How to Cope with Being Demoted at Work: A Complete Guide

Demotions are no fun. But there’s no reason to let it define you.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a man sitting on a crashing rocket surrounded by falling money

You feel like your career is going great. You’re moving up the ladder, have an impressive job title and all the responsibilities you’ve ever wanted. But then the unthinkable happens: you’re demoted.

You may be thinking “What did I do wrong?” or “What do I do now?”, and that’s completely understandable. You’re going to want to regroup and think about how to cope with the feeling of rejection you’re probably being plagued with.

In this article, we’re going to cover what a demotion is, some of the reasons behind it, how to cope with it, and how to move on from it so your career doesn’t suffer in the long term.

What is a demotion?

A demotion is when your employer changes your role so that you have less responsibility (and a lower salary) than you used to. This can sometimes mean your employer moves you to a different department, or it could mean you’re simply being moved further down the company hierarchy. Whichever way you think about it, it sucks.

Reasons for being demoted

As you can imagine, there are quite a few reasons why you could be demoted within a company. Here are some of the main ones:

1. You’ve been pulled for misconduct

If you’ve been pulled up for misconduct, you could be next in line for a demotion — especially if you continued doing what you’d been asked not to. The company wants to deter people from breaking the rules and, unfortunately, you’re the scapegoat.

2. You don’t complete your work

If you regularly miss deadlines and have to be chased up, there’s a good chance you could face demotion at work due to poor performance. No manager wants to micromanage their employees, and they’ll punish you by giving you less responsibility (and work), and give the position to someone able to meet the deadlines they set.

3. The company is restructuring

Sometimes, being shifted down the career ladder isn’t a consequence of anything you’ve done — but due to a simple restructure within the company. It could be that the restructure means that departments are being combined and the role you’re in is now obsolete.

4. The company is making layoffs

If the company is struggling, they might have to make the tough decision to lay off certain employees — and, unfortunately, that could be you. In this case, a demotion is a blessing in disguise, as at least you still have a job, unlike your unlucky coworkers who got given their layoff letter.

5. You requested less responsibility

Sometimes, work is just too much, and you’re running the risk of burnout. You might have lots of responsibilities at home that take priority, so you might have asked for less responsibility to avoid poor work–life balance. Even if this is the case, it can still be difficult to deal with and come to terms with moving backward instead of forward.

6. Your physical health is suffering

In a similar theme to the previous point, you might need to take a step down in order to look after your own physical health. In fact, research shows that the expected pace put upon the US workforce is to blame for many health issues, including an increase in stress and lack of sleep.

How to cope with being demoted

So, now you know the reasons you might be demoted, it’s time to learn how to cope with it if it does happen. While you might want to wallow in bed and feel sorry for yourself, that isn’t the best course of action.

1. Speak to your supervisor

The best way to find out the reason behind your demotion is to speak to your line manager. This way, you’re heading straight to the source to find out why you’re in the (almost) firing line.

You need to take steps to find out why this is happening so you can avoid it happening again in the future. Plus, speaking to your manager will show them that you’re passionate about the role and want to improve, and it will also give you the chance to learn more about your new role and the pay cut that you’ll receive.

2. Assess your next steps

Once you’ve received feedback from your manager, it’s time to do some self-reflection. Think about the reasoning you were given for your demotion, and see if there’s any way for you to fix it. For example, if your demotion is due to poor performance, initiate talks with your manager about taking some training courses to improve your work life and your skills.

3. Ask for a detailed performance review

After speaking with your supervisor, it’s worth asking for a detailed review of your performance, as this document will have it, in black and white, why you were the one on the chopping block. Take the information and use it to improve in the areas you’re lacking.

4. Develop your skill set

What better time to upskill? If you’re taking the demotion on the chin, it’s time to up your game and begin upskilling in the areas they feel you’re struggling in. That way, if a promotion opportunity comes up in the future, you can show them evidence of your drive and ambition.

5. Create an action plan

Take the demotion as an opportunity to learn and grow. Take some time and energy to create an action plan for the next six months to help give you something to aim for. It might be that you want to spend more time networking with professionals, or you want to shadow a senior member of the team. Write these down and check them off as you complete them.

Andy Golpys, founder of MadeByShape, says: “Concentrate on identifying concrete steps you can take to regain confidence. Seek opportunities to invest in professional development training for yourself.”

6. Reach out to your support network

It doesn’t matter how positive you are, being demoted will affect your confidence. Make sure you reach out to your support network so you have someone to rant to in a safe space. Get it all off your chest! You never know: they might have some nuggets of wisdom to share with you to help you move on.

7. Contest the decision

If you feel that the demotion isn’t fair and that there isn’t just cause for it to happen, you can contest the decision. This is only a viable option if there isn’t a good cause behind the demotion, like layoffs, disciplinary issues or violations of your employment contract.

If you feel that your performance was up to scratch and there wasn’t a valid reason for your demotion, it’s best to seek legal advice before proceeding.

8. Stay professional

Don’t become the office gossip. Remain professional when discussing the demotion (as hard as it might be). This will show the higher-ups that you’re a self-confident person with the right mindset to progress in the future. If you go around badmouthing everyone and everything, it won’t get you anywhere but further down the ladder.

9. Keep your network

If you decide to accept the demotion, make sure you keep in contact with your professional network. You never know when another (better) position will become available, and your contacts could be the ones to make you aware of it.

10. Figure out if you’re staying or leaving

You need to figure out if being demoted is too big of a blow to your ego to continue working at the company. Assess whether you feel there’s room to develop your career with the company, or if they’re holding you back from something better. If it’s the latter, then it’s best to move on to better things and begin searching for a new job.

How to move on from a demotion

When all is said and done, a demotion isn’t the end of the world. Although you might feel sensitive for a while, there will come a time when you need to get back on the horse — or your career will suffer in the long term.

Here are a few ways to help you move on from a demotion:

1. Reflect on what you’ve done well

You might spend a little time feeling down, and that’s okay. However, when you’re ready to move on, it’s best to take some time to think about all the things you did right. We have a tendency to focus on the mistakes we made at work and forget about all the things we did right. Susan Hite, CEO and career coach, says:

“It’s normal to experience a flood of emotions, from anger and sadness to depression and embarrassment. Try not to overreact. Take a step back, take a deep breath and remember you have a 100% track record of making it this far. Reflect on what you’ve done well. Look at this as an opportunity — instead of a demotion — to re-evaluate your career.”

2. Appreciate what you have

Let’s face it: while a demotion isn’t fabulous, it’s better than losing your job completely. Try to see the positives and learn from the experience. Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist, executive coach,and author says to look for the hidden blessings. She says:

“Instead of focusing on the negatives (like a decrease in pay or status), look for the surprise gifts by practicing gratitude. Redirect your brain to focus on the good parts, like still having a job, or perhaps working fewer hours, having less stress and a greater work–life balance.”

3. Ask for letters of recommendations

There’s no bigger boost than receiving a great letter of recommendation. Reach out to your existing contacts and ask them to endorse your skills in a letter.

4. Enjoy your life

It sounds simple, but it’s true. Life is too short to be held back and resentful. Once you’ve accepted your fate, make sure you create a healthy work–life balance so you can spend personal time away from work without the worries.

Key takeaways

Being demoted isn’t going to make the top 10 of your best life moments — let’s admit it. However, it doesn’t have to be the end of your career as you know it. Simply take some time to deal with your emotions surrounding it, and then get back on that horse and power on.

Here’s a quick summary of how to deal with a demotion:

  • Speak to management. Make sure to voice your concerns and ask for feedback. There’s no way to move forward if you don’t know what you (possibly) did wrong.
  • Develop your skills. Take the time to assess your skillset so you can learn from your mistakes. If you need to work on your time management, do it. If you need to be more organized, focus on that.
  • Remain professional. It’s best to keep work-related rants out of the office and with someone not related to your job. Acting unprofessionally will only hinder your chance of moving back up the ladder at a later point, so keep it professional.

How are you handling your demotion? Share your experiences in the comments section below.


Originally publish on July 12, 2013.