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Career pathing for employees at all levels

October 27, 2022 - 13 min read
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    In today's workplace, employees want more than just a paycheck. Total compensation is important. But they also want to know that their employers value them and see a forward trajectory for their career path.

    LinkedIn's Workplace Confidence Survey shows that 40% of Gen-Z employees (and 26% of the overall workforce) would be willing to take a pay cut for a role that offered them a better chance of career growth.

    To keep your top talent engaged and motivated to stay, you need to show them that they have a future with your organization. You can do that by implementing a career pathing plan within your company. 

    But what is career pathing? How is it different from a traditional corporate ladder? And how can employers and employees use it to their advantage?

    What is career pathing?

    Career pathing is the process of working with employees to develop a trajectory of potential future roles for them within your company.

    Managers and HR professionals work with individual employees to assess how their skills, experience, and career goals line up with the organization's needs and values. This collaboration ensures that both workers and workplaces benefit from the plan.

    Career pathing is closely related to succession planning — the process of preparing employees to move into key roles as they open up.

    Both professional development methods are essential parts of a comprehensive employee retention strategy. But succession planning focuses on high-value employees on their way out, and career pathing caters to the workers you most want to keep. 

    It's important to note that career pathing is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. It's a complex process, and the definition of a successful career path can vary significantly from one employee to the next. 

    Promoting high-performing employees to management positions is a vertical career path. But this traditional career ladder may not be right for everyone on your team

    A vertical move makes sense for employees who have the leadership skills needed to manage others.

    For other employees, an appropriate career path might be lateral or expansive.

    In lateral moves, employees might transfer into a different role at the same level in another department.

    In expansive roles, employees seeking career development could take on more responsibilities within the same department.


    Career pathing examples

    Vertical: Human Resources Coordinator > HR Manager > HR Director > VP of HR > Chief of HR  

    Lateral: Customer Service Representative > Inside Salesperson > Outside Salesperson > Major Account Salesperson > Regional Sales Manager

    Expansive: Content writer > Content marketing specialist > Content marketing manager > Content and Community Manager

    Why is career pathing important?

    Research by McKinsey & Company reveals that of employees that chose to quit their jobs from April 2020 to April 2022, 41% cited a “lack of career development/advancement” as their reason for leaving.

    Turnover is expensive, costing US businesses a trillion dollars each year. Replacing employees also requires a time investment and often damages the team's morale. But having engaged and satisfied employees results in higher productivity and profitability.

    And one factor that plays a huge role in employee satisfaction is growth potential.

    An IBM study finds that employees are hungry for career advancement opportunities, ranking ahead of other factors like compensation and organizational stability. As a result, providing clear career paths for staff is an excellent way for companies to avoid turnover and retain top talent.

    Some employees are content with their current jobs and happy to have the same responsibilities long-term.

    But, most workers have personal and professional growth goals. And if they don't see a path forward with your company, they will likely go searching for that path elsewhere. 


    The benefits of career pathing plans

    Employers and employees can work together to identify areas where an employee's and a company's sense of purpose intersect to create better alignment, and devise a career pathing plan that benefits both parties. 

    The benefits of career pathing for employees include:

    • Awareness of internal career opportunities

    • Directing their professional development

    • Advancing their careers

    Career pathing helps employers:

    • Engage and retain talent

    • Increase employee retention

    • Reduce hiring costs

    • Identify skills gaps in the current workforce

    When employees feel valued and respected, and employers get to keep their top talent longer, everyone wins.

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    5 steps for developing a career pathing process for employees

    If you're ready to bring career pathing to your organization, you'll want to follow five key steps.

    1. Develop clear policies

    It's foundational for your organization to have written versions of its hiring and promotion policies. Formalize your processes for hiring, onboarding, and promoting employees so that everyone's on the same page. 

    You can also request feedback on how thorough, clear, and equitable your policies are. As you examine your current hiring practices, identify areas of opportunity within your company. What needs might employees begin to fill as they learn and develop? Then you can address these questions during the recruiting process or when onboarding new hires.

    2. Establish core competencies

    Establish the core competencies needed for each role and what skills an employee needs to develop to advance. Work with each department to determine the most critical elements of each role. 

    Consider creating a job-leveling document that tracks experience in a position alongside increasing skills and scope of responsibilities. Job leveling can help to standardize your company's raise and promotion practices. It's one part of a transparent compensation policy that can help keep these decisions above board. This can help employees track progress toward their goals. 

    Allow employees to clearly see the qualifications and skills they need to develop and increase their pay level. Then illustrate what career and compensation growth looks like for each category of roles.


    3. Collaborate with management

    It's unlikely that one person will be the expert on the responsibilities of every role at your organization, so it's important to work with managers in developing a job leveling document. 

    Consider writing the first draft yourself for each category of roles, then give it to the appropriate manager and ask for feedback. This draft should include your understanding of both the scope and skill appropriate to each level. 

    For scope, consider the role's domain, and what is the expanse of that role's reach. For skill, consider the competencies required to do the tasks within that scope. 

    Once you have notes from each manager, review and adjust the document and repeat until both HR leaders and management are happy with the results. This process will produce a detailed and accurate job levels document for each category of roles.

    4. Build out career pathing routes

    For each role, you need to create a roadmap an employee could follow to advance from that role to another one or a way to expand responsibilities within the same role. Both aspiring managers and individual contributors should know what their next step is.

    This part should be a collaborative process between HR professionals and leadership in which everyone works together to design multiple potential paths. These career paths should both align with your organization's needs and offer enough flexibility to appeal to employees with varying goals and interests. 

    The job levels document you made in step two is a crucial tool here. An outline of the skills and scope of each category of roles can help you draw lines from one position to another. This might be within the same team, or across departments — depending on where those qualities overlap and build on each other. 

    You may need to get creative to make these paths work, especially at smaller companies. It's easy to see how the levels document can facilitate vertical career paths helping employees move from one role in compensation level to the next. 

    However, remember that the traditional job ladder is only one way to chart a career path. Compare competencies on your job levels documents for different roles and look for places where they could build across positions or even departments. 

    In addition to helping with retention, creative career paths can help mitigate the downfalls of organizational silos and contribute to succession plans for senior team members moving on or retiring. 

    5. Communicate the plans to your employees

    Finally, you must communicate these career pathing plans with employees. Ideally, managers collaborate with their direct reports during this process for transparency and employee input. Still, at the very least, everyone needs to know about the career pathing program once it exists. 

    Weekly one-on-ones are a great place to start the conversations around career pathing. When incorporated into continuous performance management processes, managers can get a sense of their employees' goals. This enables them to look ahead, encouraging upskilling or developing new skills through continuing education, in-house training, or certifications.

    Make sure you honor the compensation and promotion policies, as well as the career path options you've established. Integrity is key to building lasting, mutually respectful relationships with employees. 

    With so many employees prioritizing valuable work, difference-making, and healthy company culture, it's more important than ever to say what you mean and do what you say. Implementing career pathing can help you make that happen.

    Career pathing best practices

    Employers must prioritize employee development

    A study by global staffing firm Randstad finds that while 73% of employers say fostering employee development is important, only 49% of employees say leadership is making an effort to prioritize it. Career pathing can be an effective tool for guiding employee development programs and fostering career growth opportunities within your organization.

    Employees should own their own development

    As an employee, no one is more dedicated to your professional development than you are. First, write down your intended career progression, share it with your manager, and hold yourself accountable. Also, take advantage of learning and development opportunities available at your company. These may include webinars, courses, conferences, coaching, and mentoring programs.

    Career pathing isn't a quick fix to your retention problems. It can take time to develop, test, and implement appropriate career paths that work for your employees. But it's well worth the time and effort invested. 

    Career pathing is a key strategy for retention, employee engagement, and developing a healthy company culture. It's a valuable practice that shows your organization supports its employees’ career aspirations. Career pathing can lead to greater satisfaction and success for both employee and employer.

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    Published October 27, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Associate Learning Experience Designer

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