Saving Face in the Face of a Demotion

The saga of the reported demotion of Ann Curry, the “Today” show anchor, causes me to consider how high-profile executives can save face and prosper after suffering a similar fate.

“Today” show anchor Ann Curry’s demotion mirrors what many executives go through.

Although Curry’s ordeal is being played out in the national media, executives who are demoted feel the heat in their own way: in the business and trade press, in the industry rumor mill, and among their colleagues and competitors. There may be no paparazzi stalking them, but the stress and embarrassment is just as bad for those going through it.

Regardless of whether the subject is a CEO or a network news anchor, however, she needs to have an experienced executive employment lawyer on her side (for reasons that will become obvious).

Demotions happen all the time, though, and most professionals understand that public demotions sometimes happen because of forces outside the executive’s or public figure’s control. Of course, if the demotion happens because of wrongdoing (such as sexual harassment), the chances of an executive rehabilitating himself or herself is less than if it’s because of a company’s poor financial performance or, in Curry’s case, lackluster ratings.

Corporate boards will often downgrade a high-profile executive simply to send a message to shareholders that the directors aren’t tone-deaf, even if the demotion doesn’t actually address the underlying problem of a slumping share price. In order to save face and move on after a public spanking, executives have some options:

  •  Maintain some emotional distance from the situation: True, the “it’s just business, it’s not personal” mantra rarely offers any comfort to the executive who bears the personal brunt of the business decision. But, particularly if the company simply needed a scapegoat, most people “in the know” will understand that the decision wasn’t a personal reflection on the executive’s skills and talents. Maintaining one’s professionalism in the face of a public demotion—as Curry has—goes a long way toward rehabilitating an executive’s reputation.
  •  Stay or go? In some cases, it’s in the executive’s best interest to stay at the company. In others, leaving is the better option. Is the demotion simply a precursor to being fired? If that’s the case (and that can take some sleuthing to determine), then the executive’s best bet is to start finding another position. Likewise, if the new position deprives the executive of the ability to service his or her clients, then leaving may be the best option. Alternatively, if the demotion is simply a temporary setback, staying put may be the best path to rehabilitation. A few years and a few successes can have miraculous healing powers.
  •  When to speak up: If the demotion is in response to an alleged wrongdoing that the executive did not commit, he may have no choice but to make a measured and respectful public statement that takes issue with the demotion and maintains the executive’s innocence. In such a case, leaving the company is pretty much the only option.
  •  When to suck it up: In most cases, the demotion will be of the “we just needed a scapegoat” variety, meaning the executive’s best course of action is a public statement that acknowledges responsibility and looks forward to a continued role at the company: “Unfortunately, these are tough times and our numbers reflect that,” the executive could say. “I take full responsibility and I look forward to increasing those numbers in the future in my new role.” Such a statement indicates that the executive is taking responsibility but notes that factors outside her control played a role in the company’s poor financial performance.
  •  It’s not just money: If an executive decides it’s in his best interest to leave, he needs to negotiate his severance agreement with care. Clearly, money is an issue, but so are non-compete clauses and non-solicitation clauses. In addition, he will want to have a say in what the company says, internally and externally, about his departure. The executive’s employment contract may address some of these issues, but it may not. (For what it’s worth, NBC’s Curry is reportedly walking away from the “Today” show with a respectable $10 million and a job as one of the network’s foreign correspondents.) Negotiating a severance agreement is not a DIY project. Any executive in such a position needs a good executive employment lawyer on his or her side.

A public demotion may be embarrassing, but it doesn’t have to be career-ending. With some diplomacy, dispassionate analysis, and careful negotiation, an executive (or a network anchor) may be just fine in the end.

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