you, especially if you’ve applied for a higher-level job than your current position.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

At your interview, prospective employers are trying to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and determine how they will affect your ability to do the job. You may be asked many different questions about yourself, requiring you to reflect on what kind of an employee you are.

 When interviewers ask why you weren't promoted, they want to know if there is some skill or qualification that you are missing, or if your performance at your current role is poor. Plus, interviewers may be curious about your attitude and response — that is, did lack of a promotion make you frustrated, or did it encourage you to form a plan to get the job title you desire?

If it appears that you were passed over for promotion, you should spend some time thinking through how best to address questions about not being promoted at your last company.

There's no need to feel nervous or defensive about your response. Sometimes the best way to get a promotion is to change companies.

Hiring managers are aware of that, and as long as you can make a believable case for your qualifications, you should have a fair chance to ace the interview and get the job. 

There are a lot of different reasons why you might not have been promoted. In your response, it's a good idea to be straightforward, without getting defensive or emotional.

Share with your interviewer any logical reasons why you didn't advance, such as:

  • Organizational Structure—Perhaps the company where you currently work has budget cuts that put promotions on hold. Or, maybe long-tenured, well-respected colleagues occupy the only positions you were eligible to be promoted to.
  • External Factors—A promotion at your current company may have required moving to a new department, taking on more travel, or another responsibility that doesn't work with your personal life.
  • Lack of Qualifications—Be careful here. If a lack of qualifications kept you from being promoted at your current job, prospective employees will wonder if it will do the same at their company. Mention qualifications only if they are not relevant to the job at hand, or if you can show that you have gone on to add these skills. 

In your response, emphasize the relevant skills you do have. Your goal in responding to this question is to present your background and job experience in a way that shows that you are now ready to take on a leadership position. If you were not promoted because another candidate was more qualified, you can use this response to share how you worked on improving the skills you were missing.

Examples of the Best Answers to Lack of Promotion Questions

Take a look at these sample responses for inspiration in crafting your own answer.

At Company XYZ where I'm working, there's a requirement for people in the managerial level to have a graduate degree, regardless of other qualifications. At Company ABC, I managed a small team of three people, and I've continued to sharpen my managerial skills in the projects that I lead at XYZ. So I feel prepared for this next level.

Why It Works: This answer makes it clear that while the employee does lack a qualification, it will not stand in the way of them performing well in the role at hand.

That's a great question. Last year, a role opened up and I applied for it, but the company ultimately hired someone from outside. When I asked for feedback from interviewers, they told me they thought the role called for someone with a higher level of database experience. Since then, I took a class and earned a certification.

Why It Works: This response does a lot of things well: It shows that the candidate asks and responds to feedback. This response also demonstrates a skill that the candidate has recently added.

Well, that's one of the reasons I'm looking for new opportunities. Company ABC is a small company, and the organizational structure is flat. That’s been beneficial for me as an employee, since I was able to learn a lot and expand my responsibilities beyond the formal definition of my role. But now, I'm ready to work at role XYZ, and after discussions with the company CEO, it's clear that I'll have to work elsewhere in order to hit that career milestone.

Why It Works: This response makes it clear that the candidate has simply grown beyond the company where he or she is currently employed.

Tips for Giving the Best Response

 Don't Criticize the Company: Make sure that your comments on the job, your supervisor, and the company management are positive, or at least neutral, regardless of the circumstances at your current or previous company. Fair or not, prospective employers will tend to side with your past employers and may consider you a complainer.

Highlight How You've Worked to Become Ready for a Promotion: If you've taken a class, increased your responsibilities at work, or taken on new projects, mention that in your response.

Talk About Any Relevant External Factors: If you can't get promoted at your company for external reasons — because of geographical factors or the company's organizational structure, for instance — mention it in your response. That way, it'll be clear that it isn't missing qualifications or experience that held you back from a promotion. 

What Not to Say

  • Negative Comments: Keep it positive and avoid personal critiques of the company or your manager.
  • Unsure or Dishonest: Do have an answer at the ready for this question. If you do not give a straightforward response, your potential employer might wonder what you're trying to hide. Similarly, be honest in your response, since a lie can be caught out.
  • Don't Disqualify Yourself: Did you miss out on a promotion because you lack a qualification? Do you not get along with your manager? While you should be honest in your response, you can also be strategic — avoid responses that will not show you in a positive light. Or, if you do mention something that shows you in a poor light, make sure to describe how you've addressed the issue. For instance, talk about how you added a previously missing skill or improved a relationship.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

  • What makes you qualified for this role?
  • When was the last time you were promoted?
  • How did you respond when you were passed over for a promotion?

Key Takeaways

Prepare: Since this question is tricky, practice your response.

Be positive: Even if you are resentful about not being promoted, avoid going negative in your response, which will reflect poorly on you.

Show you're ready: Use this question as an opportunity to demonstrate that you're qualified for the role at hand, and ready to make the move to a position with more responsibility. 

Article Sources

  1. PayScale. "10 Reasons You're Not Getting Promoted." Accessed Jan. 16, 2020.