Is Getting 'Layered' At Work An Automatic Demotion?

A new level above you in the org chart isn't necessarily a career setback.
Getting layered with more management may not feel great at first, but it may not be bad for your career.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Getting layered with more management may not feel great at first, but it may not be bad for your career.

You may go to work reporting to your boss one day, but find yourself reporting to a new senior person in between you and your boss the next.

If so, you’ve just been “layered.”

“Layering is when the organization puts somebody in between you and your current boss,” explained Mary Abbajay, president of leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group and author of “Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.”

Is this a cause for celebration or a time for receiving condolences? It depends. Layering can happen in growing companies that go from a handful of employees with no managers to hundreds of employees in need of clearer oversight. Restructurings are common in general.

But it can also be a red flag about your team’s performance. And when the majority of us get a sense of identity from work, we can take the change personally, especially when we wanted be the new layer, not the layered. Newly layered employees can interpret the action as a sign that they are losing status.

“People, when they get layered, they immediately go into, ‘This is terrible, Now I’m that much further from power.’ And that’s not necessarily the case,” Abbajay said.

Don’t assume it’s a demotion.

Layering can happen when a company grows or a manager has too many direct reports. If this is why you’re being layered, having a boss with a more engaged and active presence can be great for your career. As one 2010 study found, the most common type of incompetent leadership employees experience is the laissez-faire leader who is not involved in your career and “physically occupies the leadership position, but in practice has abdicated the responsibilities and duties assigned” to their role as a manager.

“Sometimes it’s a huge relief if you’ve ever had that manager who is completely unavailable because they’re stretched too thin,” said Nicole Sanchez, the founder and managing partner of Vaya Consulting, a firm that advises companies on diversity and inclusion. “Layering can also be great when you’re trying to learn a specific function and that person who’s hired above you can provide mentorship and/or sponsorship.”

If that’s the case, you can view layering as an opportunity for growth. It can also ensure that everyone is receiving the same information about how careers develop at a company. “I’ve come into many companies where they’re like, ‘We don’t want managers,’” Sanchez said. “If the levels of accountability aren’t clear, the first people to get hurt are people who don’t have familiarity with the way this particular network works.”

Don’t jump to quit.

Lead with positive intent about the situation before you start looking at other teams or companies. “Give it six months until you know who [the new] person is,” Abbajay suggested. “Unless, of course, the person that got layered on top of you is a complete and total jerk.”

“Until you’ve given that person a shot, I think it’s really hard to make a decision that you automatically should go based on this. There’s always more to learn,” Sanchez said. “It’s a good gut check to say: ‘Is this my pride talking because I think I should have this position or am I really out because this process was shady?’... Be honest with yourself.”

Know layering can be a “uh-oh” moment, too.

To be clear, layering can also be a sign that there are problems in the organization. The worst time to get layered, Abbajay said, is when your department or boss isn’t performing well “and they bring someone in” to deal with that.

How the layering was communicated to you can also give you information about how you’re valued at the company, and let you judge if the decision was fair.

Layering should not be a surprise, and it gets harder to deal with later in your career, Sanchez said. “Where it stinks is when you didn’t know it was coming, or didn’t have a shot at the position but would have liked to,” Sanchez said.

Your manager should ideally be communicating about why you are getting layered before it happens. If you have questions and you wanted the position, seek clarity from your new boss and your old boss about what it would take for you to be in the running. “Don’t say, ‘Why am I not there?’ Say, ‘I would love to be considered for an opportunity. Help me think through the gaps in my skillset and my CV that would help me be considered next time,’” Abbajay said.

Take this advice if you are the new layer.

If you are the new layer on top of a team, acknowledge the elephant in the room, said Abbajay, who has been in this position. “I was sensitive to the fact that I was not going to be a welcome sight,” she said.

Good managers know that they have to earn their team’s trust before making radical changes. Keeping open lines of communication about why changes happen helps employees see the decision as fair. “I came in and I totally acknowledged, ‘I get that this may feel awkward and I understand that perhaps even some of you may have wanted this job. Here’s why I was brought in,’” Abbajay said. “I came in knowing it was was going to take some time to build these relationships.”

When an employee’s status is lowered by the organizational chart, a new layer needs to make sure that layered employees’ self-confidence and sense of worth at the company isn’t also lowered. Being that new manager, Abbajay said, is “about maintaining their individual sense of status” and remind them they are valued at the organization.

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