How to Recover from a Career Setback

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Patrick Denson, 325th Force Support Squadron force management apprentice, explains the details of his job to Col. Michael Hernandez, 325th Fighter Wing commander, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Patrick Denson, 325th Force Support Squadron force management apprentice, explains the details of his job to Col. Michael Hernandez, 325th Fighter Wing commander, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Sept. 9, 2016. (Airman 1st Class Cody R. Miller/U.S. Air Force photo)

You're good at your job. You fit well with your team and within the organization. You receive solid performance appraisals and have a track record of accomplishment. Then when the chance for that promotion you've been working toward finally arrives, you get passed over.

Welcome to an all-too-common reality. Major career disappointments happen even when you seem to be doing all the right things.

How do you recover after a major career setback? Here are six steps:

1. Handle Your Emotions

Being passed over would make anyone feel like a failure. In the office, though, don't let your disappointment show. While you can admit to being personally disappointed, show you're a team player by verbally supporting the company's decision.

2. Get Support

If you need to vent -- and you're entitled to -- talk to friends, family or trusted work colleagues outside the office. This support system can provide a sympathetic ear and, more importantly, the insight that can help you decipher what happened and why. Also, peer networks, online discussion groups or a personal coach can help you review your options so you can move forward with a positive attitude.

3. Analyze the Cause

So why did you get passed over? Here are some of the most common reasons and suggestions for how to respond:

If this is the case, it's a clue that you must better understand yourself and where you belong. It's also an indication that you need to better qualify your goals in the future. Often, what you may think is the next most logical career step is not the best fit.

What is lacking in your career portfolio? Specific knowledge or experience? Strong personal networks? Visibility? Understand how you can strengthen yourself and your future prospects.

This is a difficult situation. You either need to find a way to move up within the existing organization or you need to look elsewhere.

  • You Don't Fit: In most cases, you don't have control or influence over the employer's hiring requirements. While you might think you're the perfect fit for an internal position, the company may have different ideas altogether -- ones that may be based on soft, rather than hard, skills.
  • You Don't Measure Up: In today's competitive economy, the rewards go to people who don't just meet the requirements, but surpass them, and who've done a superlative job of building personal networks.
  • You're Needed Where You Are: Organizations make decisions in their best interest, not yours. You may be doing such a good job in your current position that your manager doesn't want to let you go. It may be easier or cheaper to find someone else to fill that other job than it would be to move you into that position and then have to replace you.

4. Evaluate Your Options

Once you understand why you've been passed over, you need to decide whether to:

  • Stay with the company and work toward the next opportunity.
  • Stay with the company, but work toward a different goal.
  • Look for that step up at another company.

You have the power to choose. Figure out what you want and why.

5. Close the Gap

Once you have an idea of what you want, examine the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. What's missing? If it's learning or experience, how will you get it? If it's your professional network, how can you build it? Design a plan to close that gap.

6. Recalibrate Your Goals

Make new goals for yourself based on what you've learned about your setback, the choice you've made about your future and the analysis you've done about the areas you need to work on. Identify specific, measurable and time-bound goals that will move you forward.

For example, if you suffer from lack of visibility, don't say vaguely that you'll do more networking. Instead, select 3-5 key individuals you should get to know. Then set a deadline to meet them.

Careers, like life, don't always go the way you hope or expect them to. Disappointments are unavoidable. How well you respond to them will be the real measure of your future success.

[Ian Christie founded to help individuals build bold, fulfilling careers and help organizations attract, develop and retain talent. A career coach, consultant, three-time entrepreneur, former senior director at Monster and former retained executive search consultant, Christie is an expert in the fields of careers and recruitment. He believes that career management is a central theme to personal and organizational effectiveness. offers career services to companies and individuals as well as free career resources.]

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