Employee career paths can keep your people engaged, especially if the traditional career ladder doesn’t fit your company structure.

A generation ago, the typical employee career path was the classic “ladder,” with a series of clearly defined rungs for employees to climb. Now, with new technologies and disruptions creating the need for new skills and roles, career paths aren’t so clearly defined.

Your organization may benefit from defining career paths within your company, to keep your people engaged and loyal and to decide how to invest in your employees’ development. Without the old-fashioned ladder structure to guide you, career pathing requires a holistic approach and careful planning.

What makes a career plan different from employee development?

Before mapping career paths, it’s important to review the differences between employee development, succession planning and career pathing. These three practices are related but each has its own distinct goals.

  1. Employee development, also called career development, identifies each individual’s role in the organization and the skills they need to keep contributing. It also includes what their interests and goals are and how do those align within the organization.
  2. Succession planning identifies the right people to step into leadership roles when the time comes and ensures that they develop the skills they need for those roles.
  3. Career pathing gives employees a map to the ways they can move within your organization, based on their interests, skills and personal career goals.

When is career path mapping most useful?

Any organization can map career paths, but it’s especially useful for companies that need people with a specific or hard-to-find set of skills and experiences. Career pathing can also be helpful for supporting internal promotion from entry-level and junior positions.

For example, if your business needs people who are in short supply, like data scientists, or people with a particular set of certifications, like social workers, career pathing can help you build an internal pipeline for those careers.

With clear career maps in place, your organization may also have a recruiting advantage. When you can show candidates their options for vertical and lateral moves within your company over time, as well as cross-training options, they’re better able to envision a long-term career there. 

What are the potential pitfalls?

One caution to keep in mind, especially if you’re focused on career pathing to build internal pipelines: Take steps to make sure you’re also building a diverse culture.

If your internal career pathways are full of people with the same or similar backgrounds, educational experiences and lifestyles, your company’s innovation and brand appeal can stall.

It’s also important to leave enough room in your career paths to avoid creating overly restrictive requirements for education, experience and skills. Career paths are about guiding, not gatekeeping.

Flexibility in your pathways allows managers to identify people who can move along the paths with the right training, coaching and support, even if they don’t tick every box.

How do you plan career paths?

  1. Start with your organization chart, to get an idea of the general career paths available within your organization for different roles.

2. As you’re mapping paths, use your company’s compensation policy in conjunction to keep your pathways as consistent and fair as possible.

3. It’s a good idea to include your HR people in your career pathing exercises, to help you identify the training and support that each pathway may require.

4. Keep in mind that not all pathways will be vertical. There may be opportunities for someone to shift sideways in your organization.

What might that look like?

Consider a community health care system that needs to use data analytics to schedule staff efficiently and improve patient outcomes. Rather than draw only one career path, from junior IT staffer to analytics, the employer could also create a lateral path for nurses who want to get trained in informatics and analytics.

5. Finally, step back from your career paths to think about how employees’ progress along them will affect your whole organization.

For example, how does moving someone from IT into data science affect your company’s infrastructure? If one of your nurses moves into an analytics role, what needs to happen to maintain patient care?

How do you talk to employees about career paths?

You can use your performance review schedule to discuss career path options with your team. You can then tie those discussions into your succession planning.

Keep notes on each employee’s preferences and performance toward their career goals. By comparing their goals and current skills to the path they want to follow, you can identify the best next steps.

For someone who’s underperforming but wants to do more, getting a clear idea of their preferred career path will help you see which skills and trainings to prioritize.

For an employee who’s a high performer, special projects can help them build skills to move along their desired path. These projects can also help them stay engaged even if there’s not a new position for them to move into just yet.

What about employees who are happy where they are?

Special projects are also a good option for them, to keep them engaged without the pressure to move up or sideways. As a bonus, these projects can help them build skills they’ll need if they ever do decide they’d like to make a move.

How do you set expectations?

Discussing career pathways with employees and candidates can be exciting. It’s important, however, to use those discussions as an incentive and for planning purposes without overpromising a particular outcome.

The existence of a career path doesn’t mean that every employee along the path will follow it, or that they’ll follow it from end to end. It’s crucial to be clear with your people that simply meeting the criteria to move up or sideways doesn’t mean that move will happen automatically or right away.

For example, if a social worker attains a new certification that allows them to advance to a managerial role, but there are no open roles, the employee will have to wait.

Career path conversations don’t need to be formal or follow a rigid schedule. You can check in with your employees in casual chats between performance reviews to see:

  • How everything’s going
  • Whether their goals are changing
  • Where they see themselves in a year or so

Then you can help them make the most of their journey along their career pathway.

Are you looking for more employee development resources? Download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that accelerates your business.