What Happens When a Promotion Doesn’t Work Out

Sometimes things just don’t work out.

When a worker is moved up a rung on the career ladder and later gets knocked back down with a demotion, it can really suck the wind out of the enthusiasm and engagement not just of that individual but also of the surrounding team.

And that’s not good in today’s tight talent market, even if it is necessary.

It’s not an isolated conundrum, either. A recent survey of 300 HR managers by OfficeTeam, a Robert Half temporary staffing services company, found that 46 percent reported that they had seen someone at their company demoted. The reasons were predictable: poor performance (39 percent), not succeeding at the recently promoted position (38 percent), organizational restructuring/position eliminated (16 percent) and voluntary promotion (6 percent).

Unfortunately for employers, the metrics of demotions are not often measured, says Brandi Britton, OfficeTeam’s district president in Menlo Park, Calif. “With today’s job market and companies getting creative about how they fill positions, [companies] may be hiring individuals or promoting individuals who may not turn out to be what they expected.”

A separate survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers age 18 and over offers intriguing clues about predicting both resilience and disengagement:

  • One in 10 workers (14 percent) said they had been asked to take on a lower role;
  • 19 percent of male professionals reported job downgrades versus 7 percent of women; and
  • Employees ages 18 to 34 (22 percent) were demoted more often than those ages 35 to 54 (10 percent) and 55 or older (3 percent).

As for how they reacted to the demotion, 50 percent said they tried to handle the news as gracefully as possible, 52 percent quit, 47 percent got upset and lost interest in their jobs, and 41 percent focused on excelling in the new position. Also, 55 percent of male employees and 64 percent of people aged 18 to 34 resigned in response to being demoted.

There are ways to encourage these employees to be resilient instead of resentful, experts say. They include establishing better selection and assessment criteria, redefining career paths in the company culture, and training both the high potential candidate and their managers for responding to various outcomes. All can help take the sting out of demotions and preserve engagement for the demoted and their teammates.

“People who were able to adjust to their new job and really go after that were able to reset their psychological contract with their employer,” says Joe Ungemah, author of Misplaced Talent: A Guide to Making Better People Decisions and Willis Towers Watson’s North America practice leader, talent management and organizational alignment. “Either they concluded that they weren’t ready, or it was the wrong job, but they still believed that the employer was still a good place to work and they were able to reinvest.”

Britton says the differences in who left and why may have roots in their personalities or expectations, with men handling stress differently than women and younger workers being more focused on titles and career advancement.

Other reasons for people failing to live up to their promotion’s challenges could be blamed on the organization itself, Ungemah notes. For example, the office or region had a toxic culture, it was a bad economic period for achieving high targets, or the selection and performance goal setting was poor, or employees weren’t properly trained for the transition.

“I think there’s a natural tendency to blame the job incumbent–that they didn’t do the job well,” he says. “It’s a mature organization that stands back and says, how much are we at fault and how much is the environment at fault.”

Michael Martin, partner and HR effectiveness practice leader at Aon, says companies with a high frequency of demotions should dig deeper into the “why” and probably shift their paradigm.

“If it was a shortcut for people to leave then I’d say a better process would be to manage performance instead. More progressive organizations are probably redefining career pathing as being more of a lattice, so there can be sideways career pathing [or] downward career pathing. That can be a very, very good thing and a win-win for the employee and the company.”

Tom Davenport, author of The Stress-Reduction Pyramid: A Guide to Managing the Greatest Threat to Employee Health and Productivity and an independent consultant with more than 30 years background in the field, agrees that setting expectations is key.

“Promotions should be made with an understanding that if the job is a bit of a flyer for the employee that there’s no harm or no foul [if it doesn’t work out],”  Davenport says. “It’s part of the developmental continuum,”

Ungemah also suspects that people who quit or disengaged after the demotion probably never had the hard conversation that established a new and fair “psychological contract” with the employer that gave the employee autonomy and choice while setting clear performance expectations going forward.

Open and honest communication with direct reports and peers afterwards is also critical. “You can say that it was a bad fit and tell the story, while trying to avoid branding the person as a bad employee,” he says.

As for a future where the gig economy is more prevalent, Ungemah expects that some elements from a stable job and career track model–such as an emphasis on hierarchy–will disappear, and that can be a good thing: “People will probably go up and then down and then sideways and go back up again, and that’s going to be a natural career path.”

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.