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Passed-Over Promotion

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Francis Urquhart: You will remember, Prime Minister, that some months ago, we talked about the possibility that, after the election, there might be a senior ministerial post...
Prime Minister: Yes yes, I do remember that... [Beat] Things do change so very quickly in politics, Francis.

Bob has been working in the same job for 10 years. He put his life into the career, doing the same boring task again and again. He's always been punctual and he's never complained. He is certainly the best at doing what he's doing. But he's always been looking to get out of his boring job and move up the corporate ladder. Fortunately for him, one of the managers quit and a new position has just opened up. Bob applies for the promotion, and the boss appears pleased. Bob is excited. All his years of hard work and toil are finally beginning to pay off. Nothing can ruin his mood. The big boss is finally ready to reveal his decision, and it's... somebody else.


For some reason, Bob does not get the promotion. It could be because the boss simply thought Bob wasn't ready or that someone was more qualified. It could simply be a case of office politics. Perhaps Bob was just too good in his current position to be moved out of it, and the boss knew about and was trying to avoid The Peter Principle (but can run into The Dilbert Principle in the process).

In any case, Bob is upset. All his years of hard work have gone unnoticed and gone to waste. He will often become bitter, do something stupid, and end up getting himself fired, or, if it involves something like embezzlement, stealing company secrets, or straight-up sabotage, arrested. If not, he will almost certainly fall into Dismotivation and turn into, at best, someone who does the bare minimum to get by, delegates as much of their work onto others as possible, openly fucks around whenever the opportunity presents itself, and just generally does not give a shit and makes no attempt to hide it. He may resent the guy who gets the position instead of him, and if he is enough of an asshole, he may work to undermine them at every opportunity, if not straight-up sabotage them.


Contrast Declining Promotion when the character instead rejects an offered promotion.


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    Comic Books 
  • Doctor Strange: The relative newcomer Stephen Strange became the Ancient One's closest disciple, and eventually his successor as Sorcerer Supreme, supplanting Karl Mordo, who had been there longer (but who proved to be a Deceptive Disciple). In some tellings, Mordo turned to evil because he was passed over in favor of Strange.
  • During his formative years in Start of Darkness, a young Xykon from The Order of the Stick got passed over for a position as one of two Co-Dragons (and Bastard Understudy) during his days of minioning for an Evil Overlord. The Overlord noted that the candidates who actually did get the job did so because they did not "show the strategic ability of a rabid wombat".
  • This trope plays into the origin of the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel — despite being a very competent lieutenant, she was passed over multiple times for the position of captain of the harbor patrol. The harbormaster claims her way of working is too unorthodox and not "by the book"; Monica claims sexism, since those who were promoted were men. She ends up quitting after becoming Captain Marvel and having her first heroic adventure.

    Fan Works 
  • A Good Compromise: Another captain in Captain Tyria Sark's task force, Merdok, apparently had several years seniority over her but was passed over in favor of the only very recently promoted Tyria because he wasn't certified to command in combat (he command's the fleet's hospital ship, McCoy). Tyria warns her own chief medical officer not to step on his toes.

  • Bruce Almighty: Bruce gets passed over for a promotion at the News station, which causes him to freak out on camera, which causes him to lose his job.
  • Get Smart (the 2008 movie): Max's application to become a field agent is denied because he was too good at collecting intelligence.
  • Lost in America Al Brooks' character suffers this at the beginning of the movie.
  • 17 Again also had this at the beginning of the movie.
  • In So Bad, It's Good film The Room, Lisa starts cheating on Johnny after he fails to get promoted. Though in his defense, the computer industry is very competitive.
  • Violet Newstead in 9 to 5.
  • In Broken Arrow (1996), Major Deakins has been passed over for promotion a couple of times, and Captain Hale suspects this is part of his motive for his nuclear blackmail scheme.
  • A lot of Anakin Skywalker's resentment towards the Jedi in the Star Wars prequels stem from this trope. In Attack of the Clones, he shows frustration at not being a Jedi Knight, which he feels is long overdue. He doesn't get that until during The Clone Wars. In Revenge of the Sith, there's added resentment when he's given a seat on the Jedi Council (which Obi-Wan points out is something very rare, seeing how young he is), yet isn't given the rank of Jedi Master (which is also unprecedented for a member of the Council).note 
  • From the HBO Black Comedy The Pentagon Wars, we have Colonel Smith, the man put in charge of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle project. Due to the project being in Development Hell, he has been overlooked multiple times for elevation to a generalship.
    Colonel Smith: "Look at these eagles! I've been a bird colonel so long, I'm starting to grow goddamned feathers!!"
  • The Emperor's Club: Mr. Hundbert is upset when he is passed over for the headmaster's job in favor of the much younger James Ellerby (an innovative fundraiser and social expert).

  • In the book and BBC TV series House of Cards (UK), Francis Urquhart turns to evil when he is passed over for promotion.
  • The same goes for Francis "Frank" Underwood in House of Cards (US).
  • Lt. Commander McKeon's situation in the Honor Harrington book On Basilisk Station — he has been the executive officer of the Fearless for years and had hoped to succeed the captain when he moved on, but he is old for his rank and resents the fact that Honor received the command instead of him. She is younger, higher-ranked, and more charismatic than he, and seems to be the embodiment of what he is not as an officer. He gets over it by the end of the book, and in a much later novel dies a Rear Admiral.
  • Judge Dee: a Chinese general accuses another general of treason when he's the one betraying. This trope is given as the reason he was resentful of the younger general.
    • Several high-ranked functionaries discuss this trope when looking to reward Dee for a particularly troublesome case. Give a man a promotion too early, it fosters ambition, given too late, it fosters bitterness and resentment. They settle for a copy of an Imperial edict.
  • In the Animorphs series finale, a Yeerk betrays its species to the heroes in part because it feels itself to be a victim of this.
  • Averted but discussed in Mark Haley's Imperial Guard novel Baneblade: Bannick's armored company commanding officer tells him he'd really like to keep him around as a good tank squadron commander rather than promote him to the more prestigious superheavy company (especially as he enters it at the lowest echelon, third gunner), but seeing him promoted for his recent accomplishment will boost troop morale.note 
  • Lucas Haroche's motivation in Memory. Seeing this coming, he tries to avert it by giving Klingon Promotion a go.
  • In the first Black Blade novel, Grant murdered his boss and tried to murder his boss' son because while he still got a very prestigious promotion, it wasn't the one he wanted.
  • In the Erebus Sequence, D'arzenta, a maestro di spada (sword instructor) is a minor Reasonable Authority Figure to the protagonist of the first book (relative to Sadist Teacher Giancarlo, anyway). In the second, however, he's very bitter towards Dino, the new protagonist — he probably wouldn't have minded if Dino had just been made a maestro di spada, but Dino was made superiore, outranking D'arzenta.
  • In The Fifth Elephant, when Sergeant Colon is temporarily promoted to Captain of the Watch, Corporal Nobbsnote  starts heavily hinting that he'll be needing a new sergeant. Colon thinks about this, and promotes a troll officer by the name of Flint. Nobby repeats "Sergeant Flint" several times when Colon tells him this. This is probably why he ended up as the ringleader when the entire City Watch ended up on strike, although Fred becoming Drunk with Power and turning into The Neidermeyer didn't exactly help.
  • In Angel in the Whirlwind: The Oncoming Storm, Kat's first officer Commander William McElney is considerably older than her with much more time in the service, but he's a commoner and not a native of Tyre. Understandably he resents being passed over in favor of nobles pulling strings, but Kat manages to win him over: she didn't want the promotion yet, either, and goes out of her way to not step on his toes and pay attention to his advice.
  • In the PT Deutermann crime thriller Train Man, two passed over officers are in charge of a train shipping captured Soviet bloc nuclear weapons west to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. One of them is an army major, who has been passed over three times for promotion to lieutenant colonel, but is being allowed to serve for one more year, so he can complete twenty years of service and retire with full benefits. He seems to take this in stride. The other is an army spec ops colonel who was previously part of the White House National Security Council staff, but had screwed up big before, and was passed over for a generalship. He is therefore a micromanaging Control Freak who wants to do whatever it takes to do this assignment right and salvage his career.
  • At the beginning of Sion Crossing by Anthony Price, Latimer has just been obliged to graciously accept a promotion to deputy head of the Department when he'd been hoping for the top job. This is one of the things that prompts him to take the risk that gets him embroiled in the plot.
  • The J.A. Johnstone western "Slaughter of Eagles" has it mentioned that when the previous marshal died, the town council hired an outside "professional" over his Deputy John Forbis, due to the deputies youth. This decisions is widely derided by the town people, because Forbis is a Nice Guy, but one willing to stand up to trouble makers, while the man the town council hired turned out to be a highly corrupt bully.

    Live Action TV 
  • Arrested Development: In the pilot, Michael Bluth is convinced he's going to become the head of the Bluth Company — so convinced that he doesn't even think something might be wrong when his father says the new CEO is "the sexiest creature he's ever laid eyes on". Turns out that George Sr knows that he's in trouble with the SEC and makes his wife the new CEO because he (erroneously) believes that a husband and wife can't be prosecuted for the same crime.
    George Sr: I have the worst fucking attorneys.
  • Captain Barney Miller was up for promotion to Inspector a few times, but until the Season Finale never made it. In the aftermath of one snub his detectives try to comfort him by blaming themselves by embarrassing the squad: Harris with his book; Dietrich by being arrested; and Wojo with his habit of arresting people for non-crimes.
  • Subverted and simultaneously played with on the Series Blackish. Anthony Andersons character is clearly being setup for this to happen to him. He's supremely overconfident, as the boss is announcing the promotion he's moving his desk to the proper place. And in the end, he does get the promotion... just not to the position he wanted.
  • CSI:
    • In the pilot, Jim Brass (in his mercifully brief Pointy-Haired Boss phase) orders Warrick benched after he screws up to ensure that Nick will reach twenty case closures first and be promoted ahead of him, as punishment. (Warrick still congratulates Nick when the promotion comes through.)
    • Later there was the promotion-to-supervisor storyline. Catherine was the one eventually promoted, but Nick had some unhappiness that he didn't get it; money problems forced his promotion to be shelved.
  • An episode of CSI: NY had this as a murderer's motive; he thought his boss was sending his (younger, less experienced) colleague to various business seminars (the colleague was really using fake seminars set up by a company that was providing alibis for his affair) which led to a confrontation with the boss (who had no idea what was going on) and the murder.
  • While working at Winfred-Louder, Drew Carey was constantly having this happen to him on The Drew Carey Show.
  • In Kamen Rider OOO, Shintaro Goto thinks that as a long term employee of the Kougami Foundation he should have been the first choice as a Kamen Rider. He makes his displeasure very clear that the inexperienced Eiji Hino became OOO instead of him (although he later gets to replace Date as Kamen Rider Birth.)
  • In London's Burning, Sub Officer Hallam applies for a promotion to station officer but is turned down; resulting in him coming under the command of the younger and less experienced Nick Georgiadis. On top of this his wife, believing his career to be at a dead end, begins to pressure him to find another career. It turns out to be somewhat justified, however: Hallam's tenure as Acting Station Officer elsewhere sees his attempt to stamp out the racist bullying he uncovers backfire so badly that a black fireman is nearly murdered, and the ensuing blot on his record pretty much guarantees he's stuck at his current rank for the rest of his career.
  • A recurring story line in early M*A*S*H episodes had Father Mulcahy being passed over for promotion, multiple times. He finally did get promoted in a later season episode.
  • Played with towards the end of Major Dad. The lead character is apparently passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel. It's revealed that he had been passed over once before, so under the Marine Corps' "up or out" policy, he'll have to retire from the service. At the end of the episode, it's revealed that a page was accidentally left off the promotion list and the major got his promotion after all.
  • In the U.S. version of The Office, this happens to Dwight when Jim gets promoted. Dwight spent the next dozen or so episodes plotting to get Jim fired.
  • In an episode of Stargate SG-1, a human Corrupt Corporate Executive on Hebridan has been passed over for promotion several times, causing him to turn it into a planet-wide conspiracy theory of the Serrakin oppressing humans. Turns out, the real reason is that his bosses found out that he was embezzling and were building a case.
  • Star Trek:
    • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tapestry", Q shows Picard an alternate reality where he never got into an Academy-days fight with three surly Nausicaans that quickly gave him a knife through the heart, hence he didn't need a replacement mechanical one. In that alternate timeline, Picard made it only to Lieutenant Junior Grade, regularly passed over by his superiors because they felt he showed no evidence of drive and ambition, never took risks to do what he felt was right. And, in this world where he never faced death like that, and later on always played it safe... they were right.
    • In Star Trek: Voyager Harry Kim ends up stranded in the Delta Quadrant on his very first day of Starship duty as an Ensign, and is clearly a wide-eyed newbie. Over the years he evolved into a master engineer, a holographic technology expert, a veteran of dozens of conflicts, and an integral part of the crew. He was never promoted beyond Ensign. Even in a real-life navy, after 7 years of exceptional service he should've at least gotten 2 promotions to full Lieutenant and possibly even a 3rd to Lieutenant Commander, and Starfleet's Mildly Military natural usually results in promotions coming faster would be the case in real militaries. Even moreso in wartime, and Voyager saw rather a lot of combat over the course of its journey home, particularly fighting essentially a one-ship war against the Borg at times. Due to the Status Quo Is God nature of the series, he rarely showed any signs of bitterness, even with his best friend being made a lieutenant on his first day despite being a criminal who was dishonorably discharged from Starfleet, and then later demoted back to ensign and later promoted back to lieutenant again for no apparent reason.
    • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, recurring character Lieutenant Michael Eddington, a Starfleet Security officer, at one point complains to Captain Sisko about his career prospects, that they don't offer you a captain's chair if you're "wearing a gold shirt". He later hijacks a freighter full of relief supplies for Cardassia and delivers it and himself to the Maquis rebels.
  • In The Wire, this is a common fact of life in the Baltimore Police Department.
    • Bill Rawls, Deputy Commissioner of Operations, seems intent on unseating Commissioner Ervin Burrell, even doing some damage to Burrell's relationship with Mayor Royce. However, Tommy Carcetti gets elected Mayor and Burrell stays as Commissioner because the black community will only allow a white mayor and black police commissioner or vice-versa. And then Rawls has to learn from Valchek that he can passed over by Cedric Daniels for the Commissioner's post when Burrell leaves.
    • Speaking of Cedric Daniels, his promotion to Major is held up in season 3 because of his ex-wife Marla's political career, forcing him to stay as a Lieutenant. It's not until the end of the season that he gets his Major's promotion, at the same time that Major Colvin is booted from the department in the Hamsterdam fallout.
  • In Power Rangers S.P.D., Sky becomes something of The Resenter when he's passed up being the Red Ranger in favor of Jack, who is basically a criminal on Community Servicenote . Ultimately, it serves as a series-long helping of humble pie and, when Jack retires, Sky is finally given the role of Red Ranger.
  • Bellisarioverse:
    • In JAG we get to see a promotion selection board in action - and see them choose to pass over first season regular character Commander Lindsey, due to the fact that he never accumulated any courtroom trial experience, or went on an overseas tour as a command staff Judge Advocate. He had drifted from desk job to desk job for about 4 years. For this, he isn’t considered for promotion to Captain. It also shows how these promotion boards actually work - they don’t actually refuse the promotion outright, they just place him among the low preference list. So this way, should some catastrophe befall everyone on the higher preference list, someone like Lindsey could still get that promotion.
    • During the NCIS Port-to-Port Killer arc, Gibbs's team realizes that the P2P targets naval officers who have been promoted over the heads of others. He eventually sets a trap for another NCIS team when its less-experienced leader is promoted instead of Gibbs himself—Gibbs realizes the trap in an Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap! moment while complaining to his direct superior Leon about it.
  • In Pensacola: Wings of Gold we learn that Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kelly the squadron CO has been passed over for elevation to full colonel twice. This is his last chance, failing which, he must take mandatory retirement. The Series Finale ends in a cliffhanger over whether he has been promoted or passed over again.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Happens many, many times in Dilbert. In one example, the Pointy-Haired Boss was looking for someone to promote, but, since Dilbert and Alice were too valuable in their current positions, he gave it to a moron who (literally) didn't know what day of the week it was.
    • This is Scott Adams' way of showing how The Peter Principle is fought and becomes the Dilbert principle: the incompetent get promoted over the heads of the competent, because all in all, management is where they do the least damage.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Champions RPG, this was the breaking point for Dr. Photon, a member of the villain group V.O.I.C.E. She was passed over for promotion at her lab for a less qualified male colleague, assumed it was because of sexism, snapped and became a super villain. (In reality, it was because all her co-workers hated her and would have quit if she became the manager.)

  • Older Than Steam: This is one of Iago's motivations (or excuses) in Othello. Othello passes him (ten or so years' professional soldiering) over for a promotion to lieutenant, instead promoting the (younger, book- rather than field-experienced) Cassio over his head. Iago being Iago, he reacts by single-handedly engineering Cassio's removal, then driving Othello to murder followed by suicide.

    Video Games 
  • In Captain Morgane and the Golden Turtle, first mate Diego's grumbling about Alessandro letting his daughter act as captain points to him being dissatisfied in his position, and his loyalty is questioned when it's revealed he's been associating with a rival captain. He says otherwise; he'd never betray his captain, but believes that Alessandro has a "blind spot" about Morgane's ability to handle the job. And that turns out to be his genuine reason - he stays loyal, and becomes less grumpy about Morgane as she proves herself.
  • Fallout:
    • In Fallout: New Vegas, should we be allowed into the Brotherhood of Steel bunker at Hidden Valley, we meet the base doctor Senior Scribe Linda Schuler. She is embittered over having been passed over for the position of Head Scribe in favor of the lecherous Head Scribe Taggart. Nothing comes out of this though.
    • In Fallout 4 you are asked to investigate food thefts for the Brotherhood of Steel. Your suspect is an Initiate Clark who joined the Brotherhood with a Knight Lucia, but he remains an Initiate while she ranked up to Knight. Lucia thinks he is disaffected and embittered over being passed over. He actually isn’t. He was sneaking food to feral ghouls because he felt a lot of guilt over having mercilessly massacred multitudes of them during the battle to claim Boston Airport.
  • Pathfinder Alec Ryder is about to pull off a Heroic Sacrifice to save his son/daughter in Mass Effect: Andromeda and has to choose whom to pass on his Pathfinder title and role to. He makes a snap decision to pass over his Second in Command Cora Harper, and instead confers the title onto the son/daughter he just saved. Cora is at first a little resentful, but realizes later that she’d have been a poor Pathfinder because she is too much of an order follower who needs someone else to give her strategic direction.

    Web Comics 
  • Mike from Something*Positive eventually finds work at a Burger Fool. Not only are people hired after him promoted, but they're the ones who tell him he's fired.
  • When Captain Tagon in Schlock Mercenary finds himself in charge of multiple ships in his mercenary company, his recently un-retired father, former General Tagon points out that he's well due to promote himself. Captain Tagon respectfully declines, because he doesn't know how to be a Commodore. ...but the elder Tagon does.
  • Terminal Lance frequently criticizes the "cutting scores" promotion system used in the US Marine Corps, in particular the fact that the score to be promoted to full corporal (the lowest non-commissioned officer rank) from lance corporal is so much higher for infantry specialtiesnote  than pogsnote . The title of the comic, in fact, is service slang for a Marine who gets stuck at lance corporal for several years before retiring (the author was offered promotion to corporal as an incentive to reenlist, but declined).

    Western Animation 
  • Looney Tunes:
    • "Dog Gone People," where a Hal Smith-voiced Elmer Fudd note  is asked by his boss, Mr. Crabtree, to look after his dog, Rupert, for the weekend while out of town on a business trip, and that his job status ("you could go up ... or down") rides on how well he treats Rupert. Elmer believes that this could mean becoming vice president of the company he works for ... but in the end, going "up, up, up, up" means painting the flagpole. (Rupert, the dog, gets the promotion to vice president.)
  • Prep and Landing: Wayne is passed over for the job as Director of the Naughty List despite everyone's expectations. Making it worse for him is that the guy who got the job was his partner that he personally trained.
  • The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: The position of manager of the Krusty Krab 2 goes to Squidward, not Spongebob. Despite Squidward's apathy and Spongebob being Employee of the Month many times over, Mr. Krabs refuses to let Spongebob be manager because "he's a kid". He gets it at the end after saving all of Bikini Bottom from Plankton's final scheme. And, in case you're wondering, the movie is considered the Grand Finale for the series, so all the episodes and movies after that is considered before the movie.
  • Not exactly a promotion, but involving much the same dynamic, is the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes determined to do something remarkable after being passed over for Worker of the Week yet again; it begins with Homer certain he'll get the award this time, because literally everyone else in the company has had their turn — and then the award is given to an inanimate object instead.
    • The trope does happen in The Simpsons. In one episode, Homer is describing his assistant to his wife. Later in the episode, she asks about the guy again and Homer says, "You mean my supervisor?" as the assistant was presumably promoted to Homer's equal, then to his supervisor.
    • In the first future episode, a near-retirement age Homer is shown still working his job in Sector 7G, with Milhouse (who would have joined the plant decades after Homer) as his supervisor.
  • Rocko's Modern Life does this sadistically to Ed Bighead: His boss invites him alone in his office, and tells him personally that a higher position just opened, before adding that it's not for him. Twice in the same episode, for opposite reasons.
  • The life story of Wonderland Zoo assistant keeper Lionel J. Botch.
  • Exaggerated in The Awesomes, where Malocchio Jr., in spite of being personally responsible for the majority his firm's revenue, isn't promoted when somehow everyone else in the office simultaneously gets the big promotion he was hoping for.

    Real Life 
  • This is precisely what happened in the case of Benedict Arnold. Despite being a clever and daring commander in the early years of the American Revolution, he was repeatedly passed over for promotion. With the added insult of his more politically connected superiors claiming credit for the battles that he had won. That and his debt to the Continental Congress caused him to attempt to sell out West Point, in exchange for money and a place in the British military.
  • In more modern times, the US military's "up or out" policy codified in the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Actnote  has been criticized for, among other reasons, forcing out skilled officers who had missed two promotion cycles for no other reason than because there weren't any open positions at higher pay gradesnote .
    • Occasionally moves are made in the opposite direction to avert this trope. In 2019, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force announced that the High Year of Tenure, the maximum length of service allowed for an Airman at any particular paygrade, had been adjusted, allowing someone at the rank of Staff Sergeant (a relatively low NCO grade) to stay in long enough to retire with 20 years of service, allowing the Air Force to retain experienced technicians who lack the ability or inclination to be effective leaders at higher levels. Then again, a few years previously, the High Year of Tenure had been adjusted in the opposite direction, causing a number of more experienced senior NC Os to unexpectedly be notified of their impending retirement.
  • This is probably part of the reason why Claude-François Malet became increasingly dissatisfied with the Revolution and even more so with Napoleon's government. At a time where many generals had reached the top of the pyramid in their late twenties, his own advancement was held back by his radical political opinions. In the end, he put his organisational skills to good use in several plots against Napoleon.


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