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Do Demotions Work?

Jun 24

Quietly, Brian Williams returned to NBC last week. Not in his usual spot of nightly news anchor, but in a demoted spot, for less pay:

The embattled former NBC Nightly News anchor has been demoted and will receive reportedly less money in his new role, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Williams is being replaced by Lester Holt, who took over for him after he was handed down an unpaid six-month suspension for making factually incorrect comments and “misremembering” details spoken about on-air.

The newspaper reported that Williams will receive “substantially” less money when he returns to the network as a breaking news and special reports anchor for MSNBC, a division of NBC. He had been making at least $10 million a year for the last five years.

It begs the question, do demotions work?

They certainly aren’t popular. Both, employers and employees, dislike demotions.  Employers feel like if they demote an employee they are just giving them notice to go find another job.  Employees feel like a failure and that the organization is probably just trying to push them out the door. In my experience demotions rarely work.

What kind of demotions work?

There are times when you promote a good worker into a new role, a promotion, and both you and the employee think it will be great, but then it ends up not being great. The employee can’t handle the new role, you did a bad job preparing them, there were other organizational issues at play, whatever the reason, it’s not working. This happens more than you realize, but we usually just end up firing the employee for performance, or they see the writing on the wall and take off before you get a chance to shoot them yourself.

I always find it ironic when I hear about this type of turnover. I’ll ask, “was this person a good, solid employee before they got promoted?”  The answer is always yes.  They wouldn’t have gotten promoted if they weren’t. So, then, why did this person have to be a turnover statistic? Why couldn’t we figure out how to get them back to a position where they were productive and successful again?

Modern organizational theory doesn’t allow for this.  We don’t believe that a person will ever want to go backwards in their career. Once they have been promoted, they will not want to go back into a position they had prior, and they definitely don’t want a pay cut!  We assume this to be true. Also, it might be true in many cases. So, we take a ‘good’ employee and terminate them or let them just go away on their own.

I think the only way you make a demotion work is if you set it up within your organizational culture that this ‘demotion’, going back into a very important role in the company, is something that happens here.  We want to challenge people, and sometimes those challenges won’t end well.  That’s okay, we still love you, and respect you, and we want to get you back on a path of success.

This conversation has to happen, not after failure, but before the person is ever promoted.  That moving along the career path here, at our organization, isn’t just up, it’s down, it’s sideways, etc.  We are going to constantly want to get you into a ‘role’ of success.  Yes, failure happens, but we will want to get you back to success as fast as possible.

The reality is, people don’t stay around if they’re failing.

Brian Williams is damaged goods, so he accepted the demotion.  He’s talented. He’ll get back on the horse, show his value, and then he’ll go someplace else.  NBC is giving him an opportunity, but this kind of demotion doesn’t usually end well, for the employer.

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