Is a demotion at work the first step toward being fired? Elaine Varelas offers insight

Ask the Job Doc. —Boston.com

Q: I’ve been in my current role as team manager for over a year, and while it was a stretch position to start, I thought I was doing well—until I got demoted. I’m mortified and hate having to face colleagues or friends asking me how work is going. Am I not cut out to be a manager? Worse yet, am I about to be fired?

A: Condolences on this difficult situation. Being demoted is a terrible position to be in, particularly if you didn’t know it was coming. If things weren’t going well, your manager should have been having conversations with you about what was happening, how to rectify issues, what you weren’t doing well, and what expectations weren’t being met. At that point, you should have been offered opportunities for development to help you succeed in the role. Since these things didn’t happen prior to the demotion, part of the conversation you need to have now is finding out if this is just the first step on the way to termination. You were demoted; they could have fired you, and they didn’t. What may be happening is that they realized you weren’t ready for the stretch but that you are a valuable individual contributor. They may also feel responsible for not giving you the support you needed to succeed.

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Developing managerial skills is a challenge, and it requires support from the organization. Managing people well is not easy—it takes self-education, training opportunities, reading materials, and formal and informal mentoring from others. If your company hasn’t provided this kind of support, you should be doing some of the work on your own—including asking your manager for the feedback that he or she didn’t give you prior to this demotion. You can go to your manager or HR and explain, “I’m disappointed that I didn’t do as good of a job as I thought I was doing. Can you offer me some feedback on the situation and how I can develop my managerial skills?” As to whether you are cut out for management or not, I can’t answer that for you. It’s true that some people aren’t the right fit for people management, but it’s just as likely that, if you’re early in your career, you simply have not had the chance to develop the right skills or had a manager whose behavior you’d emulate. Stepping out of management for a short time and developing some fundamental skills before rejoining the management ranks, either at this company or somewhere else, isn’t a bad idea.

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As for saving face, think of the friends and colleagues who are genuinely supportive—these are the ones to talk to about your situation. Others may fall more into the “frenemy” camp, and there is no need to have in-depth conversations with them on this subject. If you’re asked out right about your job, you can talk about changing roles and what your new focus will be and that you’re excited about new opportunities to expand your professional skill set. We work for a long time, so think about the long-term skills you will need and view this as an opportunity to invest in your future. This demotion hurts now, and you can help heal by developing skills and asking for feedback on a more regular basis than your organization is currently offering.

Remember, too, that there are many non-personal, business-driven reasons for demotions. Roles get redlined and entire levels of management disappear, resulting in some level of “demotion,” either in title or number of direct reports. When restructurings happen, a layer of management may be removed, and those people become level with their former employees. Sometimes a new role is created at a level in between you and your manager, which pushes you a level away from the person you used to report to. There are a range of situations that result in side steps for your career trajectory, but they are not insurmountable.

What you need most now is more information. Talk to your manager about what was going well and what needed improvement and use that as a road map for future development. Ask for guidance, seek out your own learning opportunities and be open to receiving feedback.