Re-promotion: rescind promotion, retain employee – here’s how to proceed

Here's what bosses should know about promoting backwards

What to do when a team member’s promotion turns out to be a mistake? How to reverse it without losing the employee – and what to watch out for in terms of employment law.

Let’s assume you promote a high-performing employee to project or department manager, support him or her in finding his or her way in the new role – and after six months you discover that the promoted colleague is not up to the job. Goals are not met, team members don’t get along with new leader, turnover increases.

Before the company suffers further damage, the promotion should be reversed. However, this is a rather delicate step.

"A promotion back is always unpleasant and can quickly be accompanied by a loss of face," says Bernd Slaghuis, a business and career coach from Cologne, Germany. It is often perceived as a slight. Many then prefer to quit rather than take on the old tasks again. The company may then lose a valuable employee.

But how can a promotion be reversed in a way that keeps the employee motivated and with the company? We show in four steps how a promotion back can proceed in a way that is appreciative and less painful for the colleague concerned – and what you need to consider in terms of labor law.

1. Address the problem openly but gently

First of all, you should seek out the conversation and convey openly, but also appreciatively, that you do not find your employee suitable for the management task.

You could start the conversation something like this: "I appreciate your expertise, but I see now in the development that you are having difficulties with your leadership role. How do you feel about the task?"You can also address specific points, such as: "I miss clear messages to your team. How do you perceive such situations?" Maybe the employee himself is unhappy with the new position, then he will realize in the conversation that he does not meet your expectations.

"The most important thing is to avoid making the employee feel incompetent and like a failure," explains Jorn Fetkoter, a leadership coach from Hamburg, Germany. You can achieve this, for example, by emphasizing that it is only about this particular management task, which is not suitable for everyone.

In addition, be sure to communicate the promotion as your own mistake. Finally, you misjudged the employee’s abilities and decided to promote him or her! "Having made a mistake is not a catastrophe, but it is important that you accept your responsibility and take this misjudgment on your own head," says Fetkoter.

2. Pointing out perspectives

If your team member also realizes that he or she is unsuitable for the management task, take the next step: plan future cooperation – and do it together. You can ask something like, "We really want to keep you as a skilled employee because you are valuable to the company. Can you imagine going back?" Probably the employee will express fears of looking like a failure in front of the team. Therefore you should also offer: "What do you need to be able to continue to work here motivated and to arrive in the team anew?"

Together, you also discuss where you can ideally deploy the employee so that he or she also feels comfortable with the future tasks. Does he want to take over the old job one-to-one again or does the colleague want new challenges? For example, a sales manager who is still in charge of sales could in future only be responsible for key accounts as a re-sales employee. "If you open up new perspectives for your employee, a descent on the career ladder will feel less painful," says Slaghuis. Alternatively, you could offer further training so that the person concerned can gain further professional qualifications.

Attention: You should not create a special position especially for the affected employee. "The team will see through the fact that you are tricking around to avoid losing face," says Jorn Fetkoter. You should also not grant the person being promoted back any special rights, for example, that he or she may keep the individual office. "There you should set up very clear rules and also adhere to them," Fetkoter continues. For example, that only team leaders get an individual office.

3. Clarify salary issue

Normally the salary increases with the promotion, possibly there is a company cell phone or a company car in addition. This cannot be taken back without the employee’s consent. So if you don’t want to keep paying the executive salary, you need to renegotiate the salary and extras and put it in an amendment agreement to the existing employment contract.

If you don’t reach an agreement, however, you can also make a change notice. With it you terminate the employer-employee relationship and offer at the same time a new one to other conditions. "However, you need an effective reason for termination for this"; explains Ulf Weigelt, specialist attorney for labor law in Berlin. The usual rules of termination also apply in the case of dismissal with notice of change.

The latter option is likely to lead to discord. "In my experience, 90 percent of employees leave the company after a change notice," Weigelt says. How to avoid either the employee leaving or the company ending up paying a management salary for a skilled position?

The labor law expert recommends making contractual arrangements even before the promotion. Two options:

  • You can agree in writing on a probationary period, say six months, for the management position. If the promotion proves to be a mistake, it can be easily rescinded with all its conditions. "In addition, a promotion back during the probationary period is hardly perceived as a loss of reputation. After all, the employee has agreed to it," says Weigelt.
  • Alternatively, you can set a time limit for the management position, for example, for one year. This arrangement makes sense if the employee is in charge of a temporary project. He will hardly see it as his own failure if there is no new management task after the end of the project.

4. Publicly express appreciation

The last hurdle is to inform the team about the repatriation. "There is always a risk that it will be perceived as a failure," says coach Bernd Slaghuis. You can counteract this by discussing this step with the person concerned beforehand and responding to his or her wishes. "Perhaps the employee would prefer to communicate the decision to colleagues himself, to signal that he has gone along with it," explains Slaghuis.

However, if you take over the communication, then you should clearly show your appreciation for your employee to the team, for example by saying, "Colleague xy has taken over the position for half a year and we have agreed that he is better off in operations with his strengths and skills." Or: "We need to focus more on a new customer group and colleague XY is particularly suitable for this."

It is also important that you communicate the promotion as your own mistake in front of the whole team, as you have already done in the conversation with the employee concerned. Sentences like "It was my mistake" or "I misjudged" also protect the employee from losing face. Such statements are even rather perceived as strength.

And: in the last step, you should tell the team who will be the new leader.

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