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It's quite normal for an employee to request a promotion. However, I got an employee who is requesting to be demoted!

At first, I thought she is trying to send a message by that action. After a small meeting with her, it turned out that she genuinely wants a demotion.

Her reason was "I like that job, it's easier and I do not care about the less income".

I am confused, should I just approve her request? I am stopping myself to think that she is not fit for any job because she is running away from responsibility. People do not throw away an extra ~20k/year easily.

One more thing, she was dying before to get the job she is currently filling for the last ~4 years.

However, this also made me revise the responsibilities of the job she wants to leave (by anonymous survey), maybe it is "too much" somehow, even though no one complained and people want it badly.

Any tips?

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Nov 25 at 12:25
  • I am missing a piece of relevant information here: Is the new job of the same type as the old one (e.g. she used to be a branch manager and became a regional manager) or is the new job a different type (e.g. she used to be an engineer, spending her days building widgets, and was promoted to a management position, spending her days ensuring that others can build widgets)? – rumtscho Nov 25 at 14:22
  • How is her performance? – dgrat Nov 25 at 15:43

15 Answers 15

181

She said:

  • "I like that job"
  • "It's easier"

Which roughly translates to:

  • I don't like this job
  • This job is too hard

Even if she hadn't said that, it would be worth looking into what she likes or dislikes and finds easy or difficult. But the above isn't too specific and could refer to any combination of many problems.

This should ideally be the start of the discussion, not the end of it.

Try to find out what she doesn't like about this job and which parts she finds too difficult and, more importantly, how you can help.

Ask her:

  • Which parts she needs support with.
  • How you can help her enjoy the role more.
  • What her ideal role would look like. She might just say "my old role", so you might want to instead phrase this in terms of which responsibilities she'd like to add or remove to one role or the other.
  • How she sees herself becoming more senior in the company and providing more value. More in terms of how she'd like to do this instead of what's currently possible.
  • Why she wanted the promotion. Be careful with this one, as it may sound a bit confrontational.
  • What her expectations for the role were.
  • How she'd want her role to look like in 5 years.
  • NOT which parts she doesn't like, because most people probably wouldn't be too quick to directly open up about that to management (or anyone at work, for that matter). Although they may answer less direct ways of asking this, like the examples given above.

Many of the above questions are quite similar and may have the same answer, but it could make sense to ask different variants to approach it from different angles to get a more complete picture of her motivations and desires. You can pick or choose what makes sense to ask or skip, what to expand on or what else to ask, especially given her answers or what you already know. This may include just dropping it completely if she's not at all open to talking about it.

She might need:

  • Mentoring, so the hard parts become easier and more enjoyable.

  • A second look at what she's actually doing.

    In some cases people might end up doing a lot more than they're supposed to (which can certainly make things harder and less enjoyable) because they don't delegate or they aren't too clear on where exactly their responsibilities end.

  • Time to adjust.

    Starting a new job can be quite stressful and sometimes all the changes can be overwhelming.

    If you suspect this is the problem, you shouldn't tell her to just give it time, because that's a bit dismissive and, even if it's the best suggestion, it's not really what someone in that position wants to hear. Instead, you could delay making any decisions a bit (with her consent), try to help her adjust, have regular meetings to check in to see how she's settling in and provide any other support she may need.

    Even if this isn't the problem, it might also be worth thinking how this is handled in future (or even in her case). Maybe there should be a slower transition into the role, where responsibilities are incrementally gained instead of suddenly changed (and actually moving roles is almost just a title change and a salary bump). This would also give her a better idea of what to expect in the new role before moving to it and could help her decide whether she even wants to move.

  • Confidence.

    She may feel she doesn't have the required skills, even if she's exceeding expectations. See also: Imposter syndrome. This would likely also mean she's not enjoying it and thinks it's too hard.

    Honest performance evaluations might help here. Give her praise when deserved, but also give her constructive criticism. Criticism is helpful for improving, obviously, but it can also make the praise seem more sincere.

    Although how to deal with this specific aspect from a management perspective can probably be a question all by itself.

  • More focused or personalised responsibilities.

    Perhaps you could move away some responsibilities she doesn't like and/or give her back some of her old responsibilities so she's still largely filling the new role, but actually enjoying it.

    Or maybe she just has too many responsibilities and can't get them all done in a 40-hour week. It might be because the role itself is too broad, but it might also just be because it's new for her. In either case, the responsibilities should be reduced (permanently in the first case and temporarily in the second case) so it's more manageable.

  • Help dealing with specific tasks.

    It might be that her responsibilities overall are not a problem, she just has problems dealing with specific instances of those responsibilities.

    Perhaps her new job involves dealing with a particularly difficult individual, having many unnecessary meetings, working with painfully inefficient software or even moving to a different desk with a less pleasant environment (which can concern anything from her neighbours to the temperature and lighting to where she sits).

    These should all be problems solvable in ways that doesn't involve fundamentally changing her overall responsibilities.

    While in some cases someone might raise concerns if one of these things are bothering them, it may not apply to all such problems, she might feel it's a fundamental part of the job or there are too many individual problems and can't (all) be fixed, she may have already raised concerns but to someone else or you may not have realised this is potentially why she wants a demotion or she may simply not feel comfortable raising concerns in general.

  • A new promotion path.

    This is an extension of giving more personalised responsibilities. If there are simply too many responsibilities she doesn't like in the new role, it might make sense to rethink how promotions work and how people move up in your company (especially if this is the only way she can move up).

    Perhaps there's another way she can become more senior. In Software Development, for example, the traditional path involves everyone ending up as people managers, but a number of companies (especially the big tech companies) also have career paths that are still very technical. This might be more focused on solving more challenging problems or leading technical and architecture development. Such roles may still involve a bit of people management, but focuses on bringing value to the company more through technical expertise than management expertise.

  • A raise.

    She might've been pushing for the position because she simply wanted a raise and this seems like (or is) the only or best way to get it.

    Company policy and politics could get in the way of paying people what they're worth to the company. If you'd have to pay significantly more money to get someone else to do what she was doing in her previous role, just give her that money in the form of a raise instead.

  • To stay in her old job.

    It might be that none of the above points apply and she just doesn't want any more responsibilities. She just wants to settle in to an easy job and stay there. Or she doesn't want to become more senior because the only way for her to do so is to remove things she enjoys and add things she dislikes.

    Some employers don't like this and want everyone to move up (or leave), but these employees enjoy their current job and can be relied upon to consistently do a good job and be fairly loyal (because, for similar reasons, they also wouldn't want to go through the hassle of starting a new job).

    If she was forced into the role, wanting to settle in is much more likely. Although, if she was the one who wanted the role, it might also be that she simply didn't quite know what she was getting herself into.

    If difficulty is the problem: Of course harder things can also become easier over time, so it may also make sense to consider a slower career progression for her, which just involves slowly gaining or changing responsibilities without much pressure to suddenly have to do a bunch of new and difficult things. Although this should come with regular check-ins (which are generally a good idea anyway) to make sure she actually likes her current role at any given point in time and where her career is headed with any new responsibilities.

  • 27
    this is a much better answer than the earlier, highly rated ones – aw04 Nov 22 at 22:27
  • 29
    I don't want to add another answer, so a comment here: that employee's answer might mean that this job is too stressful. Too much stress, especially for prolonged periods, is harmful, leading to mental health issues. While very personal this might be one of the reasons. – Jan Dorniak Nov 23 at 0:42
  • 4
    +1 This is far and away the best answer here. If her new position requires sacrificing parts of her personal life or happiness, then theirs the very real possibility that the problem is with the job, not the employee. Find out the root cause of the issue, and fix it. Ultimately it might just be a case of not being a good fit, but I'd bet good money that the problem is her new job is a bloody nightmare, and any employee hired to fill that job will just be driven away like she is. – Wipqozn Nov 24 at 15:19
  • @Wipqozn I left a comment on the other answer that basically is "yes, that." The role I stepped out of after 6 months had someone else just step down after 6 months because of the stress. Its entirely due to an organizational issue of not actually having enough Project Owners (see: Agile software development). Admittedly from a year ago (relative only to my visual scope) the company went from "zero" to "one" PO, across 4 projects (there should be four). – Draco18s Nov 24 at 17:33
  • 13
    While this is a good answer, it still mostly follows the (in my opinion) mistake of assuming that her choice is primarily about difficulty. For many people (including myself), choosing a job is not about what's easiest or pays most, but about what they actually enjoy doing. It may be that she finds she enjoys the work of the other job more and that makes her life better, and that is a perfectly good reason to choose one job over another. If so, she's doing you a favor by helping you to place her where she will be the most productive and useful for the company. You should appreciate it. – Foogod Nov 24 at 18:45
351

Some people do not work to be challenged, pushed and pressured.

It might be hard for someone with a more competitive mindset to understand but these people have a job just to pay rent. They are not work-adverse but have different priorities in their life.

  • Maybe she has a serious hobby that she likes to do after work.
  • Maybe she volunteers on the side.
  • Maybe it is none of your business.

And right now the job is infringing on those different priorities. You say:

she is running away from responsibility.

Have you considered that by being demoted she is running towards other responsibilities?

Your job as a manager is not to promote people, it is to match people to the job that they function best in. And in this case your employee is making your job very easy by indicating which job that would be.

The fact that she wanted the job before is irrelevant. People want things all the time only to find out that it is not nearly as great as they imagined. And even if it is exactly what she thought the job would be: people and the circumstances of their life change all the time.

  • 74
    it is to match people to the job that they function best in can't +1 that enough. Some of the most productive, happy, and valuable employees I've ever had were those that had gone through a "demotion" into a "lesser" position. People management is about fit not strictly about helping people climb upwards. – dwizum Nov 22 at 14:38
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    Just because someone is great in their current role doesn't mean that they are suitable for the next one up, and unfortunately it often takes a promotion to find out. It shouldn't be a sign of weakness that someone has realized that they are a better fit in a lower role. She sounds like a keeper to me. – aherocalledFrog Nov 22 at 17:01
  • 9
    @NeanDerThal being the same amount of work (for you) doesn't mean the same level of stress (which is important to perception). Maybe she finds the new responsibilities and different work very stressful compared to the previous position's workload. – Chieron Nov 22 at 20:42
  • 11
    "Have you considered that by being demoted she is running towards other responsibilities?" This is a very thoughtful response. – bunnies Nov 23 at 0:32
  • 7
    This may or may not be relevant, but there is the phenomenon of being "promoted to incompetence", ie en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle – Jay Nov 23 at 7:50
78

I was equally confused a few years ago, in a similar situation. A colleague quit her job for another job.

The details:

  1. Initially she was a programmer. I do not know the salary she had, but it must have been decent, judging by the local standards.
  2. The new job was a teacher for adolescents. The salary for this job on the local market is pretty much a joke.
  3. She actually wanted to work with children more than she wanted to hit 101 plastic buttons.
  4. Her husband had a good job with a good salary, so my colleague's "salary drop" was not an issue.

I met the colleague after some time, and she was definitely relaxed and happy about the change.


Now about your situation. Your employee wants something else. She can have it in two ways:

  1. Quit and find something elsewhere (like my colleague).
  2. Change jobs in your company.

It is the most sensible way to go the route to keep her. Not only that it will make her happy, but it will send the other employees a positive message, that the company is flexible with regard to the needs of the employees.

It will not take long for you to get over the confusion, and you will be able to have a good night's sleep :)

Good luck to both of you.


One more thing, she was dying before to get the job she is currently filling for the last ~4 years.

Opinions change. Desires change. People change. Everything changes. Do not worry.

"The only constant in life is change."

53

"running away from responsibility"

She is not running away. She has seen two jobs with different workload and wage and like any other employee has to decide if she values free time or money more. (And she has to decide if the higher paying job is paid well enough).

So you currently have the choice to wait long enough until she is going to quit or you allow her to change her position and keep her experience in your company.

"even though no one complained" This is obviously not the case anymore...

  • 3
    correct. Same with people wanting to reduce their contract hours to have more free time. They're not "showing a lack of interest in the company" by that. – jwenting Nov 25 at 4:47
16

Not everyone wants to climb the career ladder

It's expected in our society that we all want to climb the career ladder, to grow into bigger responsibilities and salaries. But this is not actually true for everyone.

Quite a few people want different things from a job:

  • Job security, especially when you know you do an important job well enough that nobody wants to replace you.
  • Sufficient income, to live comfortably and go on a holiday now and then. Not everyone wants to buy a mansion.
  • No stress, not taking work home or having overtime.
  • Nice colleagues.
  • No scary responsibilities.

This can be good for your company

When I worked at a university helpdesk, we had two kinds of employees who flourished:

  • STEM students doing this as a temp job. They'd usually be students who flunked out in their third year or so, so pretty smart people but not so well-certified that they'd be too expensive to hire for a helpdesk. Great problem-solvers. After a year or so they'd usually move on though.
  • Long-termers, people who'd worked there for years and would probably be working there until retirement. The salary was modest but you never needed to do overtime or take anything home, so they all had time for hobbies and generally a pleasant home life. They also kept a lot of institutional knowledge; they'd always know how to get something done in the rest of the university, or who the bigshots and problem customers were.

The combination of these non-traditional-career people worked extremely well, the helpdesk was efficient, knowledgeable, reliable, didn't have problematic staff turnover, and was pretty cheap considering it's skill level.

Consider the advantages for your company: you get a happy, highly skilled employee.

13

Here's a tip: Consider the new pay carefully. Had she stayed in the old position for those 4 years, she'd likely have gotten some increase(s). So I would not revert to the last pay of the old position, but a bit more.

Also, in the new position of the recent 4 years, she likely gained more or better skills than she would have in the old job.

And finally, if she were underpaid before, this is a good time to compensate for that.

10

I am confused, should I just approve her request? I am stopping myself to think that she is not fit for any job because she is running away from responsibility.

Can she physically perform the old job to your satisfaction? If she can: say yes. If she cannot: say no. It really is as simple as that.

Her life choice belongs to her and her family.

It may be inconvenient as you have to replace her current role, but you show yourself being a reasonable employer. If you deny based on your life philosophy you may just drive her to another company who allows her to be her own self.

7

Seems like your employee is happy without a lot of responsibilities, simple tasks and a cut in her income in case you approve her demotion.

I am confused, should I just approve her request? I am stopping myself to think that she is not fit for any job because she is running away from responsibility.

That's where a different question should arise - Do you really want an employee, in any position, that's not really motivated and tries to to dodge any responsibilities in general?

However, this also made me revise the responsibilities of the job she wants to leave, maybe it is "too much" somehow, even though no one complained and people want it badly.

If the current tasks are too much for her to handle, then approve the demotion in case you have someone that will fill her spot. If you don't have anyone lined up, make arrangements for interviews and tell her that you are in the process of finding a replacement. Once a replacement for her current position is found, she could be demoted.

One more thing, she was dying before to get the job she is currently filling.

Sometimes it turns out for people that what they really wanted badly turned out not to be a good fit for various reasons - you live and you learn, so her attitude might has changed over time while in that position.

7

The fact that she wants fewer responsibilities and is willing to accept a lower salary doesn't really concern you and by itself isn't a red flag at all. She could very well have a good reason, but regardless, it's none of your business.

I do think, however, there are several things the other answers missed or over simplified.

First, you need to consider the needs of the company as well as those of the employee. It may not be as simple as just approving her request. Is she needed in her previous role? How long will it take to find a replacement for the role she's leaving and what's going to happen in the meantime?

The other thing I would advise is to separate the title/salary from the responsibilities. Find out what it is that she doesn't like about her current role and work from there. As you said, perhaps there's an issue with the role itself and accepting her request won't solve the underlying problem. You may also find that there's another role that's a great fit for her and doesn't require a demotion. Just be sure that whatever is decided, it's her choice. Don't pressure her or make her feel like there's anything wrong with her initial request (there's not).

Finally, if it does in fact work for the company and it's what she determines is best for her, then by all means approve the request.

7

Here's one more possibility that I haven't seen directly mentioned here - she genuinely wants more free time/less difficult life because her priorities and worldview have changed. This is a bit difficult to explain, but I'll give it a try:

Early in the last century there was some economist that predicted that by the middle of the 20th century or so people won't need to work full time in order to sustain their way of living. (I'm sorry, I don't remember the exact quote) Technology would have advanced enough that people would be able to sustain the same standard of living by working significantly less, and a "standard full work week" would become maybe like 20 hours or something.

And he was right and he wasn't right. Technology did indeed improve as predicted but instead of working less, people elected to work the same time (or even more!) and just get more luxuries.

This day and age there is a movement that tries to go the opposite way. It is based on the idea that you don't need a lot of possessions and/or luxuries to be happy. In fact, you should evaluate on a case-by-case basis. Note that this does NOT mean that you should renounce all worldly goods or something, but rather that you should carefully think about what it is that you're spending your money on and what your priorities are. And most people find that they would actually be happier if they worked less and spent the money more wisely.

I myself got the idea from this personal finance blog (although I cannot say that I would follow it), but it's possible that her motivations are similar.

5

I don't know what industry you're in, but it's almost a meme in software about great programmers who become managers (perhaps figuring that they can't be worse than the current ones) and then find they hate it. But for some reason going back to the trenches is frowned upon, plus they get more money, and so they stick with it. Then they don't do a very good job, and the cycle continues.

I don't see why it's a problem, and she might even be willing to cover the job temporarily when her replacement is absent.

But be sure to get the request in writing!

  • Ah, you mean the Peter Principle I am not sure if that would still be the case after 4 years, though. Btw, I didn't see you down the pub this weekend – Mawg says reinstate Monica Nov 25 at 7:09
  • I knew a case of a senior manager in a big company who was clearly miserable and counting the days to retirement. When the day came he got a job doing all the programming and IT for a small charity, working for nothing, and after a year he was happy as a sandbag. I raise my hat to the person who recognises that they have been over-promoted and decides to do something about it. – Michael Kay Nov 25 at 17:43
4

Sometimes people are uncomfortable doing the job they have switched to. They decide that the tasks are not for them. They might not have a problem with the responsibility, but the issue is with the things that have to be done everyday.

I have known people who wanted to go back to their previous position because:

  • Location. The old commute was easier.
  • They despise the amount of paperwork with the new job.
  • They spend all day in meetings.
  • The job is boring.

None of these is a reason to change the job responsibilities.

Now if the issue is:

  • the amount of work that has to be done can't be done in 40 hours.
  • The tools necessary to do the job are not available.

Then you might need to redefine the position. It also might mean it is a two person job.

You need to determine what the issue is, and realize that what they are feeling doesn't make them a bad employee.

Many years ago I switched into a position I thought I would love. I did the switch most of the way through the performance cycle. When it was time for the review I asked not to be reviewed, because I felt that in the months with them I had done nothing. They wanted a programmer, and had never had a programmer, but had nothing for me to program. They didn't know how to tell me what to do. That non-review because I felt like I needed to leave, ended up being very important. I came out of the discussion with an understanding that they had no idea I was ready to switch, I also now had permission to rip apart their procedures to look for a way to automate them. And a career was launched....

2

Depending on her age, planning to have children changes a lot. Especially for women. If she wants to have baby next year, it is a clever move to settle things, reduce workload, get rid of responsibilities now.

2

I don't see the problem with this, to be honest.

Not everybody makes every decision based on a cash sum figure. Life is, or should be, about more than that.

I managed a team for two years, and mostly enjoyed it, and got good results out of it. Then, I decided to change businesses, and I did not apply for a management job: I went back to development so that I did not have to deal with my team's personal problems any more. It would make my life easier and slightly less stressful. My salary of course went down as a result. This is fine. I made that decision. It doesn't mean I regret doing that job for two years: it just means that I didn't want to do it any more.

Sure, you should try to find ways to explore whether the situation can be resolved in a way that doesn't involve losing her in her current position (particularly as it may highlight some problems with your processes), but before you engage in this process with her I'd try to drop the preconception that her request is suspicious or even particularly weird.

1

I wanted to add that people change with time.

Health issues pop up.

Relatives get sick and need care.

Sometimes there is just not enough strength left in a person to keep up.

So, even though she wanted this job, and she was able to keep up, things may have changed for her.

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