how to announce a demotion

A reader writes:

We have a manager who we are replacing due to performance issues. He’s a long-time employee who has a lot of skills that are beneficial to the company but since his promotion to management a couple of years ago, he has not been managing his department. Rather, he continues to complete incomplete work of his employees, doesn’t motivate them to work to deadlines, and overall just isn’t managing his department. We have tried for 8 months to coach him but he chooses to do what he thinks is important rather than what the owners require of him. 

So, we are going to replace him, but keep him in the company. He’ll still work in the same department, same office, same salary (frozen for a while). We have told him of our decision. He understandably pushed back a bit, but he recognizes that he still has a job. He brings a lot to the table. He just won’t be managing the department, and he’ll have a new boss. 

We set the bar very high for candidates and found a great candidate, with years of managing in our industry (something that the previous guy did not have), and overall a great set of credentials and attributes that meet our criteria. We extended the offer, and he accepted. We were completely honest with him about why we were looking to fill this position, and when we sat down with him, he immediately expressed his sensitivity to the situation and made us feel at ease with how he would handle the transition with the former department head and how to best utilize his talents and skill sets. So, both people knew going into this what was going to happen. 

I’m looking for any pointers on how to make this announcement to the company (we are about 30) and the department. Any advice will be appreciated.

The most diplomatic way to frame this is probably to announce that because the old manager is going to be focusing more on ___, you’re bringing in someone new to manage the department.

But no matter how diplomatic you are about it, even though you’re not explicitly saying “Bob was a bad manager,” it’s pretty likely that people are going to read between the lines and understand that Bob was just demoted. There’s not a lot you can do about that; it’s the reality of the situation. All you can do is try to protect Bob’s dignity and help him save face to the extent possible.  (Speaking of which, make sure you have a matter-of-fact attitude with him and others about it; if you’re giving off “poor Bob” vibes, it’ll make it more awkward for him.)

It’s worth noting that of the employees who figure out what happened, they’re likely to see this in one of two ways: Some will think it was really nice of the company to keep Bob rather than firing him outright, and this might even engender more loyalty in those people (“they treated Bob well, so they’ll probably treat me well”). Others might be annoyed that Bob kept his job after months of poor performance and may see favoritism or weak management there. There’s not really any action to take there; these are just things that you want to be aware of.

Also, over the coming months, make sure you periodically check in with the new manager about how things are going with Bob. Some people in Bob’s shoes would be relieved to be back in a position where they could excel. Others would quietly start job-searching. But others might become resentful and bitter, which can be toxic. If it’s the latter, you want to make sure the new manager is attuned enough to quickly spot it and address it.

What do others think? Would you want it handled differently if you were demoted?

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Well, first be aware that this type of thing doesn't tend to work well, on average: Few people in Bob's position can really handle being managed once they were used to managing themselves. You'll also find that the people who are now on Bob's level (since Bob moved down) may want to take out frustrations or dislikes on Bob.

    Rather than a demotion, consider a restructuring: find out what Bob does well, create a job where he does that, and go for it. But it sounds like you're trying to straddle a fence here; my money is on a failure in time.

    If you really DO want to keep Bob, then you need to take steps to make sure he doesn't get miserable and quit *(or that he doesn't get in a fight with the new manager and get fired.) You'll have a better time doing that if you put Bob in a different department and a different office, with a different sign on his door. (tag line: Not a Demotion, Just A Change!!)

  2. Ask a Manager*

    Very true. I've seen people in Bob's position actually stay and work out; these are the people who (a) are truly relieved because they knew they were in over their heads and (b) have pretty healthy egos. But far more often, it doesn't work in the long-run, for the reasons you described.

    It's important for the employer to be very clear on how committed they are to keeping the person and why. It may be better to let a more natural parting of the ways occur.

  3. Anonymous*

    Actually, I wouldn't feel any of the ways your article mentions about the old manager. I would feel sorry for him and perhaps have a little less respect. However, I kmow how companies are and I am sure he has his side of the story. So, over time it will all blow over anyway.

    The worst thing they can do at this time is make the old manager train his replacement. The new manager should be coached to not ask the old manager questions. That would just add insult to injury.

  4. Anonymous*

    I find it interesting that while the old manager couldn't motivate his department, the company couldn't motivate the manager. Sounds like a potential problem in the company. But maybe the new manager can get things going again.

  5. Anonymous*

    I for one would be very appreciative that the company recognized the skills I did have and wanted to keep me around.

    I like the fact that they are keeping his salary and keeping him in the same office, less visible impact.

    Currently I'm in a supervisory role (and have been for several years) but recently I've come to realize that I'm happier in a support role. I wish I had the option to step back, but it's not 'allowed' in my current place of business, they'd rather I quit. So, I'm currently looking for a job that's a better fit.

  6. Charles*

    Not sure if this will help or not; But, I worked for a company where folks would serve a "term" as manager then go back to their old job. Mostly, it was because they finished their term; However, sometimes they would not work out and they would go back to their old job before their term was up. Terms were a set time limit so the whole company knew when someone was leaving before her term was up.

    Either way one phrase that was always used was. "As of such and such a date, Bob will be stepping down as XYZ and move to ABC. We thank him for his work as XYZ manager. Bob will now be working on ABC where he brings a lot to the table, etc, etc, etc."

    I've emphasized the "stepping down" as this let everyone know that Bob is now done as manager and that all management business should go to New Person (whomever was now in charge). I'm not sure if it will sound as good for you as it did in the company that I worked for; as there it was normal for someone to step down as the end of her term. (we still read between the lines when somone didn't finish her term)

    The announcement would always include who the new manager would be. This way the announcement was not singly out either party but was telling employees what the new arrangement would be.

    And, as Anon at 1:53 says – do NOT use Bob as a mentor in any way, shape, or form for the new manager. If he offers suggestions – that's great; but don't force it, don't expect it.

  7. Anonymous*

    Um, he's now a worker bee, but is still being paid management salary? That is going to create serious dischord with the other workers! They will wonder, rightly so, why he gets so much more EVEN WHEN he failed at his last job. How is that fair?

  8. Anonymous*

    OP here. The comments so far are all good for this thought exercise. I would argue we are not trying to straddle the fence. We do want to bill this as a restructuring, but we can't put Bob in a different dept/office/etc. There are still a lot of things that need to get done that fit Bob's skillset. As I mentioned, the new guy has a lot of industry specific experience, whereas neither this current manager, nor his employees had any before coming here. The industry specific stuff has been OJT for them. Here now we have an opportunity to bring in someone in a leadership role, with industry specific experience, who can not only better manage, but better mentor the department.

    I think it's good advice to not let the old manager train the new one. Thanks. As far as motivation goes, we have several upper managers and they all meet their departmental goals, whether financial, structural, project oriented, etc. We're very clear with our expectations with each, so while I appreciate the chance for reflection and introspection, we have asked ourselves those questions.

    Keep'em coming!

  9. Anonymous*

    Based on what the OP had to say about Bob's skills being invaluable to the company, I have a slight feeling his prior performance was rewarded with a management position. It's important to remember that management is an entirely different skillset, and often times doesn't even require a mastery of the tasks performed by the department itself. In the long-run, everyone is better off remembering that a great employee does not always make a great manager.

  10. Anonymous*

    OP again. Re: worker bee…Bob has 20-25 years of relevant (but not specific) experience over his current direct reports. He would be a senior specialist or whatever in any case under this structure, getting paid a lot more than folks 1-2 years out of college. His salary is frozen for the next two years, and salaries are confidential (no published ranges).

  11. GeekChic*

    Hey OP: Tough situation. Just saw this very thing happen at my current place of work. This is how it was handled: The company posted the person's job and at the same time the employee being demoted made the official announcement. Now, they didn't use the word demoted – in fact, here is what they said:

    "I'd like to thank for the opportunity to manage. I've realized that I need to spend more time with my family so I'm returning to my former role as . I'm very appreciative for all of my work here at . Best of luck to the new manager."

    The new manager has now been hired and both staff members are getting along fine.

    I don't know if this will work for you OP (given your demoted person's attitude) but I hope it helps.

  12. Ask a Manager*

    GeekChic — Interesting! Maybe it's because I'm in D.C. where politicians always use it to cover something up, but I always read "spending more time with my family" to mean "someone forced me out." But I like the general idea and could see the manager — if they really felt this way, although it sounds like Bob might not — saying "I tried it, I like working as an individual better, and the company is letting me move back to the role I enjoyed more."

  13. Kat*

    I've seen many "Bob's" over the years who were promoted above their ability to a management position, only to fail. Most of the time, it was a relief to be demoted. I think what will be interesting is to see how this undermanaged department will function now they don't have someone who is covering for them, doing unfinished work and will likely have to work harder or more efficiently.

  14. Henning Makholm*

    It sounds to me that Bob doesn't like to manage, and would much rather be a specialist again. It is telling that amidst the recitation of managery things he doesn't do, is a thing he actually does: complete his employees' incomplete work! That's not a sign of someone who slacks off deliberately.

    This hypothesis does not contradict that Bob now "pushes back a bit" — nobody particularly likes to admit that they've failed at something they thought they could do.

    It is clear that both Bob and the person who promoted him made a mistake when they thought that being good at the actual work meant that he would be a good manager. It speaks extremely well of the OP's company that they're not trying to pin all the blame for that bad judgment on Bob alone. (Most businesses say that they want employees who'd take a swing at a challenge, even though they may fail, rather than ones who never take risk for fear of the consequences of failure. Many do not act accordingly. Props to you for doing so!)

    To be sure, the exact bit about "spending time with family" is rather thin worn, and should be replaced with something closer to the truth. How about saying right out that you've concluded that Bob is more valuable to the company as a Senior Frobnitzer than he is as Director of Frobnitzing, so you're bringing in a new DoF so Bob can be free to do what Bob does particularly well?

    In a company as small as 30 people, everybody will know more or less what happened anyway. The most important goal for the actual announcement would be to avoid a negative spin that could poison the workplace atmosphere.

  15. The Plaid Cow*

    One thing that I really appreciated at my former company was the number of levels you could contribute at, whether it be as a manager or an individual contributor. If someone who managed a section (10-20 people) wished to move out of management, they could move *sideways* to a department staff position so they still had the same level of boss in the hierarchy.

    In general, I think companies need to make it easier to have a growth path both as a manager and as an individual contributor.

  16. Jamie*

    I think it's great that the company is giving him this option.

    As has been mentioned, a lot of companies only have two paths: up or out instead of concentrating on getting the right fit.

    That said – as AAM said in her comment you have to have a pretty healthy ego for this to work, so I wouldn't be surprised if Bob started looking. The same position at another company may be more palatable without the stigma of having been demoted.

  17. GeekChic*

    AAM: It was interesting how things were handled. I asked my now colleague if she was told what to say and she said no.

    She honestly felt that one of her big problems was that she resented the amount of time management took her away from her family (versus a less senior role). She said she appreciated being asked to write the announcement.

  18. Anonymous*

    A year and a half ago, I was demoted after less than six months working at the company I am still working for. It took place in the middle of a small reorg and my title changed from "Director" to "Team Lead", but not much changed in my daily tasks, my direct reports or my salary (I am still in the range for my new position). My demotion wasn�t announced, but the ones who were able to read between the lines got it. I was told by my boss that I wasn�t doing good enough and was demoted, that I would have a new title (it took more than three months before HR followed up with me) and that my new boss (that I didn�t knew at that time) would contact me. End of the discussion.

    Failing is hard. I chose to stay in this position to prove to myself that I am capable to do good and because I didn't want to leave feeling I was running away. I am also lucky and I am learning a lot from my new director. My ego was severely bruised, but it gave me a good experience as a manager. I will never keep someone in the dark about his performances (good or bad) and I will never keep in my team someone I don�t believe in. Groom or broom. If I ever have to demote someone, I will make sure that I have the courage to talk this through with the person. I will make sure that everyone knows that I believe enough in the person to keep her around while giving her all the support she needs to polish her skills or find a new position. It will not be the best times, but I will make sure the person gets all the respect she deserves. I will simply care.

  19. Anonymous*

    In any case, please do make a clear announcement to everyone on who is doing what as to when. We had someone who resigned as manager and reverted back to their former role, but no announcement was ever made and it was just awful.

    The people working for her kept coming to her. After a few months, she eventually had to tell them herself as things came up that she wasn't managing anymore. It was chaotic and created this atmosphere where some knew, some didn't; it made everything look very ominous (when the reason for the resignation was not necessarily so); it created confusion as to who to go for even routine matters, not to mention things like annual leave and personnel matters.

  20. Anonymous*

    OP, this is worker bee here: the statement "salary is confidential" is used to cover a lot of discrimination and abuses. Continuing a manager salary for a non-manager is one of these and believe me, the co-workers will know.

  21. Anonymous*

    Let me add:

    In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

    – The Peter Principle

    Companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management in order to limit the amount of damage they're capable of doing. Leadership is nature's way of removing morons from the productive flow.

    – The Dilbert Principle

  22. Dave C*

    I'm a huge fan of "First Break All the Rules" and "Now Discover Your Strengths". Using that as a filter, this is an easy one. Bob has great talent for IC work. He's been doing it successfully for 20-25 years and thought he might like a change. With the company's blessing, Bob tried out management. Turned out he didn't have the same talent for this work, and as a result didn't perform as well and wasn't nearly as happy in the new job. So we're reversing the decision. Lesson learned. Bob goes back to what he does well with the perspective that its exactly what he loves and what he's good at.

    I guess the important point here was that it's pitched as Bob's decision more than the company's. Even if it's not 100% true, it sends a great message that great employees are ultimately responsible for their own career paths.

  23. Anonymous*

    You may want to consider asking Bob to announce himself that he is stepping down. Not everyone has the right mentality for this, but some do. Allowing him to make the announcement may restore some of his pride by making him feel like he's in control, and would quell the rumors and assumptions the rest of the staff make.

    Also, definitely tell the new manager what's up before they start. If you don't explain the situation, you are setting them up for failure. In fact, I would tell them before they accept the offer. Not everyone wants to step into a role like that where there is likely to be discord.

  24. Anonymous*

    8 months of coaching and he continues to do what he thinks is important rather than whats required..

    And the answer is demotion? In the SAME department, same office? Dear Lord.. I once worked for this company. Key word – once.

    Speaking from the perspective of the new guy brought in to 'fix' a similar situation, you're screwing them both. The old guy has to go, not necessarily out the door, but out of the area. Consultant, whatever, but having him remain will create loyalty and boss issues regardless of how well communicated.

    In your layout, the new guy won't get a fair start, his decisions will be run past the old guy to make sure everything is good. The 'let's run this past Jim' double check, usurping authority, is okay at first, but it doesn't go away. Soon there are 2 people in 1 job. The new guy starts to wonder just how secure their job is.. they've fixed everything, the area runs great & the old guy has more job knowledge – knowledge they won't share.

    This isn't about personalities meshing, its survival. Teamwork becomes a landmine, with ego issues and information withheld. On purpose. The old guy uses this opportunity to save face. Intentionally or not, he'll hang the new guy out to dry. The competition never goes away but mark my words, the new guy will.

    I lived this. I turned the area around, made $$$ saving long term improvements, decreased turnover yet fired slackers, hard workers were happy, smiling, brought in capable people, work was running smooth. I got fantastic reviews but I hated it. I felt used and often left out. It didn't change after I voiced my concerns.

    I guess it worked out for them, (maybe.. I've heard the same problems are back) but even if things were going great there, I would never recommend that company. It's a lousy feeling to be used, kwim?

  25. iris n.*

    I personally like Charles' input about how to word the information, in such a way as to be clear about who will be moving out, and who will be moving in, by stating in a similar way–"As of __ date, Bob will be stepping down as manager. We thank him for his work as manager at _Company XYZ_, and wish him all the best in his future endeavors (or name what his new position/company will be)…Bob will be replaced by John, who brings to the table, lots of new ideas and talents to the company.

    Of, if the company really wants to keep Bob, then they will probably have to make an announcement so as to make it sound as if Bob is "transferring" positions to use his talents/experiences in the new position, and that the replacement, John, will be moving in to bring fresh new ideas to the table.

    I see how seniority and office politics might cause such a situation that a manager is "demoted" but is sort of kept within the company as to not feel "thrown-out". Honestly, however, its either "good" or "bad", is it not? If a more qualified individual was found for the job, then Bob is definitely getting demoted, so he needs to either receive extra training to get more qualifications that he becomes competitive enough, or he needs to find a position where he is still competent enough. Its not fair to the new manager, to the employees, or to Bob himself, if he's still paid the same salary, despite being "unofficially demoted."

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