You’ve just promoted someone into a new role, but they’re not enjoying it and want to return to their old position. How should HR respond to voluntary demotions?
There’s this phenomenon known as the ‘managerial blues’. It’s when newly promoted managers regret their decision to move up in the ranks. Perhaps they miss being an operational worker, or they simply haven’t been adequately trained in people management (or had no desire to manage others in the first place).
HRM wrote about managerial blues last year and cited research which suggests that many newly promoted managers quickly become disenchanted in their positions and either quit or had a strong intention to quit as a result.
But what if an employee came to you before things got to this point and asked to return to their old position? Can you let them?
Aaron Goonrey, Partner at Lander and Rogers, says the short answer is ‘yes’. But the long answer is more complicated.
“The question is quite nuanced,” says Goonrey. “If they’ve voluntarily gone up for a promotion, and then they want to go back to their old role, it wouldn’t necessarily be a demotion. It’s just a variation to their employment contract. On face value, you’d think, ‘This is a pretty easy situation to deal with,’ but it’s not.”
It’s not uncommon for recently promoted employees to complain that the realities of the role had been misrepresented to them, he says. It’s also common for employers to have already backfilled the promoted employee’s former position – especially if a few months have passed. In that scenario, what should HR do?
Things to do before offering a promotion
Now is the perfect time of year to be having this conversation, says Goonrey.
“There are performance and remuneration reviews going on, and so there are promotions being made. So this is a great time for HR professionals to be asking, ‘What can we do to ensure we’re setting all our people up for success?”
To avoid a situation like this occurring in the first place, it’s important to do an adequate assessment of the employee’s career goals, capabilities and shortcomings before offering them a promotion, says Goonrey.
“Generally, we promote people because of their technical abilities. This means not only do you lose your technical specialists, but you may not have set [the promoted employee] up to manage people.”
Making the right call at this stage not only protects the organisation, but also the employee and the team they might go on to manage.
Employers should also give employees a full view of what the new promotion would entail, rather than letting the employee get swept up in the prospect of more money or power.
“Make sure you’re telling them everything. Not just the position description, but the realities of the role.”
For example, are there some difficult people who they’ll have to manage? Are they about to take on crazy work hours, or be tasked with more client-facing work? Being upfront about this early on can help prevent nasty surprises down the track.
“What’s written on paper often looks amazing, but when it comes time to do it, there’s a disconnect between the perception of the role and the reality of it. I think employers need to talk about that.”
He suggests getting the employee to sit down with their predecessor.
“If that person is still working there, I would get them to have a conversation to give [the employee] a flavour of what that role consists of.”
If everything checks out up until this point and you’re confident to proceed with the promotion, it’s best practice to put systems in place to safeguard both the employer and employee should things not work out.
“You can always put someone on a trial period when they’re trying a new role,” says Goonrey. “A lot of employers don’t. They just promote someone and assume that the person is ready to fulfill the inherent requirements of the role.”
A trial should always be agreed upon in writing, he adds, and its length would vary, depending on the role. A good rule of thumb would be to make it a matter of months, not weeks, as experts say the first 90 days are when a lot of important learnings take place.
“However, a trial period is different to a probation period or a minimum employment period – because [we can assume] the person has been with the company for longer than six months.”
This means that if the promotion didn’t work out, you wouldn’t be able to terminate the employee based on a minimum period of employment exception to unfair dismissal. By way of best practice, you may like to keep their former role vacant – perhaps just filled with someone on a temporary basis – so they could go back to that role and remain employed.
Managing a voluntary demotion
What if you hadn’t put a trial in place and they ask to return to their former role?
In this scenario, Goonrey says there are a few things to consider:
- Have you set them up for success? Have they received adequate training/onboarding?
- Have you already backfilled the position? If so, are there any similar positions to their former role that you could offer them?
- What if you want the employee to continue performing the role (i.e. performance isn’t an issue and you’d struggle to find a replacement)?
- How would it affect the team they may be leading?
- Could it impact the delivery of an important piece of work, a service or product?
However, Goonrey thinks the most important thing to focus on is: Why do they want to revert to their old role?
“That would be the fundamental question I would ask if this came across my desk.”
We’ll dive into why this is an important question to ask in just a moment, but first let’s cover off a few of the other points Goonrey has raised.
What happens in a scenario where the employer wants the person to continue in the role? Perhaps their performance is impeccable, but they’re just not enjoying it.
“In this day and age, where there is a scarcity of skilled resources, this puts employers in a position where they say, “Either you keep on doing that role because there’s no other alternative role for you, or you could choose to resign.” You can’t force someone to perform a role.”
If they choose the former, that also puts the employer in a difficult position.
“How does the employer know they’re getting the full commitment of the employee when they’ve indicated that their heart isn’t in it anymore?”
“What’s written on paper often looks amazing, but when it comes time to do it, there’s a disconnect between the perception of the role and the reality of it. I think employers need to talk about that.” – Aaron Goonrey, Partner, Lander and Rogers
Also, if the employee didn’t feel supported in the promoted role, and the employer decided to revert the employee to their former role (i.e. not a ‘voluntary demotion’), there is a possible unfair dismissal risk, not to mention breach of contract claim risk.
In the recent case of NSW Trains v James, the Full Bench of the FWC observed that demoted employees who remain employed after their demotion may still be able to access the unfair dismissal jurisdiction. This is subject to the particulars of the demotion and if the employee has made it clear that they object to the demotion.
Make sure you’ve got the full story
Let’s return to the fundamental question Goonrey suggests employers ask: ‘Why are they asking to revert to their former role?’
If it’s a performance issue, you could potentially offer them the chance to shadow a more senior employee for a period of time while they learn the rope, or you could temporarily lighten their load to give them time to catch up.
If it’s not a performance issue, there could be other issues lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps there are instances of bullying or harassment, or they feel their wellbeing is at risk after taking on extra responsibilities. In this instance, terminating employment could lead to legal action.
“Let’s say they’ve declared to their employer that they’re being bullied – it’s upward bullying for example, which is becoming increasingly common – but the employer says, ‘You’re the manager. You have to take care of it.’
“If the promoted employee decided to resign and you hadn’t done anything about it, they may have a number of legal and regulatory avenues that they could pursue,” he says.
Such claims could be based on any number of things, he adds.
“Perhaps there was a promise of more remuneration – that wasn’t documented – that hasn’t materialised… these things happen all the time.”
Investigating the request thoroughly should give you a clear idea of the employee’s motivation.
Sit down with them and ask what support they need to help them succeed or to stamp out issues they’re experiencing.
There are also long-term legal concerns to keep in mind. For example, say things went smoothly and you were able to return the employee to their former role. What happens if, two or three years later, they feel ready to throw their hat back in the ring but are rejected for a promotion due to what happened last time? This could cause relationships to sour or a breakdown of trust on the employee’s part.
This is why after an employee returns to their former role, prudent employers would quickly put together a plan to help that individual to progress in the future. Is there a course you could send them to? Do they need more intense coaching, mentoring or oversight for a period of time? Are there some informal leadership tasks – such as running a team on a specific project – that they could take on?
Keep their progression front of mind, as you’d do with all employees, and be careful not to discount them for future opportunities, because perhaps the timing or situation just wasn’t quite right this time around.
Managing delicate situations, such as a voluntary demotion, requires knowing how to have difficult conversations. This short course from AHRI will help you master this skill. Sign up for the next session on 20 June.