So, you’ve just been demoted — what next?

Involuntary demotion at work can be hard to handle, but with the right approach it might be a blessing in disguise.

Getting promoted at work is a cause for celebration. It means you’re doing well and management believes you’re ready to take on an expanded role with more responsibility and often better perks, including a salary increase and other benefits.

Getting demoted, on the other hand, can be a tough pill to swallow. However, for all the consternation it can cause, demotion can actually have a positive outcome in spite of the initial sting. Heck, some employees even voluntarily request a demotion. It doesn’t have to be bad, but it all depends on how you handle the situation.

Demotions are actually more common than one might think. Nearly half of HR managers surveyed by staffing firm OfficeTeam (46%) said an employee has been demoted at their company. Those surveys include responses from more than 300 HR managers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees, and more than 1,000 U.S. workers 18 years of age or older and employed in office environments. Professionals were most commonly moved to a lower role for poor performance (39%) and not succeeding in a new job after being promoted (38%).

More than one in 10 workers (14%) have been demoted. It’s happened most to male professionals (19%) and those ages 18 to 34 (22%). Fifty-two percent of employees who were downgraded quit their job.

Ashlie B. Johnson, owner of Brooke Human Resource Solutions, has seen the impact demotion can have on employees firsthand.

“I’ve had difficult conversations regarding demotions, layoffs, and organization restructuring many times in my career as an HR professional,” she says. “I feel that I’ve had positive outcomes in these situations because I’ve handled the employee with respect, and have done all I can to support the employee through the transition.”

Demotion emotion

Johnson acknowledges that hearing you’re being demoted can be extremely emotional for an employee. It’s in these situations that both the employee and manager need to keep their wits about them and avoid letting the situation become confrontational.

“The first thing an employee should do is to take a step back and do their best to look at the situation objectively,” explains Johnson. “Often, employees can react emotionally and further damage their relationships within the organization, so remain calm and take time to digest this information.”

The best way to navigate a demotion situation is to first determine why the demotion occurred. Is the company downsizing? What actions or factors led up to management’s decision to demote you? If you have a relationship with your manager, ask him or her to explain. If management is reluctant to give more information, you can always reach out to the HR department for guidance.

An employee also needs to do some honest reflection on whether the demotion is actually a good thing for them, notes Johnson. An involuntary demotion can feel humiliating. It’s often perceived as a signal that those in management no longer have confidence in your abilities, or the demotion could also be the result of something disciplinary. Did you do something to deserve losing your position in the organization? If an honest answer is yes, that you did do something to earn the demotion, then take a moment to determine how you can correct that behavior in the future. Whether you decide to stay in your new role or move on to a new company/job, these experiences can only serve to improve your performance in the future — if you choose to learn from them.

Consider the new role you are being asked to play, Johnson recommends. Typically the new role will have lower expectations and demands. This may be an opportunity in disguise! Having additional time and reduced responsibilities may allow you to meet new people, develop new skills, get further education, take up a hobby, or even spend more time with family or friends.

If the new role is not a good fit, consider other opportunities within the organization. A move, even a lateral one, can often present new possibilities for growth.

The employee should also consider his or her environment. If others are getting laid off, being demoted means you still have a job while others may not.

If further reflection brings the employee to the decision that the demotion was unjust, most employers have an internal mechanism for appeals, advises Johnson. The employee should document his or her experience. What led up to the demotion? What other factors could help you to explain that demotion is not the correct course of action? The employee should then bring this information to the HR department.

“The employee should always remain professional,” says Johnson. “Regardless of your feelings surrounding the demotion, remaining professional allows you to have more options for the future. If you choose to leave the organization, you can do so on good terms, maintaining your network and potential to receive positive references. If you choose to stay, accepting your new role with dignity sends a powerful message to both your co-workers and to management.”

Managers also need to remember to be respectful when demoting an employee. Johnson says managers should follow some basic guidelines when having these difficult discussions:

Be respectful and professional. Keep in mind that the idea is to place the employee in a new role where he or she will be more successful. Never use demotion as a tool for punishment. Unhappy and disengaged employees are never a good thing to have on a team, regardless of title.

Clearly and honestly communicate the reasons for the demotion. Why has management decided to demote the employee vs. terminating them? Explaining that you see value in retaining the employee can be very helpful in making the transition a positive one.

Never try to commiserate with the employee, making them believe that you’re “on their side.” Showing that you disagree with the decision undermines company management and can put your own position in peril.

Clearly outline the new position and the transition plan, don’t just dump the employee into a new role. Support them as you would any new employee who would take on the same role. If a pay reduction will occur, don’t avoid addressing it. Be honest and transparent about the impact this change will have on the employee.

Be prepared. If the employee has questions, be prepared to answer them. Some common questions are:

  • “Who is going to be taking my old position?”
  • “Can I have more time in the position to improve?”
  • “Can I move to a different position/department/location?”
  • “Can I have a few days to think about it?”
  • “What happens if I don’t want to take this new position?”

Have a plan. It is not uncommon for employees to have a very emotional and perhaps negative response. It may be necessary to escort the employee out of the office if the response is too negative or combative. You should always have another member of the management team in the room, for both legal and safety reasons. Does your company have security? If so, keep them informed.



Stepping down a rung

It may seem counterintuitive in our society that so strongly values high achievement, but there are times when employees might want to consider voluntarily taking a step “back” in their career and suggest a demotion themselves.

Employees may request a demotion for many reasons: stress, workload, family obligations, disengagement from their current role, or because they just want to slow down as they approach retirement, notes Johnson. Regardless of the reason, both the manager and employee should carefully consider the impact of such a change. Does the employer have a reduced role available? If not, other solutions such as role re-evaluation may need to be considered. Why does the employee want to leave their current role? Are they overwhelmed? If there is one task that the employee feels he or she is not equipped to handle, and could offering support and perhaps additional training allow the employee to stay in their current position?

If reducing the employee’s role makes sense and is possible, managers should speak with the employee about transition and timeline. You will likely need to hire someone to replace the employee who is seeking the demotion, so use this opportunity to transfer knowledge to the new employee if appropriate.

It’s also true that many employees are promoted to a role, but then fail to perform as expected within that new role, admits Johnson. There are a few reasons this might happen:

Knowledge. Has the employee been given the tools they need to succeed in their new role? If the new role requires additional knowledge or skills, was training provided? If they were promoted from worker to manager, were they provided with training on how to be a manager?

Procedure. Has the employee been given a clear picture of organizational procedure? Giving a newly promoted employee a clear picture of the culture on their new team will help them acclimate more quickly and feel more comfortable.

Support. Do they know whom to call on if they need help? Oftentimes, newly promoted employees are reluctant to come to a manager if they’re struggling in their new role, because they are embarrassed. Managers should be proactive, checking in with the employee regularly to discuss any challenges the employee is facing in their new role and providing tools, training, and support as needed.

Positive spin

“Keep in mind that when you demote someone rather than fire them, there’s a reason,” Johnson says. “Concentrate on why you want them to stay with your organization, and keep the conversation focused on the positives whenever possible.”

The initial notification to staff regarding a fellow employee’s demotion will often stir other employees to believe that they could be next. If that’s not the case, Johnson recommends meeting with employees individually to reassure them that this was a strategic decision and that they should feel secure in their position. “If there is opportunity for others to improve, you may even want to take this opportunity to have discussions about ways for each of your employees to improve their performance and increase their value within the team.”

For the employee being demoted, sometimes staying with the company in the new role just isn’t an option. In those cases, Johnson says when interviewing for new positions, it’s important to acknowledge that there was a hiccup in your career growth but not dwell on it.

“Emphasize your skills and the positive career achievements you’ve had,” says Johnson. “If the demotion was beyond your control due to layoffs or restructuring, explain the situation, but never blame or badmouth the company. Don’t make excuses; instead, discuss what you’ve learned from the experience and how that will make you a successful hire for your new potential employer.”

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