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Part II: Demoted for criticizing my boss

photo-illustration collage by franke james using 2 licensed istockphotos. ©iStockphoto.com/Charlie Bishop penguins; Skip ODonnell for crown

Dear Office-Politics,

I’m an Army cadet at an elite military academy in the U.S. Last semester, I was promoted to one of the highest positions in my class by the faculty officer in charge. The only person higher than me was a cadet with a rank that made him my boss.

I did my job well enough to receive commendation from the faculty officer in charge, but with the arrival of the new semester, I was demoted to one of the lowest positions in my class. The cadet who was my boss was in charge of promotions and demotions. A few very reliable friends of mine heard him saying that he demoted me based on the sole fact that he didn’t like me. This may be due to the fact that I am among many, many cadets who have criticized him openly for lack of leadership skills and the fact that he used his rank to maintain his seniority over other cadets.

Although I was a critic of his, I still performed my job with excellence and feel like he had no reason to demote me, save the fact that we don’t like each other. Should I confront him about this? Should I go over his head and bring this up to the faculty officer in charge? Any help would be appreciated!


Newly Demoted

franke james

Dear Newly Demoted,

You’ve identified your mistake as speaking out against your boss: “I am among many, many cadets who have criticized him openly for lack of leadership skills and the fact that he used his rank to maintain his seniority over other cadets.

You ‘Wounded the King’, but didn’t kill him

Casual banter and gossip has sunk many careers. If you could do it all over again you might decide that keeping your cards close to your chest would have been the wiser move. It probably felt great to share your caustic opinion of him with your buddies, but did it achieve anything? It only alerted him to your dislike of him. In effect you ‘Wounded the King’, but you didn’t kill him.

‘Wounding the King’ is when you criticize someone who has more power than you. As soon as your fellow cadet had a chance, he retaliated and demoted you. The old saying goes, “If you’re going to attack the king, kill him, or don’t go after him.” (Office-Politics Advisers Brandon and Seldman have written about this phenomenon in many letters on our site and in their book Survival of the Savvy.)

Was criticizing your boss really a mistake?

Your boss’ behavior would be considered very heavy-handed in the civilian world. But in the army it’s probably considered reasonable. You disrespected him and he squashed you, as a lesson to you and your peers of his ‘power’. It sounds harsh, but when you consider that officers have to be able to issue orders, and trust that soldiers will do what they say without question, it makes more sense. Respect for authority is critical in the military.

People who aren’t in the army may think your situation is very unfair. Shouldn’t we always stand up for what’s right and blow the whistle? There may come a time when you do have to blow the whistle on an officer over a life and death issue. But this incident probably isn’t the one you want to put your neck on the line for.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics. Please let us know how it goes.



Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. 3 Answers to “Part II: Demoted for criticizing my boss”

  2. Demoted:

    You learned a cheap lesson at a good time. Having been both a cadet and an Army officer, I can honestly tell you that the Boy’s School on the Hudson is not the “real” Army, nor is it an “office” where regular rules apply. It will give you a good education, and a good look at real life.

    1. What you did was disloyal. Any hint of disloyalty is harshly squashed in the Army and the Corps of Cadets. To criticize one is to criticize all; hence, you have to die as an example to others.

    2. The Army and Corps of Cadets is filled with sociopaths who do things because they can. Period.

    3. Going to your TAC Officer will only compound the problems. The TAC won’t do anything (it doesn’t get him anything and you are expendable). The TAC will think that you are a “whiner” and mentally blackball you. The guy who demoted you will find out and really bring out the axe for you. Everyone will close ranks against you because that is the easiest course of action – it can be a long next 2-3 years without friends or associates…

    4. Learn from the experience. Suck it up. Be quiet. Take it like a man and wait for your next opportunity to rise. Learn not to wear a bulls-eye t-shirt.

    5. In the “real” Army, they will ruin your career. Ruin you reputation; humiliate you and possibly do you harm. Whistleblowers are not protected. Whiners are run into the ground. Eventually, everyone falls into line or leaves. Duty, Honor and Country is only for public consumption. In reality, it is CYA and look out for yourself. The only person who will take better care of yourself, is yourself.

    BTDT. A veteran of internal and external wars.

    Good Luck!

    By H. Gill on Jan 27, 2008

  3. Follow-up research on Promotions in Military:
    Source: Public Administration Review Channel modeling: from West Point cadet to general.

    “The U.S. Army and Air Force are two of many organizations that are characterized as meritocracies, where career advancement is supposed to be determined mostly by one’s ability to achieve institutional goals. Critics have long claimed, however, that promotion in a meritocracy is inevitably affected by factors separate from competence (Young, 1958). Moore and Trout (1978) contrast “performance theory,” which says that promotion in the military goes to those who perform best, with their preferred “visibility theory,” which stresses the importance of being seen and known and of having contacts with peers and mentors who can influence one’s upward mobility.

    “We examine military rank attainment of a West Point class, evaluating the importance of men’s “visibility” assets in attaining their highest promotion: lieutenant colonel, colonel, or ascending grades of general. The most salient aspect of visibility is literally how one looks. Atkinson refers to the “lantern jaw and chiseled features prized in military officers” (1981). A fictitious first captain at West Point, created by an academy graduate, is described thus: “He had one of those young Gregory Peck faces, the dark handsome good looks of a born general. It had always seemed there was an unwritten requirement that first captains and other high-ranking cadets be attractive…not just good looking, but…idols. Statues to the American idea of cadet…. At 6[feet]1[inch], 185 pounds, a letterman in soccer and lacrosse, he was the ideal first captain. There was a certain awkwardness – intimidation – in his presence” (Truscott, 1978; 414).

    “Do looks really influence promotion? We also examine the structure of the promotion process because it became clear to us that whether or not one attends military staff college and war college are important branch points that affect one’s subsequent chance for promotion. These schools serve as gates, passing or removing aspirants for top positions (Rosenbaum, 1984). In other words, there are “channels” running through the military promotion system, shunting some men into retirement as lieutenant colonels (a relatively low rank for a West Point graduate), while others “flow” forward until they are either diverted to the middle level of the hierarchy or continue upward into the pool of candidates for general officer.

    “Our emphasis on visibility features and promotion channels does not deny the relevance of personal ability and effort, which are clearly important for military promotion. Instead we suggest that consideration of visibility and channels provides a more complete explanation of the promotion process and its outcomes…”

    By Franke James on Mar 6, 2008

  4. I have been working for a company for less than a year. A co-worker found a falsified accident report that our supervisor filled out and foulishly left in on his desk in full view. The supervisor was the one who had the accident but was not brave enough to tell what really happened. My co-worker saw the accident and was upset, so he printed it out and sent it in to all departments so it would reach someone and not be thrown away. He explained the falsification and all here at work know it to be a fact. Corporate has been fishing for who sent it but no one will say. Another co-worker was accused of having sent it and said to be “not a man because he didn’t sign it. This co-worker got very upset and demanded an apology and got it. But He is not sure they believed him. He is still very upset and wonders what to do.

    By lee guidry on May 14, 2009

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