How to Handle a Wrongful Demotion

What to do if you've been wrongfully demoted

Close-up of Businessman Holding Box, representing wrongful demotion.
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A demotion is an employee loses status and pay at work. When an employer demotes a worker, they may remove some of the worker’s duties, cut their hours, and reduce their compensation. Demotions are obviously tough on workers, but they’re also far from uncommon. According to one survey, 14% of workers have experienced a demotion at some point in their career.

But what if you lose status at work and don’t deserve it? If you’ve been wrongfully demoted, you may be wondering what you can do about it. Unfortunately, your options for handling a wrongful demotion may be limited. Here’s what you need to know.

When Can Employees Be Demoted?

Most workers in the U.S. are employed at will. It means that your employer can discharge you or demote you for any reason other than discrimination or whistleblowing.

So, if your employer believes that your performance is lacking in any way, you can be demoted, and your pay or hours can be reduced. Your employer also can change your job description, assign new work duties, and lower your pay if they are reorganizing the workforce or if business conditions dictate a shifting of human resources.

In some circumstances, you may be protected by a collective bargaining agreement or employment contract which provides protection for employees.

Which Employees Are Protected

Workers with employment contracts that stipulate work roles and job protections may be insulated against certain demotions. They may also have recourse to appeal a demotion.

Employees cannot be demoted because of race, gender, age, religious beliefs, or genetic information. Employees can't be demoted as retaliation for filing a sexual harassment claim or because they informed authorities about an illegal action by their organization.

Appealing an Unfair or Unlawful Demotion

Even where no legal protections exist, you can contact the human resources department at your organization if you believe that you are being unjustly treated. Companies often want to avoid seemingly unfair demotions given the potential negative impact on employee morale.

When you speak with HR, keep the following in mind:

Be professional. Keep your tone mature and don’t be defensive. If there is a formal appeal process, request a review of your demotion. If there isn't, ask for a meeting to discuss your circumstances.

Put it in writing. Another option is to write an appeal letter asking for the decision to demote you to be reconsidered. Use documentation, such as emails with praise, positive performance reviews, and details about major accomplishments, to show that the demotion is not merited, and will ultimately work against the company's long-term goals.

Consult an attorney. If you believe that your demotion might be illegal, you have the option of consulting an employment attorney or your state Department of Labor to obtain a formal legal opinion.

How to Explain a Demotion to Prospective Employers

Whether your demotion was wrongful or not, when you apply for future jobs, you will need to be prepared to acknowledge the situation.

Don’t sell yourself short. Fortunately, there is no need to use the word "demotion" on your resume or within a cover letter. On your resume, you can simply include the new job title, along with any responsibilities.

Highlight your skills. Within your cover letter, you can emphasize any particular skills or accomplishments from the lower-level role. Keep it positive, stressing what you’ve learned from the jobs you’ve worked and what you can bring to the role for which you’re interviewing.

Prepare for the interview. A demotion may also come up in an interview; be prepared to discuss the circumstances. Do not bash the company or managers in your response. One of the simplest ways to explain what happened is to describe the job as not being a good fit. Keep your tone matter-of-fact and emphasize any positive outcomes that may have occurred as a result, such as learning new skills or taking a class to strengthen your abilities.

Get recommendations. You might also consider asking for recommendations from your colleagues and networking connections. Having folks who can vouch for your skills and abilities goes a long way with hiring managers, whether or not you’re trying to explain a demotion in your work history.

Look for the bright side. Finally, look for the opportunity in this challenging experience. As with questions about your biggest weakness, you can use this as a chance to discuss how you've transformed and improved as a result. If the hiring manager asks about your demotion during the interview, be honest and positive, emphasizing what you’ve done to overcome any deficits in your skills.

The Bottom Line

Above all, resist the urge to dwell. Career paths are never a straight line. Chances are that the hiring manager has a reversal or two in their work history. If you come across as comfortable, authentic, and confident, one blip on your resume shouldn’t make a big difference, especially in context with all your other achievements.