The Situation:

I started my position in mid-June, 2013, as Director, and inherited two direct reports, one with 5 years in the job and one with two. I took over the job from my predecessor, who retired after being in the job for 15 years and had hired the two direct reports. The more senior direct, with 5 years’ experience, told me in the first week or two that my predecessor had promised her a promotion back in January, but that the senior leadership had told my predecessor that she couldn’t ask for a promotion of her two staff because she was about to retire and the promotion request should come from the new director (me) as part of any new plans for the unit.


After hearing that my staff were expecting promotions, I asked my boss, the HR department, etc. if I could go ahead with the promotions and they said yes. I decided to go ahead with the promotion process and wrote up all the paperwork needed, including budget justifications, new job descriptions, new org chart, letter justifying promotion etc. I asked the HR department what a typical raise would be for a promotion, and was told 5-10%. Partly because I had no other frame of reference, partly because I was very new and had not directly observed the directs for that long (and so didn’t have a strong, personally-observed case for them getting a really big raise, based on my own observations) and partly based on my research on comparable salaries for similar positions, and mainly because I found out I could cover the raises by saving some expenses in other parts of my budget, I went with 7.5% as a raise. I went ahead and submitted the proposal, thinking this was a great way to win over both my directs.


Well, I was wrong.


It turns out the one (more senior) direct had a prior promotion (at this same company) where she’d received a whopping 27% raise, and was stunned to find that a promotion could even occur with less than a 15-20% salary increase. So, I was able to stop the process with HR before it was finalized. HR was not happy with me because supposedly I’m not supposed to talk to my directs about them getting promotions whatsoever; and this direct was apparently supposed to wait until I could give her a real performance review before I submitted a promotion request.


I then had a tough conversation with this direct, and tried to explain that the process was rushed, I didn’t have enough information, I also don’t really have the budget I’d need to get the raise she wanted, and for me to make this larger request would probably request me to expand our whole unit’s budget, something I’m not sure I can make the case for or is even possible. After trying to listen to me for a few minutes, she became upset and divulged to me that she felt “invisible” because she isn’t recognized by people in the company, her achievements don’t seem to matter, and she is very frustrated because she has already waited seven months or more for a promotion; and she is also wondering if this is because of her ethnicity. In fact, she cried in my office. I was very sympathetic and actually honored that she trusted me (as a white person and also her boss) to actually tell me how she felt.


But now I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Here’s what I’m thinking:

1.       If there’s actual racism going on in the company, I need to do whatever I can to change it and/or hold people accountable.

2.       If this direct feels invisible or unappreciated, I need to start a coaching program with her to help her be a better advocate for herself, to become better known across the company, to raise her profile, and build her confidence. I’m thinking I can coach her on having a positive attitude, participating more in leadership opportunities or committees, building partnerships with other departments, improving her public speaking, etc. At every opportunity, I need to give my directs credit for the successes of our department; and at every opportunity, I need to set them up for prominent success. I also have to raise the profile of our whole department, which tends to be simultaneously ignored, misunderstood, underfunded/understaffed, and set up to very high, even unrealistic, expectations.

3.       I need to find a way to acknowledge the frustration, anger, and feelings of being ignored in this direct, while also getting her to understand that the company has some very practical reasons why she may have to wait longer, and/or not get the amount of money she wants or deserves, and sometimes those reasons have absolutely nothing to do with whether she is appreciated or not; instead they have to do with HR processes, the amount of evidence I need to directly collect to be able to make a stronger proposal for her, and the amount of cash money we actually have in our budgets that can be applied to her salary.