In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: Yes, They’re Incompetent And Yes They Just Got Promoted — Deal with It!

One day it will happen to you. Whether you’re at a firm or in government or in-house, there will come a time when someone in your workplace will get a promotion who doesn’t deserve it. And unfortunately, we’re not talking about you. This person may a poor communicator, a terrible manager, or maybe just kind of a jerk to work with. But one day, it will happen. And when you receive news of the promotion, your mouth will drop in disbelief and you will shake your fist at the heavens, crying, “Why, wretched office gods, why….?!”

Is it the Peter Principle at play? This is a fascinating theory suggesting that employees keep getting promoted until they reach the levels at which they’re incompetent. Once an employee reaches the first level of professional incompetence, the promotions stop. Now imagine this happens with every employee. Basically, the only way to move up levels is to go over to another organization that’s unaware of your incompetence and hopes in vain that you’re more competent than whomever they’ve got over there.

Or maybe it’s the effect of the Dilbert Principle. Cubicle guru Scott Adams proposed that the least competent people in a company tend to get promoted to higher levels because companies need the smarter, skilled employees to do the actual work. Instead, the less-skilled incompetents are moved up to levels where they perform tasks that less vital to production, such as demanding that their underlings perform their real work harder, faster, and better. Picture Michael Scott of The Office. Only not so smart.

These principles were originally proposed as satire, although they sound kind of compelling, don’t they? But perhaps there’s something more sinister at play. Something darker…like we’re failing…to understand the entire picture. (*Thunder boom and lightning crash.*)

What? That doesn’t sound sinister to you? Oh fine, but there’s probably more truth there than what either Laurence Peter or Scott Adams proposed. Employees who aren’t involved in the decision-making process don’t understand the final decision on promotions because we don’t have all of the information. And we probably never will. (We barely understand how in the heck we, ourselves, get promoted!)

What kind of information don’t we have? Well, for instance, the person who got promoted — let’s call that person the “Promotee” for short (since “lucky bastard” can have a bit of a negative connotation) — may have other truly positive qualities that you don’t know much about. He may be good at stuff that you don’t see. You may judge the Promotee for stuttering pathetically in group presentations. But others may see him in tricky situations where he provides a lot of practical, innovative solutions and successfully executes those solutions.

Or the promotee’s business clients (or other people who “matter”) may be fans of the Promotee. The lawyer/client relationship is complex. Business people often are unable to judge how good their lawyers’ legal advice actually is. But they can judge how responsive, thoughtful, and respectful their lawyers are to them. Even if the Promotee isn’t particularly nice or helpful to you, he may be a totally different person toward his business clients. I’m not saying that this is a good thing. I’m just acknowledging that it may be happening.

Speaking of people who matter, the Promotee may also be fantastic at a very basic in-house responsibility — making his manager’s life easier. How do you keep your manager as your number one fan? By being making her look good, not complaining about stupid things, keeping her properly updated, etc. Learn to make your manager’s life easier and she’ll eventually come to realize, “Hmm, if I give him more of my responsibilities, I can focus on other more important stuff like why my boss keeps telling me that I need to make her coffee faster and better. This NaCl stuff is sugar, right…?”

Whatever the reasons that we aren’t privy to, it’s virtually impossible to reverse a promotion. It would be easier to put Dewey back together again. Best to provide your feedback regarding a co-worker, whether positive or negative, before a decision is made. Then, once you learn about the unexpected promotion, offer your congratulations and move on.

As a side note, I know that the Peter Principle can be thwarted — I’ve moved into one level of incompetence, to be later promoted onto an even higher level of incompetence. I’ve no doubt that the same can be achieved by others!

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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