IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Demoted at work? What not to do — and how to win back your position and respect

Nearly half of all HR managers report seeing demotions at work. What should you do if it happens to you?
Image: Two men work in an office
Good communication with your manager — and really everyone upstream and downstream from you in the organization — is key. svetikd / Getty Images

If you’ve ever gotten a promotion at work, you know how good it feels to be recognized for your all your efforts. A chorus of congratulations from your boss and colleagues can be incredibly inspiring. But as much as that experience can be uplifting, the opposite is true for a demotion at work. It can quickly depress and demoralize. And it happens much more often than people may think.

Nearly half of all human resources managers reported seeing employee demotions at their company, and more than 1 in 10 workers have been demoted at some point in their career, according to a new survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam. While a few of the demotions were voluntary or attributable to company restructuring, 39 percent were due to poor performance, and 38 percent were due to an employee who failed to meet expectations following a promotion.

More than 1 in 10 workers have been demoted at some point in their career.

In today’s market, companies are more likely to demote a poor performer than they are to fire a poor performer, explains OfficeTeam District President Brandi Britton. “Rather than firing someone, thus losing the knowledge base that they have, companies may prefer to keep the employee and just demote them to a role where they’re more likely to be successful.” Although the concept of taking a step back in your career may sound daunting, there are ways to both handle a demotion with grace and regain your upward trajectory. Here are the steps.

Read the tea leaves

Demotions generally don’t come out of the blue. There are often signs that your performance is not up to par, Britton explains. It could be that you failed to meet targets or quotas, that you had a breakdown in communication with your supervisor, or perhaps you received a formal warning. Pay attention to those signals — even if what you’re hearing makes you feel demoralized.

It may be that on the day you’re demoted, you’ll need to take some time to reflect on your next move — don’t feel pressure to have a lengthy discussion with your boss right then and there, explains Morag Barrett, partner at Lead Star, an international leadership and executive development firm. But eventually you’ll need to find out where you were lacking in your performance, so look to schedule a follow-up meeting where you can go in with a list of prepared questions.

Make the choice

If you are demoted, you essentially have three choices, Barrett says. “You can choose to stay at the company and re-dedicate yourself to thriving in your role, you can stay at the company and become bitter and complain about how unfair it was that you were demoted, or you can leave the company and take your demotion as a signal that the organization wasn’t a good fit for you,” she says. But if you opt to stay and complain, your supervisors and colleagues will eventually start to view you as a toxic influence, and you may find yourself dismissed, she cautions. “The goal is that you handle it as gracefully as possible. You have to make a conscious choice to stay or go, but you can’t be half in and half out.”

If you decide to stay in your new (or old) position, you’ll want to discuss what steps you can take to improve, Britton says. “Ask what you need to do better. Create a path of action items that you need to accomplish,” she explains. “Most importantly, don’t perceive this as a bad thing that means your career is over — some people have been promoted prematurely in this economy and they just need more development.”

How to work your way back

Rather than clamoring to try and get your old role back as quickly as possible (which could anger your manager), talk to him or her about what you can do to earn back their trust. In other words, acknowledge your mistakes and the fact that you have things to work on before you can get back to where you were, Britton says.

If your manager offers specific feedback on skills that you’re lacking, listen closely to the critique, Barrett suggests. “If you’re told that you need a skill you know you already possess, then figure out a way to better showcase that skill. Or, if you’re told you need to gain a skill that you don’t have, figure out how to acquire it.” If a training plan isn’t available in your role, then look to create one for yourself, Britton advises. “Oftentimes people are afraid to ask questions or admit that they need support, but you should never be afraid to admit what you don’t know. People respect leaders who don’t know everything,” she says.

One surprising thing about demotions is that they often follow on the heels of a promotion.

Setting yourself up for success

One surprising thing about demotions is that they often follow on the heels of a promotion. Employees who failed to live up to expectations of a new role sometimes find themselves right back where they started. With that in mind, it’s important to be especially vigilant about your performance following a title change, Barrett says. “First, go out for a drink and celebrate, then sit down and ask yourself, ‘How do I succeed?’ Don’t try to run before you can walk. Listen, ask questions and find out what’s working and what’s not in your department before you start making changes.”

Good communication with your manager — and really everyone upstream and downstream from you in the organization — is key, she says. After all, how will you know you’re on target if you aren’t communicating about what “good performance” really looks like? “Never be afraid to ask for more guidance,” Britton says. “Many people think ‘I’ll just wait to talk to my manager until they check in with me,’ but you should schedule regular meetings with your manager to discuss progress and performance.” In other words, the more often you can show that you’re being proactive and eager to learn, the better.

With Kathryn Tuggle


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.