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Career mobility: A better answer for talent retention?

March 30, 2022 - 10 min read

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What is career mobility?

Why is mobility important now?

What is your company’s approach to career mobility?

Benefits of career mobility

How companies can foster career mobility

It might seem a total contradiction to consider career mobility a key component in retaining talented employees.  If, after all, we are preparing them for their next opportunity, aren’t they certain to move on? 

Not necessarily. 

Career mobility can become your secret weapon in the ongoing struggle to retain talent. This article will explore what career mobility is and how to maximize employee talent.

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What is career mobility?

In general, career mobility has been seen as a way to move into positions with better salaries, benefits, and perks.  And typically, job mobility is looked at as an external process — the employee moves up AND out to move ahead.  But does it have to happen that way?

What if, instead of this strict definition of career mobility, we consider the concept of opportunity mobility? With career advancement, the only positive way to move is up.  And if your company doesn’t have any upward opportunities, “up” is often accompanied by “out.”  With opportunity mobility, or internal mobility, employees can expand their focus on additional career opportunities. They don't just look up — they look around and throughout.  

So, how would this work? For example, there may not be any promotion openings in Marketing, but your employee could do a six-month stint in Graphics or Sales.  By providing opportunities internally for talented employees to grow, you’ll naturally improve retention.

Why is career mobility important now?

If you work in HR, or if you’ve had any turnover in the last year or so, then you already know the answer to this question. There is a serious talent shortage in the U.S. right now, particularly in tech-oriented fields. Skilled workers who are dissatisfied, underpaid, or just restless, have no lack of opportunities. Companies struggling to recruit talent will happily offer greener employment pastures.  

The talent shortage isn’t a matter of perception. Research from the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute found that over half of all human resources professionals are struggling to fill open roles. The Manpower Group reports similar findings. Talent shortages in the U.S. labor market have more than tripled in a decade. A massive 69 percent of employers struggle to fill full-time positions (up from 14 percent in 2010).

Thus, the answer to “why now” is clear: you cannot afford to lose your talent.  If you can offer ways to keep great employees engaged and challenged, you will be far better off in both the short and long run.

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What is your company’s approach to career mobility?

Are you making it easy for talented people to grow and gain new skills within your company? Here are some questions worth asking to help you examine your talent development abilities, and determine the viability of internal mobility for your employees:

  • Do you talk about it? How openly do you discuss new opportunities that employees have to take/try out other positions in your company?  These sorts of career moves should be a common part of the conversation at all levels of the company.
  • Is there a process? Would interested employees know what to do if they were interested in an internal opportunity? Develop a clear process — one that is easy to find with other employee resources. This will ensure equal access to internal mobility opportunities throughout the company.
  • Do you support it? Do employees who choose to make a lateral move receive the same career development offered to new hires?  Supporting such a move can be the difference between employee success and failure. It can differentiate between an employee who's excited about the change and one who feels coerced.
  • Is it rewarded? Will employees see the benefit of taking a new internal, sideways position?  Ideally, stepping out of one’s comfort zone to take a new position like this would come with a financial incentive. Some sort of bonus or another perk should be offered.
  • Are you valuing the experience? How will an employee who moves horizontally be treated during performance reviews? It’s critical that supervisors care about the career development of current employees and evaluate them with it in mind. Otherwise, the risk might not be worth the effort.
  • Are people using it? If very few people are taking advantage of internal opportunities, it means you have work to do. Thriving internal mobility requires more than just a process or a policy. Does your culture encourage it, and do your systems support it? More to the point, what management practices are getting in the way?

Benefits of career mobility

Your company benefits from having an established system for inner mobility. But deeper benefits can be realized from embracing it as part of your company culture. Some of these include:

You keep talented employees

If you don’t have opportunities for promotion, but can help your talent grow and feel challenged, you are far more likely to retain them.  

Your onboarding is streamlined

Moving an existing employee into a new slot is far more efficient than hiring from the outside. You can bring them up to speed on their new roles more quickly, and at very little cost to the unit.

You maintain company culture

Existing employees are already invested in your company and its culture. They understand how people interact, company-wide expectations, and other nuances that make it a unique place to work. Employees who have had success in their roles have likely demonstrated competencies that are valuable to the organization.

You revitalize stagnant talent

Inner mobility shouldn’t be seen as a way to pass underperforming staff off to other departments. But if upward career growth hasn’t been available, employee engagement at all levels will begin to suffer. By providing internal talent with the opportunity to learn new skills and work with different units, they can regain their momentum. This puts them back on the path to being high performers for your company.

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How companies can foster career mobility

So, you’re convinced. Your company would benefit by embracing internal mobility as a retention and development tool.  With the right approach, an internal talent marketplace can become your secret weapon in retention, employee development, and organizational performance. What’s next?

1. Create a career mobility policy

Get some great minds together and write it up. But don't get carried away with perfecting policy — use it as a guideline to get started. Figure out what the policies, procedures, and parameters for internal mobility will be for your employees.  Refer to the checklist above to ensure that the employees who opt-in are appropriately recruited, placed, and rewarded.

2. Move to a pilot a mobility program

Select a small inaugural class of internal candidates to try out what you’ve just created. Be ready for lots of questions and fine-tuning as you go. Create an action plan for how they will transition out of their current positions. Ask them for input on what their ideal career path would look like.

3. Evaluate, revise, and repeat

Take a researcher’s frame of mind and review your new program. What worked? What needs adjustment? What would need to function differently when the entire process scales up? Listen to the feedback of the employees, their supervisors, and your HR leaders. This helps to ensure that future internal mobility candidates have a smooth, rewarding process.

An internal career mobility program won’t keep every valued employee, nor will it solve every staffing need your company may face.  But if even half of your staff feel appreciated and rewarded, it's worth it. Filling even a fraction of your open positions this way means great strides in securing the culture and prosperity of your company.

If you're looking for more support building out a development system, BetterUp can help. See how our specialized coaches can help you offer career mobility options to your team.

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Published March 30, 2022

Becky Eason

BetterUp Fellow Coach, ACC PhD

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