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How to handle a demotion — or even volunteer for one

A demotion at work might be a tough pill to swallow, but they’re more common that you realize. Demotions aren’t always related to poor performance, however, and might be preferable to a layoff.

Aug. 24, 2019 marked the 13th anniversary of the day our solar system was forever changed — Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet. As careers go, that’s not bad. Pluto enjoyed 76 years at the top, going straight from its discovery in 1930 to the planetary C-suite.

Even though there were always some questions about whether Pluto really belonged there — Was it really just an escaped moon of Neptune, riding on its more impressive colleague’s coattails? — Pluto performed its duties well, rotating around the sun and managing its small team of satellites, Charon, discovered in 1978, and Hydra and Nix, discovered in 2005, with aplomb.

However, following the discovery of the Kuiper belt on the outer reaches of the solar system in 1992 — an acquisition, if you will, of a related company — some shuffling of the planetary ranks was to be expected. Pluto’s literal position and mass within the organization fit a role more suited to the newly acquired Kuiper belt division, and its demotion was sealed.

And, while we seldom hear about them in the workplace, demotions might be more common than we realize.

Nearly half of HR managers surveyed by staffing firm OfficeTeam (46 percent) said an employee has been demoted at their company. Professionals were most commonly moved to a lower role for poor performance (39 percent) and not succeeding in a new job after being promoted (38 percent). Additionally, organizational restructuring or positions being eliminated accounted for another 16 percent of demotions, and 6 percent were voluntary demotions.

Of the 14 percent of workers polled by OfficeTeam who admitting to being demoted, most (52 percent) reacted by quitting their job, notes Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager of OfficeTeam in Madison. Half of workers (50 percent) tried to handle the news as gracefully as possible, while 47 percent got upset and lost interest in their work and 41 percent focused on excelling in their new position.

“It’s completely natural to feel upset by a demotion, especially if you didn’t see it coming,” says Truckenbrod. “Having your title bumped down can absolutely be a hit to your ego. However, it’s important to keep your cool in the workplace and focus on recognizing why your role is being downgraded.”

Truckenbrod says a few tips can help workers navigate an unexpected demotion:

  • Stay calm. Keep your emotions in check and handle the situation professionally.
  • Get clarification. Have a discussion with your manager to understand the reason for demotion and listen for constructive feedback that may help you going forward.
  • Manage expectations. Find out what is expected from you in the new role and if there are steps you can take to be reinstated in your previous job. Ask your manager to identify areas for improvement and training opportunities.
  • Think it through. Don’t automatically quit. Take time to decide whether you want to make the most of the role or look for a different one that better suits your long-term goals.

That last point is especially important. Quitting without a backup plan would actually make a layoff preferable because in the event of a layoff, at least you’re likely to receive some kind of severance package from your employer.

If you’re staying at the company, Truckenbrod recommends keeping up a high level of work and making sure to document your progress. “Next time you have a performance review with your manager, be prepared to discuss the areas you’ve improved in and the tangible, measurable ways your efforts have contributed to the organization’s bottom line. By meeting the performance expectations set by your manager, you increase your likelihood of bouncing back to your original position.”

How employers can handle giving demotions

Before a demotion is considered, managers should regularly discuss performance issues with employees during periodic evaluations. Giving your workers ample opportunities to improve through ongoing feedback, suggestions, mentoring, and support is crucial, says Truckenbrod. However, a demotion can be the necessary course of action when a professional’s efforts are still valued but the company can no longer keep them employed in their current role.

“In situations like organizational restructuring or budget constraints that limit the organization’s ability to continue offering the same salary, demotions may be the answer to retaining skilled talent, especially when offered with low-cost perks like extra vacation days, flexible work schedules, and telecommuting options,” notes Truckenbrod. “Rather than facing a layoff in this circumstance, current employees may be open to the idea of a demotion instead and might even appreciate the company’s efforts to keep them employed.”

Unfortunately, employees often aren’t offered voluntary demotions because it either doesn’t occur to their supervisors at all or their supervisors assume they wouldn’t be interested.

Though rare, some companies may offer a bumping system where a laid-off employee always has the right to accept a demotion or transfer to a lower-ranked position. The person who previously held that position can do the same, “bumping” the next-lowest person on the ladder. While this doesn’t offer the lowest-ranked workers or those with the least seniority much job security, it is a way for companies to retain the high-quality workers it values.

A “survivor demotion” may be another option for a worker who doesn’t want to get laid off, but it requires a proactive and early approach by the employee. If you sense or know layoffs are on the horizon, and believe your position to be vulnerable, you could approach the most senior manager who will be making the final decision on layoffs and volunteer to take a demotion and reduced salary in lieu of being laid off. This option may make the most sense for professionals toward the end of their career, especially if they want or need to keep working and taking a step back won’t negatively impact their career trajectory or future job prospects. However, it’s important to consider that a demotion could negatively affect pensions that are calculated on the final years of wages.

Truckenbrod offers the following tips for managers on handling demotions:

  • Work closely with HR and legal teams to ensure the demotion is well thought out and carefully executed. There may be certain protocols you need to follow.
  • Have a candid discussion with the employee to explain the reason for the demotion and clearly outline the new position and transition plan.
  • Be prepared to respond to questions and offer resources to help make the worker successful in their role.

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