HR Strategy Partner General The Death of the...
The Death of the Career Ladder
In recent years the traditional path of linear career progression has been disrupted. Instead, career development has become much more of a personal journey governed by individual learning and development goals, as opposed to conventional views of what success looks like.
A large part of this change has been attributed to millennials joining the workforce, but technology and an increasingly diverse workforce have also been major factors. These have come together to shift the perception of employment from a “job for life” model towards a “career for me.” 
Employees are beginning to accept, and indeed expect, several shifts in their role and skill sets throughout their careers. In fact, a recent survey that we conducted here at Right Management revealed that 47 percent of respondents expected to work at two to five companies during their careers. Another 20 percent estimated six to nine organizations would be more accurate
In the current workplace, individuals with valuable skills are rejecting traditional corporate pathways in favor of managing their own careers on their own terms. In other words, priorities are changing. Where once an employee might have felt compelled to stay at an organization from entry-level to senior position, essentially climbing the "career ladder," now such employment choices are made concerning an organization’s wider brand and interests, as well as options for progression not just vertically but laterally as well. The career paths of today’s youth will look vastly different to those of their grandparents.
Many generations are ‘lost’ without a ladder to follow
However older generations are suffering in this new career framework. The "sandwich generation," otherwise known as Generation X, are finding themselves overlooked largely because they are more used to a rung by rung approach to career development. This generation has been in limbo since the recession, on wages that haven’t really moved while also dealing with soaring house prices. Bloomberg recently reported that almost 40 percent of Generation X “don’t at all feel financially secure.” Having to adapt to a new, more agile way of managing their careers does nothing to alleviate this stress.
Older generations can be forgiven for taking a while to adapt to this new model. Though the workplace is significantly trending towards a “career lattice” approach, the language and processes used by employers are also taking a while to catch up. It can be difficult for employees in established organizations to effectively implement this wider career strategy – still bound as they are within the rigid frameworks of performance reviews and a lack of widespread training or encouragement from management.
While modern, smaller companies are very good at moving beyond the career ladder model, they seem best at it with younger, more agile and resilient employees. Older workers largely find it harder to adapt to what we call the socialization, virtualization and dispersion of the workplace. In other words, businesses now have more ways than ever to manage how, when and where work gets done. This has resulted in flatter organizational structures, an increase in flexible working hours and an openness to employees being based away from conventional offices. While millennials, being digital natives, have adapted to this style of working effortlessly, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are having more trouble shifting their attitudes.
Career conversations need to be modernized
Employers need to ensure there is equality in their approach to the multi-generational workforce and must help older employees to feel confident, and comfortable, with discarding the career ladder. This means that when it comes to career development, responsibility lies with both the employer and the employee to make a real change. Organizations should be willing, prepared and structured to prioritize career development for employees, and not just the ones who feel most comfortable asking for it.
That said this cannot be done using the old model tools. Performance reviews and appraisals have rightfully come under scrutiny in recent months, with some larger organizations, such as Accenture, Adobe, Deloitte and Microsoft, dispensing of annual reviews altogether. Though regular feedback is vital to employee development, the format of such rigid sessions can restrict the conversation. What employers do need to do is to integrate this new career model more fully into their processes. For instance, when having career conversations with employees, managers tend to focus on the most direct and recent results of their efforts. Although talking around measurable outcomes is vital to delivering productive feedback, focusing on this alone misses out on a lot of the story. Rather than looking at how their performance is measuring up against set metrics, whether targets are being hit, and essentially how well the candidate is fulfilling the job as stated in the company’s description, employers should be having conversations that extend beyond the scope of an employee’s current role. After all, employees might be underperforming in some areas because their enthusiasms have shifted, or a new role is not what they expected.
Having courageous conversations that go beyond basic measurement is key especially in terms of discovering important facts about their team and their ambitions for both now and the future. In particular, managers need to shift from the old corporate culture that emphasizes seniority and the amount of time-served, to one that aligns better with employees' near-term development goals. If not, organizations will find it difficult to attract and retain talent going forward.
Strictly linear appraisals may not be as well suited to modern purposes, but they can be extremely productive if viewed as opportunities to provide “career coaching,” considering an employee’s whole circumstances, not just the present point in time.
Lateral moves must be considered
Not all employees are interested in a promotion. Some may prefer a move sideways to another function or a role that’s completely different altogether. It might even be that they have ambitions to develop a particular skill that’s not directly relevant to their current job but which the company may value. Many line managers avoid discussing the possibility of career options outside of their own silo or team, usually because they don’t want their employees to feel as if they are being ousted or due to the pressures of replacing and retraining new staff. Line managers should structure these conversations with the goal of understanding the direction employees wish to move in while always taking into account how this can support the organization’s overall goals.
Modern businesses like Facebook have already adopted employment strategies that rotate employees through different roles across different departments within the business. This ensures that the organization benefits from the creative ideas that often come from unexpected pairings. It also gives employees a chance to experience working in different areas of the business, picking up new skills as they go. Finally, and perhaps one of the most important benefits, is that it gives high potential talent the opportunity to find its niche.
Organizations should be career-enablers
Just as older generations must adapt to a more agile, and often uncertain, approach to their careers, employers must fully implement more creative, agile and adaptable strategies to remain competitive and ensure a long business-life. Organizations that recognize the need to think differently will have an edge in helping their staff achieve their career paths, however circuitous these may be.
It’s critical for organizations to recognize the new “career for me” reality and make the shift from being job-providers to career-enablers. Abandoning the hierarchical and paternalistic people management structures of the past and redefining the relationship with employees, from all generations and backgrounds, as a mutually beneficial partnership, building a culture that encourages personal and professional growth. If businesses fail to take action or talk to their employees about the opportunities that lie ahead, they will quickly find many skilled employees turning on their heels and looking for opportunities elsewhere. In the Human Age, a career is an ongoing journey to develop new capabilities and experience. If companies aren’t nurturing their talent, they can’t expect to reap the rewards of long and healthy employee relationships.
Nicola Deas,
Practice Leader, Right Management
UK & Ireland

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