Career Mobility: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Promote It
Human beings are creatures of novelty. We like to change things up and see new scenery once in a while.
For the ambitious and driven amongst us, a sense of progress and movement is essential. Not just a change in our physical environment but in the actual work we do and the responsibilities we're given.
This movement – known as career mobility – is a vital part of staying motivated, energized, and productive for workers. Employers benefit from these, too, with an increasingly skilled and driven workforce that's easier to retain.
We'll explain what career mobility is and why you should take it seriously. We'll also go through how you can promote it within your company and get the best out of your staff. Finally, we'll also look at current trends in employee mobility you should be aware of for the coming years.
🚗 What is career mobility?
'Career mobility' describes the movement of an employee between roles in a company.
That could mean moving upwards, across departments, or even down into a position with less responsibility.
It's sometimes described in terms of a measurement; an organization with more career mobility is one with more opportunities for movement to happen within. A company with less career mobility means employees tend to stay in their roles and seek work elsewhere if they want a promotion.
(You'll sometimes see 'career mobility in the context of moving between companies or industries, which you might call 'external mobility.'
For the sake of clarity, this article is about the internal movement of employees – and we'll expand on this difference later on.)
🔍 Why is career mobility important?
For companies, the ability of their workers to move between roles brings a range of benefits.
1. Higher retention
This is the big one.
As any HR manager will know – losing talent is expensive. Not just due to lost productivity while you're an FTE down, but also the recruitment costs, higher salary expectations for new starters, and the resource investment needed to train new hires.
Employee retention is by far the more affordable choice.
When internal upward mobility is high, employees are more likely to stay within the company. They're comfortable knowing that if they're not satisfied in their current role, they have the opportunity to move somewhere else within the organization.
This sense of security makes them more invested in the company's success and less likely to jump ship at the first opportunity. One survey found that employees that feel they're progressing in their careers are 20% more likely to still be working at their company one year later.
2. More motivated employees
Employees who feel like they're making progress in their careers are generally more motivated and productive. They're happier with their work if they can trust that they'll be rewarded for it.
This increased motivation is thanks to the sense of purpose that career mobility brings.
When employees know they can move upwards within the company, they're more likely to work for it, putting in the extra effort to achieve great results and build positive working relationships.
On the other hand, if they're just turning up for the grind each day, knowing their efforts will only benefit company shareholders, there's not much reason for them to raise their game.
A study by Oracle and HCI found that 60% of workers who gained an internal promotion performed significantly better than employees brought in externally.
3. Lower risk
If things don't work out when you bring in a new external hire, things can get pretty tricky.
You've invested in their training, they're up to speed with your company's processes, but it soon turns out they're not suited to the role, and you both agree they should move on.
All that work goes down the drain – an expensive mistake.
Internal promotions are a lot less risky. The worker is already familiar with the company, they don't need as much training, and they're more likely to be invested in its success.
This lower risk also extends to the employee. They know their skill set, and what they're capable of, so they're less likely to take a job that's way out of their comfort zone (and potentially lead to them feeling overwhelmed or underutilized).
🚊 The different types of career mobility
This is the most recognizable form of job mobility: promotion.
An employee is officially given a new role, with more responsibilities and higher compensation.
This can be an exciting opportunity for the worker, who may have been eyeing the position for some time and working really hard to achieve it.
This is when an employee is moved to a lower-level position, usually with reduced responsibilities and pay – sometimes known as a demotion.
This can be due to a number of reasons: poor performance, lack of skillset for the current role, or redundancy - the position is being shelved, so they move downwards instead of getting laid off.
But it can also be the employee's choice – maybe they want less responsibility or a less stressful workload. Or, they might have been promoted, but the role didn't turn out to be what they expected, so they come back.
Lateral / Sideways
A lateral move is when an employee moves to another role at the same level, with the same responsibilities and salary.
This can be a great opportunity for them to learn new skills, or try out a new role within the company. It's also a good way for the company to test out an employee in a new role or department before offering them a promotion.
Outwards / External
An outward move is when an employee moves to another company altogether.
This can be due to many reasons: career change, searching for more challenging work, more attractive pay and benefits, a change in location, or simply not feeling valued at their current company.
This covers a type of shift in a role that doesn't come along with a new title. So if someone has a few new responsibilities added, their role might officially stay the same, but they end up doing new things.
Be careful with this one: adding minor new responsibilities can really help expand an employee's skillset and experience.
But it can also mean they're being taken advantage of.
Anything that adds significant pressure onto their workload or makes them responsible for certain outcomes should be treated as a promotion, and should be compensated fairly. (More on this below under 'opportunity mobility'.)
📣 How to promote career mobility within your company
Career mobility offers a whole load of benefits for companies and their workers. So how can you encourage more of it?
It's not something you can change overnight, but with some intentional shifts in your company culture, it can happen quicker than you might think. Here are some of the best ways to promote career mobility within your company:
Build a skills matrix
This is a spreadsheet that tabulates each employee's skills, so you get an overview of skill levels throughout your company and its departments. It works as the foundation for employee growth, helping you see where each person is and where they aim to go. It's a much more customized approach to assigning development plans in bulk, and it's a great way to help employees reach their potential quicker.
We've got a guide and free downloadable skills matrix template – check it out!
Invest in training
Once you've gained a better understanding of the skills landscape within your organization, you'll be able to train employees and upgrade their capabilities.
Manage in-house training programs, send people to external courses, and give them time and space to read up on new topics related to their field. This will help them stay up-to-date, manage skill gaps and be better equipped for future job roles within the company.
Invest in employee growth
Specific skills are fantastic, but you also have to nurture an employee's personal career development, too. This involves bridging abstract plans for improvement and long-term goals with taking specific actions to make them happen.
We're fans of the holistic method: an employee development plan will define the journey they should take to get themselves ready for promotion. Knowing that there's a real plan behind their aspirations will really fire up their motivation. If you're not sure where to start, try our free downloadable employee development plan template – it covers focus areas, action plans, and the art of setting achievable goals.
Encourage employees to take on new challenges and responsibilities
Once they've learned new skills by going through training programs, they'll need to test them out in real situations.
By making lateral moves easier and encouraging employees to try out new projects, you'll give them the chance to test their new capabilities and figure out what really engages them.
Trialing different projects or joining a different department for a short period is a good way for workers to explore and understand their competencies – the personal traits they're particularly good at, like leadership or understanding complex data.
Run an internal mobility program
You might want to reward good performance with career advancement opportunities, but if people aren't aware of what's available, they will miss out. An official career advancement program is a way of putting these aspirations into practice.
Internal mobility programs are specific processes for moving people between roles. There's no one-size-fits-all way to do it, but it usually involves setting policies, plans, and targets for mobility, with regular campaigns to help employees achieve it.
A great place to start is a career progression framework. That's basically a competency model for all the roles within your company.
This way, people will always be aware of the skills required for an internal move - whether it is lateral or vertical.
There's room for flexibility here; you can try a program with a small cohort before rolling it out through the organization.
Promote from within where possible
It's not always the perfect solution, but there are plenty of times when hiring internally is simply the better option. For all the reasons we listed above, internal talent mobility thrives when you encourage it throughout the hiring process.
It's up to you how you make it happen - but when you're opening up a new position, the first question you ask has to be,
"can we hire internally for this?"
📈 Career mobility trends shaking up the workplace
People are always going to move between roles, companies, and careers. But the reasons behind their job mobility are also undergoing significant shifts.
Here are three major driving forces behind today's career mobility.
1. The Great Resignation continues
If you're plugged into the goings-on of the HR world, you might be sick of hearing about this by now.
But you can't ignore the fact that many people are still quitting their jobs well into 2022. Job resignations are still 23% above pre-pandemic levels, according to Daniel Zhao, Senior Economist at Glassdoor.
Why's it important now? You might think millions are just giving up on work in a fit of nihilism or burnout. But the reality is, they're starved for opportunity, according to CNBC:
"The data suggests people aren't quitting their jobs to exit the labor market and sit on the sidelines," economists said. "Instead, the high level of resignation indicates a strong job market for workers with ample opportunities."
This suggests there's plenty of opportunity to keep employees longer by building a culture that promotes internal mobility.
2. The normalization of sabbaticals
What does this mean for career mobility? Traditionally, you'd be under pressure to explain a long break between roles if you were interviewing for a new job. Sabbaticals can be seen (incorrectly) as long vacations.
But with increasing normalization and respect for what they provide, employers should start factoring them in as a standard part of the career journey. And they might even be the best option for someone's development at a certain stage in their life.
As Carol Fishman Cohen writes in 'A New Way to Explain the Pause in Your Career', recruiters are starting to understand that:
"...people who've temporarily left the workforce are a "hidden" talent pool — and in most cases, their decision to take a break from paid work has nothing to do with job performance."
Cohen also notes the rise of 'career re-entry programs and the fact that LinkedIn recently added 'Career Break' as a category that people can post on their profiles. So it's no longer something to be shy about – if you've taken time off to rest, develop your skills, volunteer, or see a different part of the world, it's something to be proud of.
3. Opportunity mobility as a useful alternative
Opportunity mobility is a way that employees can continue to grow within a company even if there aren't any new positions for them to take up.
Rather than a worker stressing about
- whether to make a lateral vs. vertical move,
- or how quickly they can move up to a new role
they can focus on other things instead.
It's all about participating in activities within the company that enhance an employee's interests, passions, skill gaps, or aspirations.
People development expert Julie Winkle Giulioni writes how opportunity mobility is evolving alongside career mobility as an alternative route to success:
"In today's environment, career success can no longer be defined by movement but perhaps by mastery. Progress doesn't need to come in the form of a new title but perhaps evolving talent. Advancement isn't about landing in a box on an organizational chart but rather landing a new experience that expands capacity."
In a way, it's about encouraging serendipity – or 'making your own luck.
Participating in these extracurricular endeavors might not be immediately clear what the expected result will be. But in a general sense, expanding their horizons within the company will grow an employee's chance for great things to happen.
It's sometimes referred to as 'intrapreneurship'; the act of being an internal entrepreneur, proactively creating and growing within your role.
As an HR leader, you might not see many official opportunity mobility programs, but that doesn't mean you can't start one. Investing time into it prepares employees well for a time when opportunities appear, even if you don't know when that'll be.
⚙️ Can you automate a career mobility program?
The human factor can't be ignored when it comes to employee development. But in some cases, the technological solution is by far the smarter choice.
While you can do everything manually, managing it can become quite a burden once the program reaches a certain size. Spreadsheets and tables do have their place for individuals and small teams, but there will be a point where you need to systematize it on a wider scale.
With Zavvy, you can run your entire employee development program in one central place – on autopilot!
The platform acts as the home of your career development framework, helping people understand where they are, and what they need to achieve to earn a move to a different role.
With visible progress indicators, reminders, check-ins, and reflections, Zavvy automates a bunch of the regular admin work that goes into people management.
Want to find out more? Book a demo and see what it can do for you.