A demotion at work can be a life-changing event and employers are duty bound to handle such things carefully. Being demoted can for some be the difference between being able to pay the mortgage or not, so it’s essential that employees understand their rights in this regard. Being demoted without notice could be deemed as unreasonable. Employers typically have an in house disciplinary procedure that addresses demotions.
Familiarise yourself with the sections regarding discipline, demotions and dismissals in your contract and employee handbook. You may also have rights under any union memberships you have. Although rare, some employment contracts make provisions to rule out demotion as a disciplinary function, leaving just disciplinary proceedings and dismissal as the employer’s options. If the demotion carries with it a reduction in pay, this too may be a breach of your employment contract. This is especially true if you are demoted without notice. Typically, employer disciplinary guidelines stipulate that employees are entitled to a meeting to discuss major disciplinary issues.
The process of receiving a verbal warning then written warning prior to disciplinary action is a common one in the UK. Your contract or employee handbook should stipulate how many of each are required before the employer may take further disciplinary action. Since a demotion means that you’ll continue working for the same company but with fewer responsibilities and possibly less pay, it is fair for you to believe that the move is linked to performance, rather than behavior. In which case, your employer should give you reasonable opportunities to improve before demoting you.
A demotion may constitute constructive dismissal if it is deemed arbitrary or in some way unfair. If your employer doesn’t provide appraisals or give you feedback, they can’t reasonably enforce a demotion, since you will have received no notice of their intentions and therefore will have had no opportunity to make improvements. Also, it is considered best practice that if an employee is demoted to a less senior role, they are made clear of the reasons why. You can’t be clear of the reasons for the demotion if it came without notice.
A demotion constitutes a contractual change and unless your contract allows this, demotion with or without notice may constitute a breach of contract. The conciliation service ACAS has a code of conduct that stipulates employers may only use demotion if it is allowed for in the employment contract.