how to announce a demotion to the rest of your team

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 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 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.

How do we make this announcement to the company (we are about 30 people) and the department?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 75 comments… read them below }

    1. Persephone Mulberry

      On a semi-related note, Alison, could you look into changing your site settings so that links open in a new window/tab? It might be a site-wide setting or a box you have to check for each post, but it should be a pretty simple adjustment (and I’m sure your super awesome web developer person can point you in the right direction if needed).

      1. jhhj

        Please don’t. It’s easy to force open in a new tab; it’s a pain when things open in tabs unexpectedly/unwantedly.

        1. LBK

          I would agree here…it’s easy enough to either right-click -> open in new tab or just hold Ctrl/Cmd while you click the link. Forced new tabs/windows has been phased out of preferred web design standards at this point, as far as I’m aware.

        2. AMT

          Seconded. I never expect links to open in new tabs, and if I want a new tab, I’ll just Ctrl-click. Sites that always use new tabs are non-standard and frustrating to navigate.

      2. Lindrine

        As nice as it can be for some, it is now the best practice in web design to let the user choose. You should be able to change this in browser settings.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Thanks! I’m doing six a month for them, so each month there will be two weeks with two and two weeks with just one.

      On the tabs opening in the same window: This comes up occasionally, but the upshot is that some people hate having links force-opened in a new window, but you can make it happen yourself by the way you click on it! If you want to make it open in a new window, yourself, just right-click and use the “open in new tab” option or hold Ctrl (or Cmd on a Mac) while you click.

      1. C Average

        Or, if you’re on a PC, click the link with your center mouse button and it will automatically open in a new tab. (The day I learned this my life changed, seriously.)

        1. Lead, Follow or Get Outta the Way!

          Can I tell you how much I love you for this? I had no idea…hmph, learn something new everyday!

        2. Rebecca Z

          This is awesome! Another life changing learning I just had – hitting CTRL SHIFT T will reopen a the tab you just closed by accident.

      2. Lily in NYC

        The stock photo is way too normal! Alison, it is so weird to see your real photo on the inc. site. When I picture you in my head, you are the cartoon at the top of the page here.

        1. Joey

          Yeah, I still see the pre-teacup picture in my head. I feel like this new picture of Alison is an imposter.

        1. Unlinked

          Most are long press on the link to get the context menu, then select the option. Which can be awkward as hell to manage if you are on your phone.

      3. LAMM

        On some phones you can open the link in a new tab by pressing and holding on it. A window will pop up and you can select “open in new tab”

  1. AdAgencyChick

    I wish this happened more often, so that being demoted doesn’t have to be something to be embarrassed about.

    I’m a firm believer in the Peter Principle. It so often happens in my industry that people who are great at executing on projects turn out to be terrible managers. When that happens, there’s no clear path back to the old role. I would love to see a system in which it’s perfectly normal for employees and companies to recognize when a promotion isn’t working out, and in which everyone knows that stepping back to an old role means that the employee is valued in that role.

    1. C Average

      Ditto.

      I know of at least two people in my department who tried their hand at managing, found it not to be a good fit, and returned to their old roles, at which they’re excellent. I love that this can happen here.

      Also, when I think of these two specific people, I think they bring a keener awareness of the challenges of managing others to their subordinate/individual contributor roles now, which makes them better at operating within the hierarchy. I’ve heard both of them praise their managers for things that a direct report typically wouldn’t notice, and I think it’s because they now know just how hard it is to be a good manager. They’re both humble, conscientious people, which goes a tremendous ways in a situation like this.

      1. louise

        Yup. I used to work in a medical office and one of the clinical staff had been the office manager for a couple years before I worked there. She said she HATED it and missed her patients. She was the easiest of all the clinical staff to work with because she understood how important chart notes and other things were to the admin staff and always gave us what needed without any prompting. We loved her for it. She also cut us a lot of slack when things were out of control with the schedule or some other things because she understood how tough the admin side can be. She was also incredibly respectful of the current office manager because she knew that’s a hard job.

    2. Elizabeth West

      Yes, not everyone is cut out for management, or if they’re already a departmental supervisor, for upper management. This happened at an old job–a decent manager was promoted but while he could handle everything at the middle level, the upper level just seemed to overwhelm him.

    3. Jessica

      I also feel like sometimes, when people are offered a management promotion, they feel pressured to take it even if they don’t think it is the right time, like this is their one shot. Then it could end up biting them later because they weren’t prepared and it truly does affet their future prospects if they end up demoted or fired. Is there a good way to say you’re not ready for a management role, without making it seem like you never want one?

      1. the_scientist

        This sort of happened to me- at my old job, when our second project manager in less than a year announced their resignation some team members made noise about how I should consider applying for the role. It wasn’t a done deal, though- I would have had to apply, interview, and compete with internal and external candidates with no guarantee I’d be offered the job- but on the surface it made sense because I’d been with the program for over a year, knew all the management tasks at a superficial level, at least, and knew all the key players and “alliances”.

        I was hesitant for a few reasons: I was only a year out of grad school at the time and I was worried that ditching analytical/methodology/study design skills early on would make me less competitive for analytical/methodology roles in other organizations (basically, that I’d be falling behind my peers, skills-wise) and that I’d end up pigeonholing myself very early on in my career. So I declined to apply. It truly didn’t affect my reputation with that organization- in fact, I think the boss was relieved I decided not to enter the competition (if I had, she would have had to train two new people instead of just one)! Having said that, I did ultimately end up leaving the organization shortly after that; I wanted a promotion that they weren’t willing/able to give and I was getting progressively more dis-satisfied with the work I was doing……but I certainly wasn’t “pushed out” for declining a management opportunity.

      2. hbc

        I’m currently in a position that I turned down a couple of years ago. Very small company, when the owner asked if I wanted the head position the first time, I said no way, I wasn’t searching for someone to do my job while covering my other job and learning the new one. When the new guy left, the owner didn’t ask me (maybe thinking I never wanted the job), but I threw my hat into the ring explaining that the situation was different, with more and better support staff, and that I’d basically been covering a lot of that guy’s work for a while.

        We also talked about how we would handle it if I stunk out loud at the job, because they definitely didn’t want to lose me, so a demotion was a possibility. (Still is, I guess. :)

    4. azvlr

      I am glad to see there are other companies that recognize that not every is destined to move “up” to managing others. My company recognizes several paths – some lead to managing others, some lead to becoming the resident expert, there is a lateral path, and a path that allows someone fewer responsibilities. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know this, because I don’t see myself as a manager, and may at some point need to step back to care for family.
      Having such a healthy outlook on the situation in the first place is going to be good for morale.

  2. NJ Anon

    We will soon be going through a similar scenerio. My e.d. is planning a major re-org and one or two people are going to be, in effect, demoted. What’s worse, one of the directors being promoted has a subordinate that my e.d. wants to make the director. So they will basically be swapping out. In other words, the “director-soon-to-be-former-director” will be reporting to the “subordinate-soon-to-be-director.

    When the e.d. let me know of her plans, I asked if she was going to be ready to handle the morale issues this will cause. She said yes and feels it will all shake out within 6 months. Yikes!

  3. A Jane

    Would it also make sense to let the former manager know ahead of time what they’ll say to the organization and how they’ll be communicating it? It seems like both sides are addressing the situation professionally. It might be a nice courtesy to let them know the details and provide some feedback if possible

    1. fposte

      I think that’s a really good idea. It would help Bob not to have to guess what narrative he’s trying to conform to, and it was also be a really good note for making this transition work for him as well as possible.

  4. Lily in NYC

    I feel like the fact that the company is being open with the new hire is great and bodes well – I walked into a new job not knowing that the guy before me had been promoted into it and then placed back in his former role after he didn’t work out. I was clueless and was confused and upset that everyone was really mean to me and wouldn’t give me the time of day. It was two weeks before I figured it out. It pissed me off that they all took their displeasure out on me – like I had anything to do with it. I left after 5 months. Worst job of my life for many reasons (I will hate you forever, Sports Illustrated!).

    1. Jessica

      Because that information is totally not relevant to you… (sarcasm)

      This wasn’t a management role, but there was a rather large software company in my area that tanked in around 2004/2005. Right before this time, they hired a ton of college students to do a job on the cheap, myself being one of them. We all walked into the office the first day, excited for our new job, and got SUCH a cold shoulder from every person there. Daggers being shot at us and even some rude comments made about us. We had no idea why. Took us about a month before someone finally fessed up that they had laid off a whole swath of workers, reworked those positions to be”internships” and we had taken over their jobs for a fraction of what they were being paid. Would have been nice to know what atmosphere we were coming in to! Morale was so low and we never fit in because no one wanted to contribute to any more layoffs, so they went out of their way to not offer any assistance.

      1. Lily in NYC

        Oh man, that stinks. I think I would be nice to incoming employees in these situations that they didn’t cause. It’s kind of like those people who hate everyone their current partner dated before they even met.

      2. Artemesia

        Perfect example for all those people who think ‘internship’ is not just the newest word for scab. I have worked closely with internships both from the college and the business side and am convinced that the laws need to be much tighter and actually enforced. I have seen so many examples of poorly paid or even unpaid interns used to do the basic work of the organization i.e. replacing workers rather than providing an educational experience for students. And I would ban all post grad ‘internships’ where graduates are essentially exploited for little or no money.

        1. Jessica

          That “internship” was terrible!!! I learned nothing but data entry (no data analysis) and got no benefit but a very small paycheck because of it. I had a few internships through college and the only one that really taught me something was the unpaid one I did as part of a degree requirement. It was an awesome experience. But that is SO rare. It seems that intern=cheap/free labor a lot of the time. And get this…even our supervisor was cold and dismissive of us. When your own supervisor is barely helping you, you learn real quick that you are not wanted. I chalk it up to them viewing us as a threat to their jobs, which I’m sure we were.

          1. Artemesia

            I am a big fan of field based experience including internships as part of education and there is a good case to be made that most students should do this sort of thing as part of their coursework at some point. But this means something carefully designed with educational development of the student in mind as well as making a contribution to the organization and it really requires ongoing reflective opportunities. There is tons of research that show most students in ‘school to work’ or internship experiences don’t learn much unless the experiences are carefully designed from both the workplace and academic side.

        2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

          I know that I had interns working for me — and I know that we, as a company, were evaluated as to how we employed our interns.

          Yes, it’s necessary for them to learn the basics – doing a little data entry, separating computer paper, etc. but – if it’s ALL you do — your company’s involvement in the intern program with a university may be terminated.

          I did work in one place where that happened – a guy was exploited because he was put to work running a decollating machine. That’s taking carbon paper out of multi-form printouts.

          Needless to say – the company ended up on a sort of “probation” for that.

  5. JustMe

    Alison! OMG, you are so freaking awesome with your responses to work related issues. This was definitely your calling. I love it.

  6. LBK

    Very timely – one of the sales managers in my department got demoted this week. Management went with the “Bob will be focusing on these other areas” style announcement and it worked pretty well. It’s still pretty obvious what happened but preserves dignity and acknowledges the value that person still holds to the organization.

  7. Serin

    My absolute worst-ever nightmare boss was only a boss because it was the only available way for her to be recognized and rewarded for her contributions. It’s a terrible idea to set up a system like that. Management is a specific skill set, and being an excellent editor or engineer or teacher in no way predicts that you’ll be an excellent (or even bearable) manager.

    1. Carrington Barr

      I know this all too well.

      Both our manager and director had received their positions not because they were so good at their jobs and with people, but because we were expanding and they’d been their the longest. What an absolute shitshow.

  8. AcaStaff

    This sort of things happens frequently in academic departments where Deans and Chairs step down and become “regular” faculty. It always struck me as being a very awkward scenario but it seems to just be a fact of life.

    1. fposte

      A lot of times in academics people are *thrilled* to get out of the chair position, which helps. Helps less when they got kicked downstairs after a scandal or a screwup, of course.

    2. Artemesia

      This is however the norm in academia. Strong academics rarely want to be chair for long and rotating those roles every few years is typical. Even Presidents of universities sometimes return to the faculty and this is not necessarily viewed as a ‘demotion’ but as a choice.

    3. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor

      Agreed. I had this happen in the college I worked for at least twice in the two years I worked there.

    4. Hillary

      A couple years ago I ran into one of my former profs at a party (ten years after graduation we’re in the same broad social circle and have mutual friends). He was chair and had just finished hiring so many new people that the chair wouldn’t rotate back to him before he retired. He was almost giddy.

    5. Mephyle

      My husband would never, never want to be chair of his department or anything of that sort. One day he was going to work, and I was surprised at the way he was dressed – his most faded jeans and a sweatshirt that was unraveling at the edges. I asked him “Are you really going to work dressed like that?” He answered that administration was about to appoint a chairman to head Important Interdepartmental Committee and he wanted to subliminally put himself out of the running.

      1. Revanche

        I love this subversion of the “dress for the job you want” mentality :) and it’s awesome he knows what he doesn’t want to take on. I’ve always felt that was as important as knowing what you want.

  9. FD

    I think it’s great that this company realizes that Bob has great skills, but maybe managing isn’t one of them. Just because someone is an amazing chocolate teapot maker doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll do a good job of managing other teapot makers. In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of times, it seems to go in reverse with skilled jobs. For example, a lot of engineers I know make crappy managers because they’re detail oriented to the point of tunnel vision, and so turn into micro-managers or struggle to see the bigger goals.

  10. Karowen

    Alison, did you ever hear back from this particular writer? I’d love to know how it worked out; whether Bob started job searching, etc.

  11. Artemesia

    I once took over an operation that was badly run and bringing in a new manager and demoting the current manager who did have particular skills but was a disaster in leadership was one of the first steps. Unfortunately the demoted manager made insubordination and undermining his new focus of activity and so eventually I had to fire him in order to give my new manager a chance to succeed.

    It is important to let the demoted person save face and I love the idea of letting him make the announcement that he wants to devote his energies to X and is thus stepping down from management. But it is also critical to keep an eye on his performance and his behavior in the office so that he is not allowed to make life intolerable for the new manager.

    1. Blue Dog

      My former supervisor was brilliant, but not a very good manager. Eventually, the company made the hard decision to “demote” him and put me in his place. I knew this was going to be a potential issue because he had a great reputation as being very smart and a nice person.

      What I asked the head of the company to do was to create a new position that reported directly to the head of the company and “promote” him out of his current position. When he didn’t have work to do for the head of the company, he would backflow with doing work on his old team. This allowed him to save face and was good for everyone (particularly since he then did not feel a need to go around and try to torpedo changes I was asked to implement).

  12. Comms Pro

    I appreciate how Alison sees the different ways in which situations like this can be perceived. It can be a tricky balancing act sometimes. On one hand, if you take a stand and fire someone pretty publicly for incompetence, you send a strong message about meeting standards of performance. But on the other, some will say it speaks to how the company treats people.

    Part of me wants to argue that those in the latter category are probably not your best employees anyway, but it’s not that simple. Even great employees can be shaken by direct management action to correct underperformance.

  13. Iro

    Huh. Have you answered this type of question before? I could have sworn that I have read your last two paragraphs before. They are so general it can go with any “how to demote someone” but it’s serious deja vu to me.

      1. KerryOwl

        Whoops, sorry; I guess my window was open quite a while before I responded! Didn’t mean to be repetitive.

    1. KerryOwl

      Yes. As with every Inc. article, Alison includes this:

      You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

  14. TotesMaGoats

    So, in general I think this is a great way to handle a demotion. However, in specific for this LW, you were giving this guy coaching on how to improve but he willfully ignored it and yet you kept him on? To the point that it sounded like he was on a PIP and refused to improve. I’m totally on board with someone who isn’t good at leadership and goes back of their own accord even though they really tried to improve. It just doesn’t sound like this guy tried at all. Why would you keep someone like that, even for institutional knowledge/skill set?

    1. Not So NewReader

      It sounds like he was doing employee level work just fine- because it says he was completing his subordinates’ incomplete work. It was the management aspects that he did not step up to the plate.

      He was probably too busy finishing everyone else’s work.

      The company seems to understand that the guy could do the actual work, but he could not lead people.

      1. HelloItsMe

        I’ve been in a similar situation where I was sort of demoted (actually I had a guy inserted above me, making it an effective demotion). The reason given was lack of leadership on my part. However, I had accepted a position in an understaffed IT department (isn’t IT always understaffed?) which forced me to do a lot of grunt work to keep up, and with everyone in survival mode, it really did hamper my ability to more effectively lead my team. The company refused my requests to hire additional staff, and instead, hired a new manager over me and moved all my direct reports under him. Not much changed for the better, because the new guy had mostly project management experience and virtually no IT skill sets whatsoever. Another factor was the new guy was married to a longtime employee at the company who was friends with the CEO. So, the rest of us had to continue struggling to keep up with no overall improvement in leadership or bandwidth.

        What I’m getting at is that it’s not always lack of leadership skills. At least, I don’t think it was in my case. If you don’t have the right kind of support and resources from the company, you’re simply not going to succeed as a manager. The lesson I learned is, as best you can, make sure you know you have their full support before you take the job.

  15. BananaPants

    This is how it was handled around 7 years ago when my team’s then-manager was promoted from a technical expert role into management. He’s a brilliant engineer with questionable soft skills, but he wanted to make the move to management. After the first year of his tenure, group morale was in the toilet. For a solid six months the higher-ups had him going to leadership/management training short courses (and he’d come back and report to us the details of what he’d learned), weekly mentoring sessions with his boss, and having us do 360 reviews in hopes that his management skills would improve. He didn’t take it well when he realized it was going badly, and retaliated with horrible performance reviews for the entire team – that combined with several engineers leaving the group (and one leaving the company) caused management to finally pull the plug on the failed experiment before more of us left.

    It was presented as, “Wakeen is transitioning to a new subject matter expert role with a focus on emerging teapot design strategies. Let’s welcome Floyd to his new role as manager of the spout design group!” The entire organization knew that Wakeen was effectively being demoted, but the focus was on his new role and how he was going to be leveraging his technical background in a new way. I think they did it with as much dignity as was possible given the circumstances. That was years ago and he’s done very well being back in a purely technical role. It’s far better to work WITH him than it was to work FOR him.

  16. Not So NewReader

    I am glad Alison mentioned that this could backfire because the guy developed an attitude.
    But it does not seem like it will in this case.

    More of a concern is employee reaction. The guy had been in the position for several years. Employees are probably saying “what took you so long?’ Since deadlines were not being met, the new boss probably had to trouble shoot that problem- which could have made a rough start for him. Hopefully, the company let him know that he had some clean up work to do.

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