(Last Updated On: 09/02/2017)


That answer might surprise a lot of you. Many of us look at employment in rather mercenary terms: if we didn’t get paid, we wouldn’t do it. That’s why we get a case of the Mondays and thank God it’s Friday, right? Well, leaving personal satisfaction with our jobs (which varies from person to person) aside for the time being, there are actually very strong reasons for accepting a promotion without a pay raise.

Below, you’ll find three questions to determine whether a “free” promotion is worth considering.

1. Are you a climber or a builder?

People who have spent a lot of time in corporate America are familiar with the builders vs. climbers distinction. Simply put, builders are concerned with building a strong organization and seeing the company succeed while climbers care more about their own career growth. Some people are both, of course, but most fall into one category more than the other.

If you are a climber, you should know that future promotions (your first priority) are heavily influenced by past promotions. Bosses want to know that other bosses saw leadership potential in you. It de-risks their own decision.

Keeping this in mind, a determined climber could decide to see their promotion as “resume capital” to impress another boss later on. Career-conscious builders, meanwhile, might look at the promotion as “resume insurance” to augment their genuine accomplishments.

2. Do you trust the company?

Why is the company not paying you for the promotion? Are they in a cash crunch? Is the economy tanking? Did a crucial client just bail out of their contract? None of these scenarios obligate you to do free work. “That’s not my problem, pay me” is a perfectly acceptable stance. And of course, no one would take on more work for a company that screws its employees over.

That said, you know your situation better than anyone else. Do you have a long and trusting history there? Has your boss treated you fairly in the past? Do you get the sense (based on your history) that you will be compensated when the “storm” passes? If you feel strongly enough, it could make sense to temporarily accept the promotion without an immediate pay raise. However, you might want to consider…

3. Can you secure a three or six month review?

Companies know that more work for the same pay isn’t a fair trade. You are making a concession if you agree to it, and a rather large one at that. But while others might see this as a rip-off and run the other way, a free promotion can become a huge negotiating chip: an accelerated review!

Before accepting, say something like this:

“Well you know [BOSS], I certainly understand that times are tough right now and that this work needs to get done. I’m more than happy to step in, however, I would appreciate it if we could review my performance in three to six months and discuss a compensation adjustment if I do an extraordinary job. Would that be fair?”

Who could possibly say no to that? Better yet, by the time your review comes up, no one will be surprised by it. Higher pay becomes a foregone conclusion, not something you have to beg for.

Context matters in your career

Oh, you wanted a cut and dry answer instead of a seven hundred word article? Sorry!

I could have given you one, but it wouldn’t be worth the screen you’re reading it on. The key to this and all other career decisions is context. No two people have identical circumstances. Indeed, any or all of the following could come into play:

  • Age
  • College major
  • Length of time with the company
  • Future career aspirations
  • Location (and whether you plan to move)
  • Savings
  • Marital status
  • Your relationship with your superiors
  • Etc.

Instead of seeking easy answers, take your time. Analyze your options, envision different scenarios, play with the pieces until they look right. It might surprise you how often somebody else’s “no” is your resounding “yes!”