How to deal with an invisible promotion

February 1, 2011, 10:00 AM UTC

You’ve survived rounds of layoffs. But you ended up with the work of everyone who didn’t. Here’s how to turn a tough situation to your advantage.

In this environment it’s great to have a job. But three of them? That’s the situation facing Judy Gray, president of the Florida Society of Association Executives, and her team. In the past two years she has added two partial assignments: editing newsletters and developing the online curriculum. Gray’s staff has taken on more as well — one woman has shifted from being a temporary secretary to handling social media and bringing in sponsorships.

Yet with two years of salary freezes, only one person has earned a raise — and that came after Gray transferred a small portion of her pay to that woman, who added “1,000 things” to her responsibilities. “She deserves so much more,” said Gray.

Sound familiar? Welcome to the world of invisible promotions, where you can have your job — and your former boss’s too. Productivity is high — but so is unemployment. That’s why across the country, managers and staff now shoulder duties from laid-off managers and peers or positions that were supposed to be filled but never were. The extra work usually brings extra headaches or longer hours, but little or no extra money.

The piling-on of responsibilities is at an all-time high, says Jim Link, staffing agency Randstad’s managing director for human resources. Consider Maura, an interactive designer at a major technology company in Texas who asked that her real name not be used because she still works in the same overburdened department. As the staff shrank, “they kept putting all the responsibility on my shoulders,” she says, figuring she handled the work of three designers in addition to serving as art director on many web projects. Yet a job is a job: Maura kept at it for two years, taking work home and cramming her days full. “I really thought I might explode,” she says.

Maura finally worked up her courage and asked to be recognized for the work she’d been doing. She gave her manager two options: promote her to art director or split up the extra work she’d been handling among several people. She got the promotion, though it took months for her raise, about 2%, to come through. “It wasn’t the pay increase to match the title,” Maura says. She wants to tackle that this year, but for now she is negotiating on deadlines for projects from other departments, and she has finally convinced her boss to hire a freelance designer to help.

Though many people fear risking their boss’s wrath while jobs are still scarce, almost a third of employers say they’re willing to discuss raises with current staffers this year, according to a CareerBuilder survey of 2,457 hiring managers released last November. That number is over 40% for business-services and IT companies.

So if you want to build a case for a real promotion instead of an invisible one, here’s a game plan: Objectively document how you’re bringing in more money or saving it, says Larry Myler, author of Indispensable by Monday and CEO of a Provo, Utah, training firm. Even if you’re not in sales, share ideas for increasing revenue. The key: showing the impact of “consistently finding unusual value for the company,” something Myler says few people do.

Next, be strategic in your timing. “Be sensitive to the organization’s own pulse,” says Donald Asher, an executive coach and author of several books, including Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t, and Why, and watch for indications that budgets are finally increasing.

Then bring solutions to your boss, including a staffing analysis. “If you make it look easy,” says Asher, “you’re in good shape. Act like you’re not tired, worn out, and angry,” even if you are. To keep her team engaged and motivated, Judy Gray uses appreciation, openness, respect — and work-from-home Fridays, so they can wear pajamas or spend an extra hour with their kids. For a day at least, that invisible promotion can be a little less stressful.

5 ways to make that extra work work — for your career in the long run

Prioritize. Work with your boss to understand what your role is now, what the key results are, and which are the most important elements, suggests Randstad’s Jim Link. Also try to determine which tasks could be eliminated — even if they once seemed important.

Ask for coaching or training. You may need to develop new management techniques to handle the new tasks. To be successful, figure out what skills you need and then get your boss to buy in on the training, says Link. It’s cheaper than hiring someone else, right?

Fill résumé holes. You may not have asked for your job, but you still need to prove that you can keep it. “If you lack an MBA and everybody else has one, you’d better sign up for that Saturday-morning program,” says author and coach Donald Asher. “I would take a cold, hard look at my skill set and make sure I had what it took.”

Establish a time frame. “Most people can do anything for a period of time,” says Link. So if someone is adding a huge extra load to your job, try to “have some kind of agreement about the expectations and the time frame.” When that expires, it’s time for another meeting.

Make your pitch for a promotion. Be clear that you want to move up — and that you see such a step as good for the department or organization too, says Asher. Conversely, if you want to return to a lower level, brainstorm a plan to make that happen eventually. For now, try to stay appreciative of what you have.

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