You’ve just gotten word about a great job at a company you admire and, from everything you’ve seen so far, it’s perfect for you. Next step: submit your application, resume and cover letter. Next step after that: sink into a state of fear and paralysis. Why? Because, not long ago, your career hit an ugly little speed bump. You were demoted. And while the personal pain of that event has started to subside, you worry that it has put a permanent stain on your resume – and your career aspirations. As an executive recruiter, I am often struck by how highly competent professionals can remain haunted by a past demotion. While no one can whip out a magic eraser and undo what has happened, I can offer you something better. I can tell you what works. Here is a realistic strategy for dealing with a demotion on your resume, in five simple steps.
1. Stop letting somebody else’s past decisions drive your career goals.
Yes, you got demoted. Maybe you were treated unfairly. Or maybe you, along with everyone else involved, knew you were in over your head. Either way, your employer let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they had stopped perceiving you as “right” for the job. But that was then. That was their narrative. And that’s history. Nobody owns your career aspirations but you. Until you embrace that fact, you’re allowing other people to dictate the trajectory of your life.
2. Embrace the truth but change the narrative.
What kind of job are you now pursuing? (Is it lateral to your current position? Or are you seeking something with greater responsibility, something similar to the position from which you were demoted?) How you word your resume will depend on your answer that question.
If it’s the former, your path forward is easier. On your resume, note one or two successes in the higher-level position. But for your current (more similar) position, emphasize at least three home runs, using the strongest language you can muster. Do not use the word demotion. Do not volunteer the fact that it happened.
But let’s say you’re applying for a higher level position. In that case, you have a little more work to do. First, repeat after me, “Career paths don’t have to travel in straight lines. Many successful people have lateral moves, curve balls and u-turns on their resumes.” Now ask yourself some necessary (if tough) questions. What are the reasons you weren’t ready for the job from which you were demoted? What hard skills/soft skills/experience/perspectives did you lack then that you have since acquired? How did you acquire them? While you can’t hide a demotion, you can stop treating it like it’s radioactive and, instead, start promoting it as an important learning experience. When noting your previous, higher-level job on your resume, emphasize two to four solid successes if possible. For your current position, do the same. Then add specific growth experiences you’ve had since being demoted. Whatever education, training, coaching or mentoring you’ve received should be included. List the skills you now and give examples of how you demonstrate them. Present yourself as someone who is now ready for that bigger job.
3. Choose your references wisely.
Spend some time figuring out who knows about your demotion – and is capable of giving you a no-holds-barred endorsement anyway. This will likely require some detailed, heart to heart discussions. When you speak with a prospective reference, describe your career goals, articulate the skills you now have and how you’ve acquired them, and ask whether they’re comfortable recommending you.
4. Make sure your LinkedIn profile supports your goals.
If you aren’t doing so already, start treating your online presence like a dynamic career tool. Beyond uploading your updated resume, use LinkedIn to garner as many recommendations as you can. These should be from credible people with knowledge of your professional abilities. From supervisors and colleagues to clients and vendors to organizations for whom to whom you have donated your (relevant) skills, reach out and ask these people to speak up for you on LinkedIn. Just remember the golden rule when seeking recommendations: be sure you reciprocate.
5. Prepare for the interview by keeping it positive.
A past demotion may still stir up deep emotions. That’s okay. But making those emotions visible to an interviewer is not okay. Do not make even one disparaging peep about your employer. You will only brand yourself as the candidate with a chip on his shoulder. If the hiring manager asks about the demotion, be ready with a brief, calm and upbeat summary of the event.
If you’re applying for a job similar to your current position, three or four sentences should do it. “There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a supervisor and I was thrilled when my excellent work was rewarded with a supervisor position. But the truth is, I quickly discovered that it wasn’t what I wanted. I like generating my own results and working on teams of peers. I found that supervising others and dealing with the protocols and paperwork associated with supervising just weren’t for me.”
If you’re applying for something more in line with the prior, higher-level job, stick to one or two truthful, positive messages about why you’re ready now. “During my time as a supervisor of the widget department, I enjoyed being a team leader. But I also realized that, to be the best manager I could be, I needed to take a step back and build my project planning and administration skills. Since then, I have done that and I’m ready to take on a larger role that includes both people management and project management.”
Above all else, keep your focus where it belongs: on your future. Don’t dwell on the past. Set realistic goals, promote your strengths and stay true to yourself. You want that new job? Go get it.
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We'd love to hear from you. How did you position a demotion on your resume or in a job interview? Employers, how do you react when you interview employees who are transparent about a demotion in their job history?
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