Lifting the lid on career management - green light

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 Apr 2010

19 Apr 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Career management: workplace hot topic

Prior to the recession it could be argued that: people spent more time researching their next holiday than they did planning their careers. 

However, with the current state of the economy and the repeated rounds of redundancies, Career management (CM) is fast becoming one of the hottest topics at work. Many organisations run staff engagement surveys, with a common finding being that employees want career opportunities and most importantly the opportunity to develop.  Indeed, staff exit interviews regularly demonstrate that people leave organisations because they seek a chance to develop.

A cursory glance at the HR textbooks, a wander through the halls of any HR conference or spending time talking with people at work quickly reveals a fundamental truth: people care a lot about their careers and their employment pathways. However, despite the popularity and importance of CM from the academic or grass-roots perspective most organisations dont appear to have in place the strategy, process or procedures to actively supervise the ongoing management of peoples careers. Similarly, individuals rarely set aside the time, space and structure to examine their career trajectories.

Time for a little soul-searching: does your organisation take CM seriously and invest appropriately? Is your organisation scared that investment in CM will result in employees leaving? 

By way of example take this brief case study from Deloitte who have a strong desire to manage their talent. They have found that CM helps them retain staff particularly post qualification. Over the past five years, they have provided education on career paths inside and outside of Deloitte so their employees can make reasoned decisions on their future careers. This honesty and transparency strengthens the bond of trust between employer and employee which last long in their career lives. Furthermore, staff can now make a far more reasoned decision to stay - or leave with the door open to return - should they wish to.

From an economic point of view, this programme saved Deloitte over ??640,000 in year one through reduced recruitment. While the market place and conditions have changed over the past five years, Deloitte have continued to invest in CM and feel confident they are in a great place to retain their top graduates when the market picks up and can confidently call themselves an employer of choice. 

Still thinkCM fails to provide a decent return on investment? Still perceive CM to be an option rather than mandatory? Still believe that CM encourages people to leave?

In an effort to tackle some of the disparities between what can be done with CM and what is done, we have conducted some research. We surveyed HR directors via questionnaire and ran semi-structured focus groups to lift the lid of this important area.

We found that there are some powerful reasons driving the adoption of CM strategies and also investigated several key themes. Our Results make for interesting reading and could make a difference to how you appeal to, develop and retain your staff.

What is career management?

Before we move on to a consideration of the reasons behind the utilisation of CM, we ought to take a moment to consider what CM is and, as is important for any well-delineated definition, what CM is not.

In the last CIPD survey on careers in June 2003, CM was defined as: Planning and shaping the progression or movement of individuals within an organisation by aligning employee preferences and potential with organisational resourcing needs.

Our research reinforced the themes of mutuality and reciprocity inherent in the CIPD definition. However, our participants suggested that CM is still poorly understood and rarely put into practice effectively or strategically.

In line with this, one participant spoke of the tension to be found when providing a definition that is short and simple (and therefore easily understood) with one that is complex and nuanced (that picks up on the key themes and issues).

With that in mind the simplest definition that proved popular was that CM is about helping employees to: understand what gets them out of bed in the morning and to appreciate what their career path might be.

A fuller definition echoed the themes of the CIPD definition as a: contract between employer and employee to take a strategic view of the employees career focus for the benefit of both parties.

We also discussed in our focus groups what CM is not. Here, there was consensus that CM: isnt training and development though there might be a bit of overlap. Neither is it outplacement or exiting. The theme that emerged was that CM is not a single approach or a set of tools and techniques. Rather, it is an overarching strategy employed by organisations to marry corporate strategy with individual employee needs. As such, CM can call upon all of the different HRD tools (training, coaching, mentoring, performance appraisal, succession planning, etc) but is not a tool in itself.

Individual & organisatoinal rationale

Individual rationale

There are numerous reasons for individuals to engage with CM. Firstly, when linked with training and development, CM can ensure that individuals stay employable - especially important given the rapid speed at which jobs can change. Secondly, many people are turning to CM to help them manage their changing values with regards to work. CM offers people an opportunity to see how they can map out different career pathways that may involve part time working or the development of a portfolio career.

Organisational rationale

The most obvious reason is that organisations can receive great ROI (as demonstrated tangibly in the Deloitte example above) in terms of increased retention as suggested in one of our focus groups. If youre enabling people to leave, theyre more likely to stay. If you dont, they think: I dont want to work here and they leave. 

However, there are also other Benefits to be had for organisations. Firstly, organisations that offer CM practices can quickly become employers of choice: especially important when trying to attract and retain people of the highest calibre.

Secondly, there is an organisational imperative for developing staff employability in that: employability cuts both ways. Organisations want to retain people who are employable for the future state of the organisation: a form of future-proofing.

Thirdly, although there is a strong argument - and proof - that CM increases employee retention, CM can help make more porous the boundaries and allow for some staff churn. The circulation and movement of staff will help keep things fresh and improve creativity and innovation.

Organisations can become paralysed by inertia. Some churn is good, you can bring in new people with fresh perspective.

Lastly, CM was seen as an important approach to keep costs down following redundancies. They make people redundant and then spend money on recruiting people for other areas of the business. Effectively, CM can save money by helping to redeploy staff.

Underlying many of the reasons for the use of CM, is that it helps build the psychological contract between the organisation and employee: the unwritten rules of emotional engagement between company and worker.

Who is responsible for career management?

Consistent with the findings from our quantitative survey, the Results from the focus groups suggested that CM is best operated as a partnership model where the organisation: creates the landscape for individuals to assume responsibility for managing their careers within organisational boundaries. 

In other words, it was argued, there needs to be a sense of reciprocity whereby the organisation provides individuals with adequate support and advice and those who want to follow a different pathway are given: the opportunity to learn, to shadow others and to work on completely different projects.

Ultimate responsibility, however, rests with the individual. After all, no one else has as much invested in their career as the individual. But the reality is often quite different: the general consensus being that both individuals and organisations give mixed messages.  Individuals, for example, still expect the organisation to tell them what to do and find it difficult to hold conversations with their line managers around career development opportunities and different career pathways.

Similarly, even though organisations seek to encourage employees to be responsible for their own careers, they are often quite paternalistic and end up telling them what to do which, in turn, reinforces the lack of follow-through by individuals. Moreover, organisations often exhibit a lack of trust towards employees. For example, some organisations discourage employees from connecting onto professional networking sites such as LinkedIn for fear that they may be poached by competitors.

What do organisations do?

Our quantitative survey revealed there to be four primary CM practices that were most popular:

Promote opportunities for internal jobs
The most frequently endorsed practice of promoting internal job opportunities should come as little surprise (57% said they very frequently or always engaged in this practice). This activity is free and even helps reduce the costs associated with advertising, hiring and training external applicants. Yet, it may also be considered among the least interactive and engaging of CM methods. Indeed, when considering our definition of CM, being involved with strategies for aligning employee and organisational objectives, advertising internal vacancies in the absence of a career conversation or coaching fails to meet the definitional criteria.

360?? feedback surveys
The next most frequently utilised CM practice is the 360?? survey (48% said they very frequently or always engaged in this practice). This form of performance management is extremely popular in medium and large enterprises. This may have contributed to the frequency with which this practice was endorsed. Similar to the promotion of internal jobs, without a meaningful career discussion, it is hard to see how a 360?? survey in isolation can provide significant insight into carer pathways.

Personal development plans
The third most popular CM practice (where 38% said they very frequently or always engaged) was the use of personal development plans (PDPs). Clearly, in the right context and with appropriate framing, PDPs can be used to explore career options and transitions. Too often though, the PDP becomes a focus for performance management and for addressing job-specific skill deficits. 

The bigger question remains (and could not be addressed in our quantitative survey) whether line managers or HR have the sufficient training and/or organisational support to link PDPs with CM.


Exiting or outplacement was also seen to be a popular form of CM (33% said they very frequently or always engaged in this practice). It may be that the popularity of this technique is a reflection of the economic times. While some focus group participants did not feel outplacement to be a CM practice outplacement is what happens when career management has failed it may be considered one of the tools for managing career paths.

What dont organisations do?

When we asked our survey respondents about CM practices that they dont use there were three main findings:

Career clinics
The career clinic or career-focussed development centre was very rarely employed (75% said they never or very infrequently engaged in this activity). In our focus groups it was felt that this form of intervention was seen as too expensive and unlikely to provide a reasonable ROI.

Illustrate career paths
Despite being an economical tactic, very few organisations looked to map out potential career paths for employees (59% said they never or very infrequently engaged in this practice). The focus groups indicated there to be three main reasons for this. Firstly, mapping out a career path was deemed to be fatalistic and too predestined. Secondly, a mapped career path could be considered paternalistic and not in the spirit of co-discovery of aligned career paths. Thirdly, organisations and the nature of work conducted within them are so open to the vagaries of change that: a career map would be out of date before the ink is dry. Lastly, one participant explained that the danger with career path mapping, is that: you dont want to tell someone that they have reached a dead end.

Staff re-engagement

The likely reason why staff re-engagement was not often utilised can again be explained with reference to the current economic downturn (56% said they never or very infrequently engaged in this activity). With many companies unsure as to when they can dispense with rounds of redundancies, re-engagement could be seen as a risky strategy.  Re-engaging staff, when there is about to be another layoff could be seen as imprudent.

What will organisations do?

The quantitative data and focus groups converged on three overlapping key areas that organisations are planning to work on in the future. The role of the line manager was prominent in all three areas.

Provision of support and guidance

Organisations suggested that they would look to provide greater support and guidance for employees (57% said there was a high possibility or they would definitely adopt this practice). It is likely that this is a reflection of damaged morale and how the psychological contract has been stretched to breaking point by recent redundancies.


The allocation of mentors to guide CM was suggested to be the second most popular practice to be adopted in the future (with 45% suggesting a high possibility or they would definitely adopt this practice). The reason being that: experienced mentors are in a position to explain how they got to where they are. Furthermore, one focus group participant suggested that mentoring was a: great way of engaging senior staff by asking them what will be your legacy? Mentoring being one of the means by which experienced staff close to retirement can still be involved in CM.


The use of career coaches was also suggested to be a development for the future (39% said there was a high possibility or they would definitely adopt this practice). Though the survey did not distinguish between internal versus external coaches, our focus group participants were largely in favour of external coaches given their ability to bring: the perspective of an outsider and not be considered a company stooge.

For all three of these interventions, the question raised, is the extent to which line managers are appropriately skilled, motivated or appraised against expectations of managing careers.

What provides the best ROI?

Before considering the responses to the ROI question we might ask a seemingly simple question: how can we assess the ROI of CM practices?

Not an easy one!  One participant suggested that: the number of internal promotions would be a good metric for assessing how well managers were managing the careers of their direct reports.

There were two clear findings from the survey about which CM practices provide the best ROI:

360?? feedback surveys

360?? feedback surveys were considered the best ROI though their widespread popularity and awareness may have contributed to this. For many organisations without systematic CM practices, the conversation around the 360?? feedback survey may be the only opportunity for employees to discuss their futures.

Personal development plans

PDPs may have been perceived to be good for ROI because of their future-orientation and singular focus on the individual.

In the focus groups the perception was that ROI did not derive from a single CM practice or technique, but was rather a result of a strategic approach to CM. Effective CM: breaks the silo mentality and shows people that they dont need to leave thereby improving retention and, in the long-run, reducing costs associated with redundancies and recruitment.

Constraints and enablers

As with any organisational practice, there are factors that both facilitate and constrain effectiveness.

Several constraints were felt to impede the effective adoption of CM. Of these, the most important pertained to the paucity of line management involvement at senior level. It was felt that senior managers not only lacked the training to provide support to individual employees, they were quite often: unskilled in managing their own careers. In addition, a short-term focus on tangible Results and a strong performance-orientation meant that managers were keen to keep their best people and were thus unlikely to encourage CM or promote people out of their teams. These considerations created a lack of buy-in among the line and contributed to negative attitudes towards CM as another fad or change initiative thought up by HR. 

This situation was thought to be further exacerbated by erroneous perceptions that equate CM to outplacement and redundancy particularly given the current climate: when people hear career management they often think outplacement instead.  Many participants perceived that organisations would find it difficult to talk about CM when they are simultaneously laying people off because of the recession.   

Also perceived as preventing CM from being viewed as a value-adding strategy is the idea that it is linked to progression and that employees will inevitably leave, particularly if promotion opportunities are not readily available. The lack of integration with other HR practices and business strategy further constrains its effective use because it makes it more difficult to demonstrate the Benefits CM can deliver. By contrast, organisations that were considered to be effective at CM typically had communal, high trust cultures that encouraged employee commitment.  

Speaking of her experiences at a previous place of employment, one participant commented that: What they did really well was that they build you up individually to be able to do what you wanted even if that meant leaving the organisation. But we all still talk about it as if we were family. Weve got such good stories about the organisation because career planning and career management allowed us to do what we wanted in the organisation building on our strengths and it was all part of the culture."

CM also tended to be focused more widely on all staff across the organisation rather than focusing solely on high flyers or senior populations. The provision of adequate support and relevant training to line managers, the existence of a formalised, written CM strategy and its integration with other HR systems were also thought to be key enablers in the effective implementation of CM. In particular, organisations that integrated CM with their resourcing needs and performance management practices were more likely to create shared understandings of business objectives and to develop the capacity of people to achieve these, while encouraging greater employee engagement.

Recommendations and big picture

So, following our survey and focus groups, what recommendations can be made for organisations wishing to make the most of CM? These will be considered, before we provide a model that illustrates how CM practices can be linked to existing HR practices and strategies the big picture if you will.


The focus group participants felt strongly that it was necessary to educate individuals on what CM is in terms of its aims and purposes. What it entails in terms of available interventions, whose responsibility it is and how it is being implemented within their respective organisations. Regular appraisals and mechanisms that would enable individuals to know how they are progressing were also strongly recommended. 

A particularly interesting notion was the idea that CM should actually start earlier on in the career process while people were still in school. Organisations and key stakeholders within them could potentially play an important role in this regard by, for example, assisting schools with organising career fairs as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda, thereby enabling closer ties with the community. 

At an organisational level there were also a number of recommendations. Firstly, and probably most important among these, is the development of a culture that supports the widespread use of CM. In particular, corporate culture should facilitate continuous adoption of CM that is well integrated within wider HR systems. CM needs to be transparent in order to encourage trust and employee engagement and to mutually benefit the individual and the organisation. 

However, a supportive culture will not be enough. The relevant systems need to be in place and line managers need to be rewarded or incentivised to engage in CM. This should include providing managers with the necessary training to hold meaningful career conversations. Lastly, it is crucial to identify rigorous and tangible criteria that can be used to assess the efficacy of any CM intervention.

The big picture

Effectively, what we have argued is that CM, rather than being an isolated technique or activity, should be firmly embedded within the culture, systems and processes of the organisation. The model presented in the diagram shows how CM is integral to an effective HR and performance management system.

CM provides a focus around which to integrate the various HR activities that make up the HR systems and practices in the organisation: such as performance management, training and development and even forecasting and resourcing activities. These both inform and are informed by the strategic objectives of the organisation. In this way, CM plays a key role in contributing to the development as well as management of the core capabilities and people resourcing needs within the organisation.    

In the long run, successful CM integration should allow both the employee and organisation to set aside the time for researching and planning their careers strategically, rather than leaving their career journey to chance.