Survey: Career-Management Programs Lacking

A new report finds many employees feel the need to look outside their own organization in order to advance their careers. Experts say HR needs to employ a more personal touch when discussing promotions and opportunities with workers.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
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Imagine if almost half of your employees -- or more than one-third of your high potentials -- believed they had to accept a position at another company to advance their career.

While that may sound far-fetched, those are some of the results of the 2016 Global Workforce Study conducted by Willis Towers Watson. Based on the responses from 3,105 employees, corporate career-management programs do not appear to be effective.

To wit: Only 41 percent of respondents think their employer does a good job providing advancement opportunities or promotions, while 52 percent believe their organization does a good job of providing opportunities for personal development. Forty-one percent say their organization offers career planning tools and resources, yet only 32 percent say their immediate supervisor or manager helps them with career planning and decisions.

Perhaps the most surprising result was that 47 percent think they would have to leave their employer and join another company to advance to a higher job level while 39 percent of high potentials said they would need to leave their employer to advance their career.

The firm also compared these results with responses from more than 2,000 employers who were asked similar questions in its 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study, in which 58 percent stated their career-management programs were effective at providing traditional career- advancement opportunities, including promotions and lateral moves. Although 42 percent said such opportunities improved over the past year, only 28 percent believed advancement opportunities have gotten better.

"We often see this one-size-fits-all mentality for a career-management program," says Renee Smith, the director for the future of work practice at the consulting firm in San Francisco. "Employees want something more personalized."

Since employers are also automating more job tasks and hiring contingent staff to perform other responsibilities, she says HR needs to update career management programs to accommodate the way work is now being done.

HR can also create a career market on the company's intranet or HR portal, adds Smith. She explains that managers can post career opportunities like special projects, temporary assignments, committee memberships, or philanthropic activities that employees can sign up for without supervisory approval.

"Remove the silo mentality and barriers of sharing talent and think of talent as a broader organizational resource, not just somebody in my immediate reporting chain," Smith says.

A version of this self-managing system or approach is observed at Las Vegas-based online retailer Zappos, says Ethan Bernstein, assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior and Berol Corporation fellow at Harvard Business School.

According to an article he co-authored that was published last summer by Harvard Business Review, "Zappos employees now have 7.4 roles on average, which they craft and revise to address shifting organizational and individual needs." They also negotiate with each other for tasks, allocate duties to those best equipped to carry them out, and use a "badges" system that quickly reveals their skills to other employees.

However, this system poses some HR challenges like ensuring that employees have enough resources and support to succeed, says Bernstein, who also teaches a course titled "Managing Your Career Development" for Harvard Business School's new online, global program that teaches fundamental skills for building a dynamic career. Unlike employees of the past, he says, current and probably future workers may have expectations of architecting their own career journey.

"HR needs to decide the kind of employees it wants and figure out what kind of career management to provide -- the traditional form or top down with vertical career paths -- or place the burden on employees and give them lots of lateral opportunities with all the support they need to basically sell themselves and build themselves in that process," he says.

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Another HR strategy is to build an external network across industries and locations of employees who are willing to share their career knowledge and advice with each other. While this approach may appear dangerous from a recruiting perspective, Bernstein says, this would remove some employee incentives to advance their career at another company.

Other times, HR professionals may be reluctant to train employees' at risk for leaving their job, which may push them out the door even quicker, says Seymour Adler, a partner in the talent and rewards practice at Aon Hewitt in New York.

"That person may still have a commitment and loyalty to your organization even if they never come back," he says, adding that no one sticks around 20 years for a gold watch. "HR needs to feel like they've done a good job focusing on their primary area, which is people."

The core reason for this perception gap about career-management programs, he says, is that many managers are competent in areas such as budgeting or technology, but lack people-management skills. With websites such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor, high potentials also know where the grass may be greener, he says, which often leads to a greater level of job dissatisfaction.

Still, there's a lot HR can do. Adler says they can assess people-management skills when making hiring or promotion decisions; become an opportunity broker for managers by providing them with multiple ways to satisfy employee career needs; use employee engagement or pulse surveys to identify turnover risk and then help managers intervene; and stay in touch with former employees since career development no longer occurs within a company's four walls.

"Sixty percent to 70 percent of this is acting as good people leaders, having the right conversations, listening to employee aspirations, working jointly, showing humility and a genuine commitment to that employee's career," Adler says. "Say 'I'm here for you even if some of your career may not be [spent] here.' "

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