Categorized | Workplace

You’re Not Canned, Just “Reclassified”

Posted on 09 April 2009

Imagine being summoned to your boss’s office. He or she stands ceremoniously behind the desk and announces you’ve been “reclassified.” It’s not a promotion or raise, but a demotion to a lesser job and lower pay.

“Reclassification” is the latest word in businesspeak. Corporate America already ran through terms like selected out, placed out, dehired, and non-renewed–all to replace the traditional fired. It makes sense that the HR spinmasters would eventually find another word for demotion, too. But is reclassification kinder or gentler, or is it just more confusing?

The Power Shift
At the height of the dot-com economy, many partially qualified people were placed in the wrong jobs. Vivian Golub, principal of Ariel Consulting in Silicon Valley, goes further: “Employees were more concerned with their salaries than with performance.” Now the tables have turned. “It’s still a seller’s market, but it’s more balanced in the employer’s favor.” Employers are hiring more prudently. They only want “indispensable” personnel, those who can exercise their abilities to the fullest. To accomplish that end, Golub says, “Some employees must be moved up. Others are demoted.”

Demotion is sometimes an unavoidable strategy, but it can benefit both management and employees.

Yet the demotion process doesn’t have to be demoralizing. Jeff Durocher, spokesperson for Illinois-based RHR International, says demotion is sometimes an unavoidable strategy–but it can benefit both management and employees.

“Most people think it’s solely a management tactic to increase productivity and save money,” he explains. “But it can also mean employees wind up happier and ultimately more productive because they’re moved into slots for which they’re perfectly qualified. “Not every employee wants to be top gun,” Durocher observes, “but workers feel they should jump at every promotion offered. When they’re moved into a lower position, they may welcome it even though it means a salary cut. It lifts a heavy burden off their shoulders. They may not want all that responsibility and travel, and instead they want to spend more time with their families.”

Durocher has witnessed a number of sensitively managed demotions. “At technology companies, in particular, it’s fairly common for techies promoted to managers to be demoted back to their old jobs,” he says. “They weren’t happy in their new jobs and couldn’t master them. It was a relief when management put them back, especially if the pay cut was nominal,” Durocher adds.

Stay Calm, Stay Focused
Sharon Keys Seal, president of Coaching Concepts in Baltimore, advises recently demoted employees to work through the initial reaction and not quit in a huff–especially if they like their employer. “As difficult as it is,” she says, “try doing some self-assessment to determine whether it’s ultimately a smart move to stick around.”

Ask yourself: How much visibility will I have? What are the paths out of it? Will the demotion put me on a different track, a better track? Will I be exposed to new technologies or new career options? “Once you get over the initial hurt of being demoted, look at what it ultimately means,” Seal adds. “If nothing else, give it a try. It could open new career doors.”

But not all companies manage demotions very well. Suddenly being thrust into a lesser job, stripped of power and responsibilities, can be embarrassing and humiliating. Maybe it really is time to bail out and find a new job where you’re appreciated. Demoted executives may find it difficult to step down, to be on equal footing with those they used to lead. The former manager should ideally be transferred to another department where he or she can truly start over.

If a demotion doesn’t work out, try to learn from the experience and move on. Don’t publicly criticize your former employer for treating you poorly. You’ll be branded a malcontent or troublemaker. Find another way to explain why you left; in most cases, your former employer will back you up and give you a good reference.

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