How to Explain a Demotion in a Job Interview

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If you've taken any obvious steps down the career ladder, whether in title or role, you should be prepared for your potential employer to ask about the demotion during your interview. While this doesn't have to be a deal-breaker for the position, you should try to frame that transition in the least damaging way possible.

Remember that an interview is your opportunity to highlight your strengths. That's true even for situations where you're asked about weaknesses or possible career low points. Therefore:

  • Be honest. Don’t fudge the facts. If you were terminated for cause, don’t spin it as a layoff. The truth will likely emerge during a background check, at which point, the company will revoke your offer.
  • Be brief. While you will need to address the demotion when you are asked about it, there is no reason to dwell on it.
  • Be ready to move on. Prepare an explanation that focuses on the positive as much as possible – and then move on to making a case for hiring you. Do your research on the company and the position, and be ready to discuss your relevant skills and experiences.

    You are there to present yourself as the best possible candidate for the job, and while you should have a plausible, truthful answer to this tough question prepared, there is no reason to elaborate any further than necessary.

    The Best Way to Answer Interview Questions About a Demotion

    If your demotion was in the past and you have now moved on to a higher-level job, you can emphasize what you have learned and accomplished since the demotion, and how it qualifies you for a higher-level job. Perhaps you identified a weakness and took steps like courses or workshops to strengthen that area. Keep the focus of your response on a positive aspect of the experience.

    Your task will be more challenging if you are currently in a job that represents a step down. In that situation, you should emphasize the skills you have applied and the positive results which you have generated in your current role. If there were circumstances beyond your control, such as a restructuring which reduced the number of management positions, then you can explain those factors, but don’t make excuses for your shortcomings, or blame the company.

    In some cases, the demotion may be voluntary. Maybe you wanted reduced hours after returning to work after maternity leave or were taking challenging graduate-level courses and couldn't handle a travel responsibility involved in the job. In those situations, explain simply and clearly why you opted to request an adjusted role. Avoid an overly lengthy or personal response – your best bet is to be factual, not emotional. You can emphasize that you requested the demotion, and that your goal was to ensure you would not leave the company in the lurch.

    However you respond, do make sure to be honest. Remember, your interviewer may check your references so dishonesty could be uncovered.

    While this isn't the easiest question to answer, as you can see, it by no means indicates a dead-end in the interview.

    Don't Criticize the Company

    Regardless of which angle you're coming from, be careful not to criticize management in any way. Avoid expressions of frustration or complaints, too. No need to provide analysis of company missteps that may have led to the demotion, either. Keep your answer brief and factual in tone.

    If you have identified any issues in your skill set or performance which led to your demotion and taken concrete, documented steps to address those issues, you might include some of that information. For example, if a previous job required you to create reports in Excel and you were demoted because you weren't able to do so, but now have taken online courses and mastered Excel, then you might reference that development.

    Put Your Best Foot Forward

    A preemptive way to defuse any concern about a demotion is to acquire a reference from a boss or colleague at that organization which clearly affirms the value you have added as an employee. You can also start the spin in a positive direction by framing the issue in your cover letter or resume, so you have a foundation which you can elaborate on during the interview.

    If you can find a way to discuss the demotion as an opportunity to strengthen your skills, you should. For example, returning to sales after leaving a management position might have given you the needed opportunity to refresh your knowledge of your product and client base, making you a more effective manager than you were before.