Promoting the art of demotion

The Guardian


Have you ever been promoted? Can you remember the excitement of telling your family and friends and your co-workers? Do you recall the pats on the back, the ‘Well done — you deserve it’ and all the other little pleasures that come on top of those supplied by the expectations of more money and more status. But how would you feel if you ever walked out of your employer’s office after being demoted? Can you imagine the effect on your working and personal life? Would you feel a failure amongst your friends and colleagues? The first thing to appreciate is that there are a number of reasons why an employer may use demotion as a policy in the workplace. The most obvious is summed up by Colin Parker, head of Perception Business Psychologists.

“Perhaps you weren’t good enough at your job.’’ he says. “Perhaps you were promoted beyond your level. Maybe you didn’t have what it takes to be, say, a manager.’’ In such circumstances, Parker suggests, demotion may come as a relief to the employee. John Champion, director of EBS Management Resources, agrees that it can have positive results. “Individuals may have to recognise their own limitations. It’s about good career management, assessing what is best for you.’’ An employer can also use demotion as a disciplinary sanction. James Moss, associate solicitor with Capital Law in Cardiff, Wales, says “It is usually imposed in cases of serious misconduct, as an alternative to dismissal.’’ Sometimes employees may consider that they have been demoted if their job role changes.

Moss explains: “Say a new person is appointed to a position and an important part of an existing employee’s job is removed from their remit and transferred to the new employee. The change may or may not be accompanied with a reduction in salary. In either case, the employee may consider that as a result of the appointment of the new person they have, in effect, been demoted.’’

This is becoming a growing trend in the workplace according to Frances Wilson, HR Adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. She believes that changes to job roles are being used in preference to traditional, formal demotions. But don’t be fooled. “This can still leave employees with a sense of being demoted,’’ she says. “You may be doing quite nicely in your career path and then suddenly your role does not exist any more. You are no longer doing the work that you want to do. It may be less challenging. Your ambition has been thwarted and you feel demeaned.’’ Brian Robinson, of the Work-Stress Network says that such feelings can also be aroused if an employer imposes a line manager on an employee who has previously been “free’’.“In most cases, an employee would then feel they have been demoted. They could also feel this way if they go for a job within a department, don’t get it and then find out that the person who did get the job is their new manager. It’s all do with a sense of rejection.’’

Such rejection can lead to a loss of self-esteem with feelings of failure leading to depression and stress. “You see serious emotional problems develop as a result of demotion or a sense of demotion,’’ says Robinson. “It can be a great blow to your prestige. In career terms, it can be fatal. It can be an end to your career development and a loss of financial status, which leads to its own pressures. Rejection and stress can cause disturbed sleeping patterns, loss of appetite and breathing problems.’’ Robinson believes that these emotional and physical ailments can be prevented if a demotion is managed positively. “I think that people expect life to be a bit easier than it is. They need to develop a thick skin but there is a duty on companies to do something for them.”

This could include providing access to confidential counselling services without the knowledge of management. “They can help you come to terms with your feelings — help lay off some tensions,’’ says Robinson. Wilson also advocates an approach, which combines personal motivation and management understanding. “In today’s working environment, you must be ready for change, to be adaptable and flexible,’’ she says. “Force yourself to develop this mindset. If your role changes, see it as a chance to acquire new skills. The employer, however, needs to be sensitive, especially with issues such as outward symbols. For example they should look carefully at whether the removal of a job title will demean an employee before they do it.’’

There is also an argument that employers should coach their demoted employees. “If an employee goes sideways or down, then this could lead to stress. The employer must recognise this and help the employee to re-assess their goals and perhaps change direction,’’ says Champion. Parker, however, states that employees can keep their self-esteem high by not giving up on recovering a lost role or job. “Ask your employer about training and about gaining job experience so that in the future you may be more prepared for a higher role. Get the information and then knuckle down. Find the motivation to get back.’’ It’s also a good idea to maintain a strong social network to bolster your sense of self-worth outside work. “It seems an obvious thing to say but people have higher levels of self-esteem when they are with their friends.’’

So if that is how to counter the emotional and psychological effects of a real or perceived demotion, are there any ways to counter the decision itself? “It is difficult for an employee to challenge demotion if it is listed in the employer’s disciplinary procedure as a potential sanction for serious misconduct and the employer follows a fair disciplinary procedure,’’ says Moss. But if that demotion constitutes a loss of status for an employee it is possible for this to amount to a fundamental breach of contract by the employer. To challenge such a demotion an employee should check their terms and conditions, especially on issues of flexibility, and make it clear to their employer that they are not happy with what they consider a reduction in status.