ask a boss

‘Can I Refuse to Take on Extra Responsibilities Until I’m Given a Promotion and Raise?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

Is there a diplomatic way to tell my manager I won’t be taking on extra responsibilities until I’m given a promotion and raise? I have a good relationship with my management team and truly do like my job, but I also want to draw boundaries and make sure everyone’s expectations are aligned. 

Nine months ago, I was asked by a senior manager to apply for a higher position that comes with a substantial raise. I did, and have stayed in regular contact with management regarding the position, but no progress has been made. I’ve been assured the job is still mine, but that it’s being held up by red tape and HR approvals. It might be naïve to say so, but I do believe them. Our industry has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and complicating matters is a big merger our parent company was involved in. I’ve also been with my company for a decade, and during that time my management has given me numerous opportunities, awards, and fair raises and bonuses, so in my mind they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. 

While I’m annoyed that I still haven’t gotten the promotion or raise, I am otherwise happy at my company. I’m passionate about what I do, I love my co-workers, and the schedule fits well with my lifestyle. Because of this and the current climate, I’m not looking to make an immediate job change unless the right opportunity comes along, though I’ve kept my resume and portfolio updated and am regularly browsing openings. However, my manager often acts as though I’ve been given the title already and frequently asks me to take on more projects, things that I would be responsible for if I got the promotion. Is there a diplomatic way to say that I’m not interested in more responsibility unless I’m compensated fairly? Or should I be looking to make my exit sooner than later? 

I’m fine with staying in my current role at my current rate, as long as I’m only expected to perform the tasks commensurate to my title and salary (and I can maintain a good relationship with management in the process).

This can be trickier than it has any right to be.

As a matter of general principle, yes, you should be able to say that you don’t want to take on additional responsibilities unless you’re paid appropriately for them, particularly when those responsibilities are clearly part of a higher-level, higher-paid job.

As a matter of practice, though, companies often have people take on higher-level responsibilities before they’re officially promoted (and before the pay increase that would come with that promotion). In fact, there are even companies where you’re expected to show you can do the work of the next level up — by actually doing it — before you’ll be considered for promotion. That’s not how things should work, but it’s how they sometimes do work.

Even when it’s not so formalized, often the way people “earn” a promotion is by starting to take on responsibilities outside the scope of their current job. (This is especially true at smaller organizations, where roles can be more fluid and it’s normal to wear multiple hats, but it can be true regardless of organization size.)

And frustratingly, in many cases declining to do that higher-level work can mark you as ill-suited for promotion if people perceive you as overly rigid or “not a team player.” And while in general I’d say that argument is BS, it’s also true that someone who refuses to do anything beyond the specific scope of their job description is going against professional norms and risks coming across as difficult or even unpleasant to work with. But to be clear, I’m not talking here about turning down major changes to your role, like managing a team when before you weren’t managing anyone, but rather about resisting minor changes, like being asked to head up a meeting when your boss is unavailable, or to help a new hire get acclimated.

You said that your manager often acts as though you’ve been given the promotion already, so I’m guessing that the new assignments she’s asking you to take on isn’t a minor task here and there, but rather is significant work outside of the role you’re currently being paid for. And you’re right that you shouldn’t get sucked into performing a job that you’re not being paid for — because you deserve to be paid fairly for your contributions, of course, but also because if you start performing the other role now, where’s the incentive for your employer to act with any urgency on finalizing your promotion? It’s one thing to pinch-hit for a more senior-level job for a few weeks, but at the pace they’ve moved at so far, you could still be doing it months from now without any change in pay.

Since you like your management and believe they’re acting in good faith, I think you’re well-positioned to raise this with your boss. You could say something like: “I’m really interested in moving into the X job, and I understand that the pandemic and the merger have slowed things down. I’m wary, though, of taking on the work of that role without actually having the job — or, of course, the pay that person normally has. I don’t mind helping out on a very temporary basis, but I want to make sure that if I’m doing more of the work of that position, or doing it for more than a short time, my title and pay reflects that.”

There are a few possible outcomes from that. Ideally your manager would see where you’re coming from and pull back from asking you to take on the extra work before you’re being paid for it. Or who knows, maybe it’ll even prompt her to see if she can get the promotion moving again. But if you’re met with surprise that you’d resist taking on additional projects (because it’s such a great opportunity, or so forth), at that point you’d need to consider whether staying where you are still makes sense for you.

There’s one additional caveat to note here, which is that if your company has been really suffering during the pandemic — slashing positions and struggling to stay afloat — the timing for this conversation might be bad. You’re always entitled to be fairly compensated for your work, but if your employer is in “we’re all pitching in to keep things going” mode right now, then “show me the money” risks making you look out of touch with those business realities. That wouldn’t mean you don’t deserve to be paid fairly regardless, but it might make the conversation a much harder sell in this moment.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘Can I Refuse to Take on More Work Without a Raise?’