See the path ahead

Attract better hires and develop current employees with a strong career path program.
A graphic of a person climbing stairs to a trophy with the words "see the path ahead."

There are some really good reasons for having designated career paths. It sends the right message to your team and becomes part of your employee experience. We’re all fighting for the same pool of talented workers, so why not stand out? Why not let your development or career path become part of your employer brand?

A study by global staffing firm Randstad, Atlanta, Georgia, found that 73% of employers said that fostering employee development is important. However, only 49% of employees said that companies adhere to this practice. In the same study, between 25%-29% of workers said that a lack of growth opportunities was the main reason for wanting to quit. And 80% of workers do not think that their current employer offers growth opportunities.

A lot of companies may not recognize the value of career pathing or the practice exists solely as a process in the employee handbook. In an ideal situation, companies make this practice a priority and their employees are well aware of it. Even without a dedicated human resources person, smaller companies should take advantage of career pathing so that structure is communicated and applied consistently. A clear and transparent process is going to help retain employees.

Structure for the future

Look at your goals and priorities for the next 3-5 years and think about what your business is doing in the marketplace. Is it growing? Is it going to hit a plateau? Are you looking to acquire new customers or are you retaining customers right now? Analyze those business priorities and think about the titles and employees you need to accomplish those goals.

Look at your overall organizational chart if you have one. If not, maybe it’s time to create one. It’s a nice visual that is easily shared with all employees, even if it’s just a few sentences or a paragraph of key job duties and titles. Once you’ve defined your organizational structure and outlined the job duties and descriptions, you can begin to work with an employee to figure out which road they would like to go down.

Sometimes those roles are pretty limited. And that’s OK. It’s still sending the right message. For a small company, there may only be 10 different opportunities compared to a larger organization where there could be hundreds. But it’s something to look at and have a conversation related to what they would like to learn about or an area they would like to develop. That shows how they tie into the overall goals of the organization. It’s important for folks to be able to see the strategies and priorities for the next several years and how they might fit into that.

We don’t have to just think vertically, either. Career pathing can be horizontal. It could be diagonal. It could be just learning all the aspects of the business through job rotations. That might help zoom in on someone’s interests or even better, their true strengths.

You can play around with titles. Titles are emotional for people. Maybe you have a technician, and then a lead technician, or crew leader or whatever makes sense. Sometimes you can just provide the next step up or a half-step to have someone supervise or train new hires.

It’s not necessarily about raises. We all want to be learning. We all want to enhance our skill set. That doesn’t necessarily always warrant a pay increase. You’re creating a learning environment where employees are always honing their skills to better meet the needs of the business and its customers. And sometimes we can play around with the title without always including a salary increase or promotion.

We want to figure out where employees can grow and where training needs can be met to enhance skill sets. Maybe you’re not providing a pay increase for a new step, but it’s building the employee’s skill set to develop them for a better opportunity opening up as the business grows, to make them the right person for that job.

Walking the path

My favorite thing to do with any initiative like this is to involve employees, whether it’s a handful or small team. Tell them that you’d like to develop career paths and ask for their thoughts. They’re doing the day-to-day work, and they probably have quite a bit of good information and experience that they can share with an owner that they might not normally think of.

Especially for new employees, you can start career development right in the recruiting process, if the company offers any kind of tuition reimbursement or professional or association memberships. You’d want to talk about that on the website or certainly in the job posting or interview. You want to have your talking points for when a candidate asks about that, but also take a look at your website. What are you saying on it?

It’s important to talk about the number of people who are promoted at your company. Your employee retention level doesn’t have to be on the website, but maybe it’s something to share at an all-staff meeting. It’s important to blow that bugle when it’s good information like that.

Everybody’s looking to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” They want to get up in the morning and feel like they’ve joined a great company where they’re going places and the company has invested in them, where they care about professional development and train managers.

Prepare your frontline supervisors and managers to talk about career development as well, and make it part of the organizational culture. Make sure your employees have support and understand what’s necessary to be considered for a supervisor or team lead role. Research has shown that more companies are moving to quarterly check-ins rather than waiting the whole year. I think it sends a powerful message that discussing your career path is ongoing, and it’s a normal part of your job. It makes it easier, rather than having to wait for a full year. It also helps you keep a pulse on your employees’ needs.

For established employees, we sometimes like to call it a roadmap of career development, working one-on-one with their supervisor. There’s some direction from the employee to take ownership of their career path and their development. What are they interested in? What are their career goals? What are they going to do to get to the next step? Maybe they need to take a communications course or get certified as a technician. We’re talking with them first because we want to understand their roles, what opportunities we might have, their current skill set and how a potential future skill set might be aligned with our organizational needs. It’s a two-way street to talk with employees about performance standards to find their strengths and then have regular check-ins with a supervisor to coach them along the way. Maybe that employee should try a new skill or shadow a more experienced person on the job.

Most importantly, there’s no one right way to do it, and it may be a little different for each employee. Not every employee is going to have the same interest or skill set. It helps with both retention and recruiting. When I see a company that has a defined career path that says 60% of their promotions come from within their own workforce, that’s a very powerful message to send all the way around.

Julie Schweber, SHRM-SCP, is the senior HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management.

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