How to turn demotion into an opportunity to boost your career

02 November 2015 -


Losing seniority through a demotion can be a demoralising experience, but treating it in the right way can help give your career a much-needed boost

Jermaine Haughton

After eight years of hard work, and several gruelling interviews, Declan Milton achieved his dream of securing a chief technical officer position at a fast-expanding tech start-up in Toronto. Tasked with masterminding the technical direction of the IT products company, being the external face of the company's technology platform and guiding the firm’s 30+ engineers and coders, the Londoner remarked: “I could not believe my luck.”

Just two years later his luck appeared to run out, as a significant downturn in the company’s revenue and sales saw Milton pushed down the ranks as we lost his position as CTO.

“Our product sales were incredibly slow, getting further investment was difficult as the dotcom crash had made many cautious, and we could not compete with larger IT companies, who were raising their game,” he said. “High-profile consultants were brought in to help restore the situation, and within the blink of an eye, I lost my position as CTO.”

Demotions are traditionally used to penalise bad performers but are also used by companies to streamline their management teams, and lower staff costs. Deemed too inexperienced to lead the start-up to survival, and replaced by an individual ten years his senior, Milton was demoted to an advisory role helping develop the firm’s dwindling coding and engineer workforce. “I tried to take on the new role with grace, but the downward transition was too overwhelming.”

He quit just six months later and moved back to the UK.

Although less common than employees being fired, demotions can have serious emotional impact. Usually followed by a significant salary cut, managers have to deal with the embarrassment of their colleagues and clients knowing that they have been removed from their position.

Linda Willey, HR director at truck dealership and repair company Nextran Corporation, advises that the negative impact of demotions can be limited by companies if they use the process sparingly, and only when the situation truly calls for it.

“In my experience, it’s been rare, and I believe it should be rare, because you should really do your due diligence when you are promoting to make sure they are a good fit and they have the [right] skill sets,” Willey said. “If a company just has a vacancy and they quickly promote somebody who’s not ready for it just to put a body there, then that’s shame on the management for doing it.”

But as the old saying goes: when one door closes, another opens.

Oprah Winfrey showed that demotion can actually work as a prime opportunity to refocus on your career goals and use it as motivation to prove your doubters. Demoted from her job as news anchor because she 'wasn't fit for TV', she has since become a billionaire media mogul, after starring in her globally-popular Oprah Winfrey Show.

Here are four tips for dealing with demotion and getting your career back on-track:

Pause and reflect

Whether it is for 15 minutes or 15 days, take some time to just sit quietly and reflect on the demotion. It is only natural for an individual to panic and for anxiety to set in. Work out what new role you will be taking on and why you were removed from the senior position, ideally through a follow-up meeting with your HR or line manager.

Don’t take it personally

While you may feel like shouting wildly at your boss, resisting the temptation to lash out is vital to not making the situation worse by burning bridges, especially if you plan to remain at the company. Understand that the demotion is likely the result only one or two people’s feedback and not a universal appraisal.

Head to pastures new?

Grab a pen and paper and list the positives and negatives of staying at the company in a lesser role, and then decide whether you are willing to take on the new position. If not, you can build a solid plan to seek work elsewhere in a role you feel more suited to your experience and expertise.

A fresh start at a new place may leave you unencumbered by the emotional baggage that might otherwise hold you back.

Work out your strengths and weaknesses

Use the feedback from your boss to outline your weaknesses, and what made you unsuccessful in a senior position. Ask for them to provide evidence of times you proved yourself unsuitable for the managerial position.

By understanding perceived weaknesses, demoted workers can focus on developing those skills to place themselves in a better position should another senior position arise.

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