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Jaldert Maat works at Fujitsu as Head of Capability Development for the Products division in the cluster Western Europe, Middle East and Africa (WEMEI).
SMÖRGÅSJOBB | Asking for a demotion to further your career
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Asking for a demotion to further your career

As I have explained in my post on Career Basics, not all progression in your career needs to be vertical and linear. While it is very possible to advance through a single occupation at a single company, most people will find themselves switching jobs and sometimes even making drastic changes in their careers.

There are a number of reasons why, at some point during your professional life, you may accept or even ask for a demotion (or apply for a job beneath your current seniority).

One such time can be when you have actually accepted a promotion, but find that you are not a good fit with your new position after all. Perhaps you are not as able to fulfill the new job requirements as anticipated, or the additional time spent and workload causes problems in your work-life balance. After evaluating for a reasonable amount of time (half a year is often a good measure) you may decide that you cannot continue in this role as it stands.

This is not a case of “comfort zone” where you feel scared to move from a safe and well-known position to an entirely new role. Nor is it “impostor syndrome” where you believe that you could never fulfill this role, and you merely got this role by bluffing your way through.

There is a certain threshold where anyone, upon inspection, find themselves simply unable to meet the standards of their new jobs. Many people are capable of recognizing this point in time before accepting a promotion, but those who do not find themselves “promoted to incompetence“.

At such a time, it actually shows great awareness and insight to approach your manager and explain the reasons why you might want to return to your former position. After all, your loyalty to your company is great enough that you do not wish to leave, nor do you want to wait for your performance to drop or illness to set in before addressing the issue.

Demotion is not punishment, but it comes at a price

When you ask for (or receive) a demotion, don’t see it as a punishment for trying and failing. You may have found that there is a limit on your current ability, and it is one you feel you cannot compensate for with training or experience right now.

From here on, you could choose to either tackle your weak point and be ready for trying again in the future, or you can decide that the additional effort and stress might not be worth the compensation you receive from the promoted role.

Yes, asking for a demotion from a higher role, especially if it was a management role, will hurt your chances for being promoted again. No matter how you present it, you did not see the threshold where you were not yet ready to advance, and convincing others you have remedied this flaw will be difficult.

Be clear in your CV and profile that you asked to be demoted to re-evaluate your capabilities and that you have improved your performance and capability. Cut off the questions why you were demoted, and take the opportunity to tell the story as you want it. Remain, at all times, in control of your path.

Demotion (or applying below your seniority) as an advancement strategy

Secondly, a demotion can be a good way to access another company or department which provides better career opportunities. If your company has limited spots for advancement, and any that open up are often passed to people from outside your department, it might be time to look into this option.

Say that you are a project manager in an IT company. You have advanced to Senior Project Manager, but there are few options of advancing further, and management positions are often filled using external recruitment. 

However, you have a good commercial insight, and quite some knowledge of your company’s customer markets. In addition, your company’s Sales department is running a number of teams that deal with larger sales deals.

You decide to apply for a position as Bid Manager, a medior role. It has quite a lot of similarities to project management, and requires the time and budget management skills of a senior project manager. Having good insight in markets and customers makes you more than suited for the role, even though you do not have skills to move into a Senior Bid Manager position.

Once you have this position, there is now room to grow, whether becoming a Senior Bid Manager, or moving into a management position. Should you still be dissatisfied with your advancement options, you now have experience that allows you to enter both Project and Sales roles. By accepting a less advanced role, and expanding your skill set, you have greatly improved your future advancement prospects.

Reframing a demotion when you are job hunting

A demotion or dismissal for performance are both things that can put a mark on your resume, and make finding a future job at that seniority level a lot higher. Not only would you need the capability to explain your demotion or dismissal, but also accept the uncertainty that comes when your previous management is asked for a reference.

There is little to be done about the event itself – a demotion or dismissal for whatever reason is just what it is. What you can affect however, is how you deal with the after effects. Perhaps you were demoted because you were not good as a team leader – you could choose to educate yourself to bridge that gap, and chalk the experience down as a harsh but necessary learning experience. If you feel you really lack this skill and cannot make up for it, you have gained valuable insights in your capability and likely will not apply for jobs requiring team leadership.

Reframing such events as learning experiences not only allows you to spin it positively at a job interview, but more importantly gives you an avenue of self-improvement. This shows you have a vision for the future and take active control in your life, which are valuable skills at any level.

In the end, people are not turned down for their failures. They are turned down for failing to learn from them.

Jaldert Maat
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