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Dec 7, 2009

Ask a Manager: What does my title-only promotion really mean?

Guest Lecturer, Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence 

Dear Manager,

My company recently opened up a new office in the city about 30 miles from where we work. They moved my group to the new building, which requires us to pay for parking ($200/month) or take the commuter train & subway (about $300 / month). This has created a hardship for many, and at the least is creating a new cost just to keep showing up to work. Many important people are starting to give notice, and many more are looking. Upper management has said they are working to get us some kind of stipend, but that was a couple mponths ago and I'm losing hope in that.

This is the backdrop to my dilemma. Out of the blue I was told I was being promoted to "senior", with no extra pay and a vague promise of extra stock at bonus time (which will vest over 4 years). It really doesn't affect my day to day worklife in any way, and was not expected. One other person on the team was also given a senior title. The two of us have been working long hours on high visibility projects for the last year or two, and we were told that they wanted to acknowledge our contributions with a title that fit our level of responsibility. This is nice, but I don't need a title, and don't really know how to intepret this. It would seem that they want to reach out to top performers to keep them from jumping ship, but I'd rather have the company subsidize my monthly train pass, since in reality I'm making $3000 less per year due to commuting costs and I'm spending 3 hours less per day with my family.

What is your perspective as a manager? What does this kind of action mean? How should I react?

Should I:
A. Be grateful for some job security in tough economic times, I'm lucky to be employed
B. Accept that they sincerely want to reward me for my work but truly have no budget for a wage increase or stipend
C. Be insulted - now they can give me even more work and I'll be dumb enough to feel good about it
D. Negotiate, the commute is costing me a lot and I don't want to end up leaving a job I like because of commuter burn out.
E. Feel good that I'm valued and wait patiently for more financial rewards down the road.

My answer to this is somewhat “most of the above”. You’ve got a tough situation, and I think you need to break it down a little bit more. I see two distinctly separate things going on here. I think it would help you to think about them as such. I know it is hard when it is all happening to you and it is all part of your work experience, but since you are trying to make sense of the actions that your company is taking – to interpret the motivation behind them -- I see the grouping as dangerous and misleading for you.

First, the promotion: This is something that was done within your more immediate chain of command, and it is more specific to you as an employee. I think you should look at it first as recognition for a job well done. You are right in that titles are not the most important thing, but from your employer’s standpoint, it is a way to differentiate you from others, to call out the fact that you are a high-performer and that you know what you are doing. The senior title – as well as the promotion – has value on your resume; the fact that you have earned it should be a point of pride for you. You can look at it as “they are just trying to keep me from quitting”, but I suspect that if that was their only motive, and they were truly concerned, they would have found a way to increase your salary with it. The fact that it was just the change in title tells me that they are trying to do right by you in some way, even if they can’t justify a pay increase at this time.

I have had some situations where I have brought someone in at a senior pay rate but without the title, based upon past employment history. Then after seeing the person’s work, I determined that the senior title was warranted to go with the pay. I don’t know if that was a factor here, but in general, I would say that the title coming by itself is just a form of recognition and differentiation. Maybe they think that it is enough of a retention incentive on its own, but you might sleep better if you just think of it as your management ensuring that you have a title (if not the pay) that is appropriate for the work you do. And if you are already working hard, I don’t think you need to think they are trying to get you to work harder. It is very rare to promote someone in hopes that you will make them more productive. Employees earn the promotion before they get it. In short, this doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it is still ok to feel good about it, and I wouldn’t go looking for a hidden motive other than an attempt do show some recognition. Congratulations, I say.

As for the move and the commute, this is not something that is happening to you alone. It sounds like it is affecting many people. If the company has made vague commitments around making this right, then it is reasonable for you to continue to ask about it. You might approach your manager -- or better yet, your HR department -- and say something like, “I really like working here, but I am having trouble covering the additional expense since the move. Can you tell me if anything is being done about this, and if not, is there an opportunity for me to work from home part of the week or work in the other location?(or some other solution you might find to be a fair compromise)”

Then you see what they say. If the answer is “we’re working on it”, then you can ask when they think they will know, and if the answer to that is “I don’t know”, then you can ask if you can follow up on it in a few weeks. The key is to be persistent without being threatening. You need to make them understand that you want to make this work, but the situation is impacting your ability to provide for your family while continuing to work there. Ultimately, if you do not get any relief, you need to decide whether the job is worth the net income that you get after these expenses.

I would not consider this as part of your pay / promotion situation because you will end up personalizing something that was the result of a company cost-cutting measure (the move). As a result, you will have a pile of seemingly negative scenarios compounded into one, floating around in your head to make you feel bad and distract you from your work and your life. Also, in bundling them (assuming you get someone to listen to you) you might end up with a raise instead of the stipend to cover the parking fees. If this happens, the raise potentially ends up bringing you back to your starting point, and the opportunity for a true increase based on your performance is gone. If you can get a stipend for the parking situation, you can still negotiate a higher salary later without appearing to be “going to the well” too many times.

You are lucky to have a job, but that doesn’t mean you just have to accept everything that happens no matter what. My advice is to question what you don’t understand, and in doing so, try to get at the business needs that are being addressed by the company’s decisions. From there, it is up to you to decide whether your situation is acceptable for your own personal needs.

Post your questions to our Manager in Residence in the comments.
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