Organizational Career Paths – They Kind of Suck (If Not Done Right)!

I originally brought this topic up last year when my friend Michael Carty at Xpert HR asked me to participate in the “If I Could Change One Thing About HR….” blog series. With this being mid-year and some organizations re-evaluating talent with mid-years reviews, I wanted to re-share this information.

Ultimately, I want organizations to begin using career paths like they are meant too and want to shed some light on what doesn’t work.

Feel free to share your ideas on what you have seen has worked and what hasn’t.

If I Could Change One Thing About HR…..

It would be the concept of defining career paths within an organization. Numerous organizations today work to define a career path for employees to see how they can advance; however, there tend to be more failures than successes with these career paths, meaning employees get no value or real result out of them.

Some of the failures that I have seen with career paths include:

1.    Organizations do not provide opportunities for employees to get the skills/knowledge needed to move to the next level.
Let’s say the organization has established career paths for a number of departments. However, when it comes to developing employees to be able to get the skills and knowledge needed to work towards the next level, either the money is not available for them develop through classes, conferences, etc, or the time is not available because they are bogged down with every project and minute task available because they are a good performer.

2.    The career paths are linear and one-directional. This ultimately forces the employee to stay on the career path they initially chose, rather than being able to cross over into different areas if they decide that career path is not for them.
When creating career paths, it should not be so linear that if you choose one path then you are stuck on that path unless you want to start from the very beginning again. Career paths should be built on a matrix platform to cross-develop skills amongst employees. Meaning employees learn all facets of the business so they are marketable to any department, which also allows them to truly find what they enjoy doing – much like finding and declaring a major in college.

3.    Opportunities rarely become available to demonstrate a career path exists.
How many times have you worked in an organization and the possibility to move up is not going to happen because someone will have to die or retire before a position becomes available? I have seen this all too often within HR, yet we are the biggest champions of building career paths…hmm. When employees see there is no path for advancement as a result of positions not becoming available, they eventually become discouraged, disengaged, and leave the organization. This can play out in one of two ways: 1) you lost a poor performer and it was best for the organization; or 2) you lost a great and bright performer and it is a loss to the organization.

4.     Usually there are no defined plans on how the employee gets to the next level (e.g., need to learn financials, learn HR, etc.); it is generally impromptu based on what the employee’s manager feels is needed to get to that path.
A career path has been defined, but how do you get to the next level? Ever had to put this question to your manager? Career paths are typically thought out because they sound great, but no one seems to really know how to get to the next step. Why are we not educating our mangers on this information? Why don’t our managers know how they can move to the next level? At this rate, can we expect any more from our managers if they do not even know how they can advance?

5.    Examples of those employees who have moved up are not diverse in nature and typically represent corporate employees; thus, representing to field employees that unless you are a corporate employee, there is no defined way for you to move up.
I have seen some good career path developments, but when we look at who has benefited from a defined career path, it is typically a corporate employee. If you are an organization that has field employees, what kind of image does this present to them? Especially if they see that an opportunity will rarely present itself for a field management position to ever come open. If you want to show impact, show employees how your line-level employees moved up and not someone that did it 25 years ago!

6.    Mentors are not required and usually not encouraged to guide process of employee development and provide “real” feedback.
If I want to move up in the organization by following the career path outlined by the organization, why wouldn’t I have someone to guide me through this process? I am not going to say any more.

7.    A defined talent review process has not been established within the organization so no one knows what the talent looks like across the board or how people are progressing in relation to succession planning.
We develop people as per the established career paths, but who is keeping track of these people? When there is not an established talent review process to determine where employees are in their development, there is no way you can develop succession planning and move people accordingly.

8.   A talent review process has been established, but discussion does not take place as to where associates fall within the organization.
In many situations, a talent review process has been conducted but management does not inform employees where they fall within the talent review process. If an employee does not know where they fall in terms of their readiness for career progression, how can they be invested into the organization to want to progress further? Someone’s performance shouldn’t be a secret – if an employee knows they are doing well and on track to progress, this will likely engage them even more!

9.    Expectations of timeframes to progress career are not defined.
A career path sounds awesome, especially if it has all the characteristics to be awesome (e.g. mentors, development opportunities, etc); however, if the reality is that it will take you 15 years just to become a manger then the organization should not be using their defined career paths as a perk for employees or in their recruiting process to attract top talent. This would just tell me that I can get my start here, take what the organization will provide me in terms of development, and then look for a management position somewhere else.

10.    Managers are not invested in developing their employees, nor held accountable to develop their employees.
I have come to the conclusion that some people just do not care about others and unfortunately, a lot of them tend to be in organizational management. Funny thing is, we expect these managers to develop their employees, but when they do not, nothing occurs. It is just shrugged off as that is the way they are and the employee suffers in the end. Where is the accountability?

11.    Poor performers are developed, whereas good performers are ignored because they get the job done.
How many times have you seen your co-worker get promoted – the one that does nothing, takes a two hour lunch, and works maybe two hours a day? Yet, you bust your butt day-in and day-out. Don’t we all wonder why this occurs? I recently saw a documentary regarding people that get promoted to positions and truthfully should not. One of the interviewees, a professor from a university, stated, “People who will give you the answers you want or will give you the wrong answers, get promoted because they will say absurd things.” Now think about how true this is…..it is absolutely true. These are the people that everyone knows are idiots. They will usually get the organization in some sort of trouble down the line, and they can be used as the scapegoat. Again, what image does this send to employees that perform well?

Organizations need to truly understand that it shouldn’t take a defined career path to develop employees. Everyone in the organization should be working together to develop each other, but even more, managers must be held responsible to develop their employees. Oh wait, now I am going to get the classic question from the manager – “But the employee is not worth developing and their performance is terrible.” Umm, my response to this question….hello, why are we not holding the employee accountable for their poor performance? Have we determined if it is a wrong skill set or job placement or is it truly the case that they are not a performer? Have we documented the poor performance? Is the employee on a performance improvement plan?

Nothing irritates me more than when managers turn a blind eye to employee performance and then want HR to manage it for them. Again, it comes back to accountability!

When it comes down to it, individuals are ultimately the only people that will take charge of their development and career growth; although, organizations that take a vested interest in developing their employees are those organizations that are pushing their industries to the next level. They are creating and sustaining competitive advantages to be top leaders.

Photo Credit:

Bowman Coaching


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