Why Lateral Moves in Career Development Are Key for Employee Retention
Career development isn’t only about moving up a ladder—it includes lateral moves too. In fact, they’re a big employee retention booster. Here’s what you need to know.
What comes to mind when you think of a successful career path in your field? Most people will picture steadily climbing a ladder—ascending steadily step by step until you reach the top.
But that kind of constant upwards movement isn’t the only way to build careers. In fact, looking at the professional path to growth as a lattice, which allows for side-to-side movement as well as upwards steps, can help your organization increase employee retention. Sound too good to be true? The data backs it up! Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Lateral Moves?
Lateral moves refer to career steps that shift an employee sideways, unlike a promotion or demotion which shifts them upwards or down. A lateral move can take many forms, like moving from a customer-facing role to a back-office one, changing locations on a temporary or permanent assignment, or shifting from a role that operates independently to one that’s part of a team.
While lateral moves can look different, they all have a similar aim: expanding the possibilities for an employee’s career development through new experiences. They typically don’t involve a pay raise, and the employee may need some onboarding time to get up to speed in their new role just like in a promotion. But the benefits to your employees and your organization as a whole are worth it.
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Why Lateral Moves in Career Development Matter for Retention
One of the biggest reasons employees leave their roles to find new opportunities is because they don’t see a promising future or career growth at their current organization. 86% of professionals say they’d change jobs if an opportunity that offered more chances for professional development came along. And Linkedin research found that 94% of employees would stay longer at a company that invested in their career.
The data is crystal clear: employees want their employers to offer them ways to meet their career goals and take an active role in learning and development. Many employers and Human Resources teams find this expectation intimidating—we can’t be promoting every employee every year, they protest.
Of course, that’s not what career mobility means. Employees do want to get promoted when it’s appropriate, but they understand that it’s not practical to expect it every year or so. But that doesn’t mean their career movement needs to halt entirely.
The Power of Lateral Movement
Lateral career moves can be the solution. They allow employees to develop new skills, build new relationships, and experience a different side of the company without having to leave. Research from MIT Sloan Management Review found that offering employees the opportunity for a lateral move is a stunning 12 times more effective at prediction retention than offering them a promotion, and even 2.5 times more important than pay.
While that data might seem surprising, it also makes a lot of sense. Employees know that promotions happen as a matter of course at most organizations, whether because an opening occurs or the criteria for the next level has been met.
But putting a system for lateral moves into place takes thought and effort above and beyond a normal promotion cycle, and shows employees that your company truly values their employee development journey in all forms. It’s why opportunity is such an important part of a winning employee value proposition (EVP).
And not every employee wants to be promoted endlessly upwards. Some certainly would love to reach the ranks of your executives, but many are happier without that pressure. They may like being an individual contributor because their motivation in their role is about tackling hands-on tasks. They may have no desire to manage people, which tends to come as a natural result of several promotions.
Or they may simply enjoy the level where they are and prioritize their lives outside of work—they don’t want to have to put in the large amount of time and effort required to succeed at a higher level. This doesn’t mean they’re lazy or lack ambition (or quiet quitting), it just means they have different goals. And if they’re great in their current position, your company benefits from their experience and organizational tenure.
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Lateral Moves in Action
So what could a lateral move look like in the real world?
For example, let’s say you have a customer service rep who is an excellent employee. She’s helpful to her colleagues, warm and friendly with even the crankiest customers, and great at problem-solving on her feet. But she’s been in her current role for several years, and you sense she’s a retention risk because she’s looking to do something else. Unfortunately, there’s no room for promotions on your team.
Instead of simply accepting that she needs to leave the company to grow, you could proactively work with her to find opportunities in different departments that could be a great fit. Perhaps her problem-solving skills would make her a good member of the finance team, or her warm attitude and business knowledge could mean she’s a great saleswoman.
In fact, her time spent in a customer-facing position at your company could make her an even more valuable addition to other parts of the company. She has a deep knowledge of customers from speaking to them every day, and a deep understanding of your company from representing it to them as well. A lateral move doesn’t just keep her around—it adds significant institutional knowledge to other departments.
Building Your Future Leaders
Keeping your employees around by focusing on internal mobility isn’t just important for your organization in the short term. It also helps you build a deeper talent pool for your future leadership.
In the example of the customer service rep above, she could be a powerful leader and mentor later in her career. By offering her career opportunities beyond simply moving to the next level in her current role, you provide her with new skills and experiences, and her new teammates with a different perspective on customers. In time, she could use these cross-functional experiences to build her leadership skills and steer your company to future success.
Plus, in today’s highly global workplaces, giving employees experience outside of their geographic region can be quite valuable as well. Adding in options like international rotations or temporary assignments can give employees a way to grow and have new experiences without a promotion.
Employee Retention is Everything
It’s no secret that in the past few years, organizations have been working harder than ever to build a smart retention strategy to convince employees to stay in their roles.
And as part of the Great Retention, focusing on what makes your employees stay is essential. A promising future, as well as opportunities today, will keep employees around and engaged for years to come.
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