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How to think through a “demotion”

Even when the job market is abysmal, we still like to think that all our hard work is getting us somewhere. We want to see a logical progression in our career choices — preferably in the direction of up — so it’s naturally disheartening when things go the other way.

In interviewing HR leaders at the absolute top of their game (mainly chief people officers of highly successful corporations with a commitment to workplace excellence), I’ve been seeing repeated examples of career histories that included at least one boot down the stairs. And in every instance, the interviewees can look back now and say it was one of the best things that happened to them.  How could that be, other than a masterful turn at rationalization?  They are able to see the logic in the career path from the higher vantage point of experience.

If you find yourself in that situation, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Does this new opportunity give you the chance to build your network of influence over time? As Gap Inc.’s, executive vice president of HR, communications and social responsibility, Eva Sage-Gavin advised: “[I decided to give] myself a much broader expanse of experiences and competencies. They, in turn, would position me for opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to even imagine if I had just kept focused on a clearly defined, specific career path. I moved 14 times. I took jobs that no one else wanted. Those experiences made me stronger and I learned many aspects of business that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
  • Will the experience make you a better business partner in the long run? Does the new gig put you in a different business unit?  If you had a cushy berth at HQ, are you now out in the field with your sleeves rolled up and dirt under your nails?  Are you now a grunt in a struggling business unit that you have the chance to save?  Are you being demoted out of a dying division and thrust into an operation that the company is pouring investment money into?
  • Will the opportunity give you a fresh perspective on the potential and passion of HR as a life-long career choice? Let’s face it, HR is really draining sometimes — often all the time. And some HR leaders I’ve spoken with over the years speak of a time in their own careers when they were just plain tired of all things HR.  But they still enjoyed the company they worked for, so they put in for a jump into an entirely different corporate function, even though it might mean a demotion because of their lack of experience in that particular department. Those who do return to HR after such a stint where, as it turns out, the grass isn’t greener at all, come back with a fresh appreciation for the power of HR to make a huge difference to both the company and in people’s lives.  They also come back with a fresh appreciation for how hard it is for their non-HR colleagues to push product out the door and develop an eager market waiting to snap that product up.

A step down isn’t always bad news.  Even if it’s a performance-based demotion, it’s certainly better than being shown the door.  And in most cases it’s a developmental opportunity that you are unlikely to have volunteered for.

But there it is. A possibility right in front of you. It may not have been your first choice.  But what you do with that opportunity — especially in the context of your overall career path?  That is entirely your choice.

Image credit, sjlocke, via iStock