Signs That You've Been Stealth Demoted in Your Job
Here are 5 steps to take if you have
Posted August 7, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- A stealth demotion is when you quietly lose decision-making authority while retaining the same title.
- It's important to recognize when you've actually been stealth demoted. Understand what stealth demotion really means.
- Inquire about the reasons behind the stealth demotion. Your leader should know that you can't simply be pushed around.
- If things aren't resolved to your satisfaction, consider going elsewhere and making it clear that you are not happy with the demotion.
You don't have to lose your official title to be demoted. Earlier in my career, after churning out a series of successful projects, the head of my office at the time continued to heap praise on me. Yet, he soon hired someone, whom we'll call Reminds Bossofhimeslf, to place in between me and him in the office hierarchy. While I would retain my existing title, Reminds Bossofhimeslf had a fancier title and more authority than me and, unlike me, regularly hung out with the head of the office on social occasions.
Moreover, and this took the proverbial cake, I had to then report to Reminds Bossofhimeslf while training Reminds. Yes, I had, in effect, been quietly demoted ,or what you can call "stealth demoted."
It was a stealth demotion because no one had explicitly told me that I had been demoted. From a distance, it certainly didn't look like a demotion. But the heaping praise that occurred turned out to be a heaping pile of nothing. The same title with less authority is like adding beef to a salad and still calling it a vegetarian dish.
Because let's be real, your relative position and decision-making authority in an organization are what matter. Titles and praise can be like iceberg lettuce in a salad, cheap and easy to dispense. Just look at how many freaking vice-presidents there can be at a bank, for example. And who really wants to be the Associate Chief Vice-President of the Coffee Machine on the Fourth Floor when everyone knows that it's the President of the Coffee Machine on the Fourth and Fifth Floors who holds the real power? Remember when that character Milton in the movie Office Space was moved to the basement? That was a severe case of a stealth demotion because the manager Bill Lumbergh wanted to get rid of Milton without dealing with the complications of firing him.
Managers and other leaders may also use stealth demotions when they still want to take advantage of your work but perhaps want to reduce your power or interact with someone else. For example, at another point in my career, I told the leader of a department, whom we'll call Afraidof Anyonewhomaybeathreat about my plans to grow my activities and work. Rather than being encouraging, he then responded that he didn't want anyone in his department to "empire-build" while he sported one of those I-really-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom-now looks. Soon thereafter, Afraidof inserted another person, whom we'll call Didnt Poseathreat, in between me and him in the department hierarchy.
Stealth demotions can happen to entire groups of people and professions as well. For example, over the past few decades, many medical doctors have in essence been stealth demoted in clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare organizations throughout the country. Prior to the 1990s, many practices and healthcare organizations were led by medical doctors who saw patients themselves. But since then, more and more layers of upper management have been added, leaving doctors like that plate beneath a 12-layer chocolate cake with the same responsibilities of propping everything up but much less autonomy and decision-making power.
So what do you do when you've been stealth demoted? Here are five steps you can take:
1. Recognize when you've actually been stealth demoted.
Don't let your title and the praise that you receive deceive you. Titles and talk are cheap. Instead, ask yourself whether you still have the same decision-making authority as you previously did in the organization. If your answer is "I'm not sure", "heck no", or "I'm not allowed to answer," then chances are you've already been stealth demoted. Not acknowledging a stealth demotion can be like seeing selfies on Instagram of your significant other smooching with someone else in Las Vegas and being glad that your significant other finally made it to Vegas without your having to pay for it.
2. Understand what stealth demotion really means. Spoiler alert: It's usually not good.
No one should say, "I got stealth demoted today. Let's have some cake and celebrate." It's rarely a good sign unless you happen to be that Lester Burnham character in the movie American Beauty and are looking for "the least possible amount of responsibility" that you can find. A true leader will be upfront and honest with you so that you don't ever have to wonder, "gee, was I just demoted?" If you've done something to merit the demotion, then the leader at least owes it to you to frankly tell you why and what you can do to reverse the situation in the near future.
If you've been productive for the team and there's no clear reason to demote you, a true leader will realize that he or she can't demote you without offering something substantial to compensate. For example, if the leader wants to insert a person in between the two of you, then that leader should consider upping your authority in other ways, such as increasing the budget that you control, having you lead a high-profile project, or offering you additional career opportunities.
3. Inquire about the reasons behind the stealth demotion.
Don't let the leader off the hook. Your leader should know that you can't simply be pushed around like hot dogs on a grill. If your leader had made an honest oversight, he or she should quickly apologize and try to remedy the situation. However, if the leader fails to take responsibility or consider your feelings, saying something like "it is what it is" or "unfortunately, it happened," that's a bad sign. Even worse, the leader may deny that you were actually demoted. .
4. If things aren't resolved to your satisfaction, consider going elsewhere.
Again, you probably wouldn't say, "This job is great. I keep getting demoted." So, why should a stealth demotion be any different? A leader of an organization or department shouldn't be able to have his or her cake and eat it too. You may want to take your flour, frosting, filling, and the marzipan frog that sits on top of your cake somewhere else if you can. After all, once you get stealth demoted who knows when it may happen again? A stealth demotion can be a glimpse into the future. You may have, for example, hit the "glass ceiling" in an organization because your race, ethnicity, sex, gender, age, appearance, background, or something else just doesn't match that of upper management.
5. Consider making it clear that you are not happy with the demotion.
Someone once told me the two-by-four rule: Some people do not realize something until hit by a two-by-four. While this doesn't mean that you should come to work with a wood plank and start swinging, it does mean that some people need to be told point-blank the consequences of their actions before they will rectify the situation. So, you could tell your leader that you are not happy with demotion and that it makes you feel unappreciated. Depending on your personal and professional situation and leverage, you might even say that you will leave if the demotion isn't reversed. But, of course, not everyone may be in the position to say something like that.
At the very least, you may want to plan a stealth departure from that department or organization. Normally, it's better to maintain open communications with your department and organization leader. Stealthiness from either side will end up eroding trust. But if your leader has already shown that he or she can be stealthy with you, then you may need some stealth help.