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HR Revamps Career Itineraries

April 1, 1994
Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
Harry Marks is a senior local-area network (LAN) administrator at John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Boston. He's challenged in his job, has had two promotions in the last year and recently received two customer-support awards. He likes working with information technology because the field always is changing.

Marks' job satisfaction wasn't always this pronounced. Just two years ago, in fact, he was "stuck" in the company's accounting division, reconciling bank accounts. The work was routine, unchanging and predictable—in his words, "boring." Through a comprehensive career-management program that John Hancock instituted in 1990, however, Marks was able to change jobs, jumpstarting his career.

John Hancock's career-management program resulted from a survey administered by the company to find out what employees thought of its career opportunities. At the time, a hiring freeze was in effect, and 1,000 workers recently had been cut through attrition. Because of this, it came as no surprise that employees had a dim view of the company's advancement opportunities. The company was startled, however, by the number of employees who believed that career development was solely the company's responsibility.

To counter this notion and encourage employees to assume more responsibility for their career development, the company created several career-management resources. "We believe employee career advancement is a joint responsibility," says Page Palmer, vice president of human resources at John Hancock. "We will offer opportunities for training and career development, but it's up to the individuals to pursue them."

John Hancock isn't alone in this philosophy. Large companies around the nation are passing the bulk of responsibility for career-management on to employees. Santa Clara, California-based Intel Corp., for example, advises employees that "each of us is responsible for our own personal and career development." Hewlett-Packard Co., based in San Francisco, tells employees, "At HP, you're expected to chart the course for your own career, and you influence the direction and timing." A training manager at Roselle, Illinois-based Motorola Corp. explains, "The company only can provide criteria for movement, career counseling and other information resources. The employee must make the career decision, commit to becoming a viable candidate and assume a major role in the process."

For workers in most of these firms, this is a new concept. "Fifteen years ago, it was a company's responsibility to manage careers," explains Vincent Perro, principal with Sibson and Company in New York City. That was a time when U.S. companies were expanding so rapidly that management jobs were created almost faster than companies could find people to fill them. "As the company was growing, so were employees' careers," says Nancy Dewey, employee-relations manager for Cupertino, California-based Apple Computer.

Career development during this era in which the United States dominated the global economy simply meant taking the path the company paved for you. Human resources departments prepared very specific charts depicting the structure of career ladders in the organization and attaching detailed job descriptions and compensation plans to every rung. A methodical progression up the ladder—up one rung to manage people; up another to manage a division—was the norm for people planning a 30-year career with the same company. These career-minded individuals knew that if they just toed the line, kept their noses clean and put in their time, they'd be handsomely rewarded with expected promotions.

But not anymore. Employees are finding their careers stopped dead in their tracks, the rungs above them eliminated. Today, only about a third of all careers in the United States are pursued as traditional or vertical careers in corporations, and this number is decreasing all the time.

Employees need only look around them for proof that the employment contract has changed. The epidemic of downsizings, mergers, takeovers, plant closings and bankruptcies has created legions of workers who are happy just to have a job. The massive layoffs in this country have made employees painfully aware that the notion of a lifelong career with regular paychecks and secure benefits are no longer entitlements.

Now you could argue that this was never the case to begin with. No one—with the possible exception of entertainer George Burns—ever has been handed a lifetime contract for employment. The notion of job security never was set in stone; the paternalism of yesterday's corporation merely was implied. Even firms that appeared to offer lifetime employment, such as Detroit-based General Motors Corp. and Armonk, New York-based IBM, have laid off white-collar workers by the tens of thousands.

Although some pundits expected the downward spiral to stop some time ago, in actuality, it spins onward. The American Management Association's 1993 downsizing survey reveals that the number of companies trimming their work force continues to rise. Twenty-two percent of employers surveyed plan to make work-force reductions by the end of June, cutting, on average, 10% of their headcounts. By making this transition from fat and sassy to lean and mean, companies have axed entire layers of management, splintering the career ladder in the process.

Even without work-force reductions, however, the career ladder stands on shaky ground. In the rapidly changing global business environment of the 1990s, strategic planning involves one to three years at best, making it virtually impossible to plan ahead. "Because they can't predict what kinds of products and services they'll be selling a decade from now, companies can't be sure what positions they'll need to fill and what skills will be required," says Helen Axel, a senior research fellow with the Conference Board in New York City. Xerox, for example, estimates that 25% of its job openings are unanticipated.

With firms unable to tell people for which jobs to groom, the responsibility for career management now rests firmly on employees' shoulders. They must pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Companies can't, and won't, do it for them.

To aid employees, progressive companies such as John Hancock are providing tools and resources to help with career planning. Why? "Because they want to retain their talent," says Beverly Kaye, a management consultant in Los Angeles. Employers need flexible, committed employees who understand the realities of today's workplace. "Otherwise, they end up with an organization of gripers and complainers." Furthermore, helping employees become adaptable to workplace changes makes sense from a competitive standpoint.

Companies must educate workers about their career-development roles.
When John Hancock discovered that workers expected the company to dictate their career paths, the company created educational services to teach employees about their responsibilities. "Up is Not the Only Way," is a course the company offers employees that discusses the various components of a satisfying career, as well as the benefits of lateral moves. Workers also can participate in a workshop titled "Planning and Developing Your Career," which reviews professional growth strategies.

Similarly to John Hancock's experience, PacTel Corp., a cellular-phone company based in Walnut Creek, California, discovered the need to help employees with career education when a survey revealed that employees equated careers with promotions. On a scale of one to 10, a majority of PacTel employees ranked the importance of promotions as an eight. Employees ranked the expectation of being promoted as 7.7 on the same scale. Furthermore, 65% of respondents said to feel successful, they require a promotion within two years.

"We realized we never could grow fast enough to keep all those ambitious folks happy," says Tracey Borst, director of organization development and training at PacTel. Employee expectations were too high; the promotional opportunities, too few. "We had to find a way to educate employees about other ways for them to grow and stay happy in their careers," she says.

To do so, PacTel last October launched career-communications workshops teaching career-planning skills to employees and their supervisors. The two-day seminar is voluntary for employees, but required of management-level personnel. Employees attend on company time and receive regular pay.

The employee workshop is designed to help workers:

  • Identify their skills, interests and values
  • Learn about PacTel's norms and how they affect careers
  • Develop a realistic career plan
  • Explore different career options, including lateral moves and relocations
  • Learn to talk with their managers about career growth.

The manager's workshop teaches managers how to become effective career coaches by giving direction and constructive feedback to employees, and by helping them to realistically assess opportunities within the company. "These workshops emphasize the importance of the partnership between employees, managers and the company," Borst says. "Career management isn't a sidebar to our work. It's a mindset that will help us run a better business."

Already there have been some success stories at PacTel. Susan Everett, for example, was working as a project manager in the finance department when she attended the course with her supervisor last fall. "When I finished, a light bulb went on," she says. "I knew I needed a change."

What happened was that Everett, who was trained as an accountant, learned she had more interest in people than numbers. She told this to her boss, who, having attended the workshop, was able to guide Everett toward opportunities in the company. Taking a risk, Everett made a lateral move to become manager of the Customer Assurance Department. "I was apprehensive at first," says Everett. "Managing 40 people would be a challenge, but it was what I wanted. We all get so busy, we don't often get the chance to think about long-term goals. The class allowed me to step back, see the big picture and know that it's OK to risk making a change."

The focus on in-house career education such as that underway at PacTel is blurring the line between outplacement and inplacement. This has been accelerated by the recent spate of downsizings, in which a lot of displaced employees wondered why they didn't have access to career counseling before the layoffs occurred. Furthermore, employers who now are dealing with nervous downsizing survivors are finding that career education can help them feel more confident about their careers and be more productive in their jobs.

Some employers are just sticking their toe in the career-education pond by providing career talks or one-shot career-planning workshops. Others, like Intel, Motorola and San Francisco-based Chevron, are developing full-blown on-site career-education centers as a way of fostering loyalty among workers who have seen too many co-workers handed their coats and walking papers.

It was the experience of downsizing in the late 1980s that taught Intel's HR managers that they no longer could assume the responsibility of managing individual careers. "We'd played an intermediary role," says Mike Barnes, manager of staffing. "We went so far as to help employees develop resumes and make career matches for them." When these carefully groomed employees had to be laid off, however, they were angry, and remaining co-workers were distrustful. The company, despite its good intentions, looked bad.

Today Intel takes a different stance. "We've reached a point in the corporate cycle where it's clear that individuals must take responsibility for their own careers," Barnes says.

To help employees take up the gauntlet for their own career growth, Intel has created on-site Employee Development Centers. These centers provide tools for career planning, such as computerized assessments; career-development books and video tapes; courses on resume writing, interviewing and personal growth; and career-counseling sessions. As explained to employees in the Employee Development Center brochure, "No one else is more interested or qualified when it comes to evaluating our individual interests, values, skills and goals [than you]. Employee development creates a win/ win result—employees maximize job satisfaction and career opportunities which helps make them more productive."

Another way companies are educating employees to manage their careers is by staffing professional career specialists who offer individualized counseling. At the Los Angeles Times, a full-time specialist is located at headquarters. This specialist teaches a workshop on career assessment, organizational assessment and decision making. The specialist is then available for one-on-one follow-up counseling.

One of the risks employers take when offering career-management services is that workers will discover, through the self-assessment process, that the company is no longer right for them and pack their bags. But career consultants agree it's a risk companies have to take. If employers are going to encourage and support employee development, they must do so in whatever form it takes. Companies are at greater risk of losing employees if they don't provide these services.

Corporate cultures must encourage career-development initiatives.
As important as self-managed career education has become, it stands little chance of being effective if offered in isolation. Employees can spend countless hours plotting their individual career paths, but they can't easily change their behavior unless the corporate culture and organizational systems support that change. Moreover, the fact remains that no matter how well workers plan for advancement, the promotion opportunities aren't always there. For this reason, companies must find other ways to encourage employees to keep growing.

This isn't an easy task. With fewer rungs up the career ladder to climb, corporate employees are topping out younger and at lower levels than they expected. At the very least, plateaued employees present productivity problems. Even worse, fast trackers and other talented people may pack up their years of experience and leave the company altogether.

In searching for ways to encourage talent that can't advance, progressive corporations are working to develop managers into career coaches. Coaching doesn't mean that managers plan careers for their employees or that they have all the answers to career questions. Instead, career coaching is an ability to give staff members the truth about what's happening in the organization and prepare them for inevitable changes in the employment contract (see "Marriott Trains Managers To Become Partners in Career Development"). More importantly, effective career coaches can help employees find job satisfaction in ways other than traditional promotions.

With the proper training on how to coach, supervisors understand they don't have to have a career path for everybody—they simply have to be truthful about employment opportunities and work with employees on career-development goals. "Managers are afraid of what employees will do with the truth that promotions aren't going to happen to the majority of workers," Kaye says. "But employees deserve to be told the facts about future opportunities."

In training managers to be effective career coaches, some companies have found that supervisors develop the sensitivity it takes to work with their employees' career needs only after receiving training that helps them examine their own jobs and their personal feelings about them. "Stuck managers can't unstick employees," Kaye says. That's why, when the Internal Revenue Service—one of the nation's largest employers—designed a manager-training workshop to help managers learn how to work with their direct reports on career development, they did so only after the successful launch of a management-achievement program, which helped managers identify their own strengths and needs.

In addressing the career needs of managers and the issue of manager-employee relationships, the IRS uses the services of its in-house career-counseling program. Opened in 1992, these regional counseling offices offer computer-based career-development software and workshops on career development. These services give managers and their employees a common language with which to talk about career-development goals.

Offer employees alternatives to upward promotions.
Another way companies are helping employees find satisfaction in their jobs is by encouraging them to use internal job-posting systems to look for work outside their area of experience; that is, to search for potential lateral assignments as a way of keeping their interest in the company (see "Online Job-posting Facilitates Lateral Transfers at Household International"). Progressive companies are trying to help employees realize that lateral movements aren't steps down. They actually are excellent ways for employees to broaden their experience level while facing stimulating new assignments.

"Lateral movements are nothing new," Sibson & Company's Perro says. "But companies now are trying to change the value judgment associated with laterals to [persuade] people that it's OK to take them." Convincing them is essential. Companies have to move rapidly to meet changing market demands, and the best way to do this is to have flexible employees who can adapt to new job situations when necessary. If anything has been made clear in the last decade it's that the key to sustained employability in the future won't be specialization. It will be the ability of employees to offer flexibility and a broad base of experience. Lateral moves develop employees in this way.

Intel is one company in which lateral moves are encouraged as a viable career strategy, thanks largely to Kirby Dyess, Intel's vice president of HR. Dyess herself started with the company as a staffing manager, moved into information services, and then became a marketing manager. Most recently, she was a business-unit manager assigned to the start-up of a new division. Because her varied background has benefited her, she's helping to increase acceptance of lateral moves within the company. Says Barnes: "The acceptance of lateral transfers has been carried into the HR staff, and now is making its way through the organization. A colleague of mine, for example, has stepped from HR into marketing. Another colleague went from manufacturing to HR."

Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, also encourages its employees to pursue lateral moves, according to Ron Huseth, director of career services. "In the past, upward moves were the only positive ones. But now, there's stronger incentives for people to take laterals, because they enhance professional credentials."

Despite the strides these firms have made in encouraging lateral moves, horizontal movement still is a hard sell in most companies. "It takes a long time for employees to get the message that vertical moves are blocked," says Kaye, who authored the book Up Is Not the Only Way. "It's probably more difficult for older employees, but even younger ones are wondering where the promotions are. That's amazing to me. They're speaking their parents' lines."

To ease employees into the idea of accepting lateral transfers—and to reenergize careers in the short-term—some companies are encouraging workers to pursue temporary reassignments and learn new skills through task forces, special projects, retraining or other alternatives. "It can be very challenging to put people on special assignments, especially those that are interdisciplinary," Perro says. For example, putting a finance person on a project to develop a new product. "It's energizing for the employee and a great way to develop personnel."

It's because of a program that allowed workers to take on temporary assignments that Marks is on his current track at John Hancock. He took advantage of the company's job-rotation program two years ago when it became obvious that there was no place for him to grow in his accounting position. He wrote a letter to the manager of the Financial Sector Systems Division—who strongly supported the job-rotation program—and inquired about temporary opportunities. The manager responded and Marks was hired for a six-month assignment. During this period, he spent half of his time at the old job in accounting and half at the new one in information systems.

At the end of six months, Marks went back to his old job and waited for a permanent full-time opportunity to arise in information systems. When it did two months later, he applied for and got the job.

At Alagasco, a Birmingham, Alabama, utility company, a similar job-rotation program combats an Is-this-all-there-is? syndrome. The company has reassigned more than 75 employees. One manager traded his suit, tie and air-conditioned office for a six-month stint on the company's construction crew. His reaction? "I returned to the office refreshed and a lot less bored."

Human resources staffers at IBM, which creates variety by reassigning certain management jobs every two years, believe the success of lateral moves depends on how they're positioned and presented. The company's career-planning guide states that opportunities for lateral transfers should reflect the interests, values, skills and personal goals that plateaued employees have identified through self-assessment exercises.

"From an individual's point of view, there's nothing like lateral moves and temporary reassignments to build the strength and breadth of skills," says Betsy Collard of the Career Action Center in Palo Alto, California. "Unfortunately, there's still a stigma attached to them. People think of a career ladder, not a career lattice."

Closely associated with lateral moves is the notion of dual career paths, in which employees are given additional challenges and compensation without having to advance into managerial positions. Dual career paths have been used for years to develop and retain technical employees. "Now they're expanding into staff areas in which people really can get frustrated from a career standpoint," Perro says. For instance, San Francisco-based Pacific Bell has created a dual career ladder system in its data-processing department to reward talented professionals who don't want to move into management.

Technical career tracks must offer pay, status and recognition that's equivalent to a managerial track. "By creating different tracks, each with attractive job titles and pay opportunities, employers stand to greatly increase motivation and retention in a wide range of specialties," Perro adds.

To increase an employee's interest in pursuing technical career tracks or making lateral moves, some companies are devising ways for employee's to learn what other jobs in the company are like. Raychem Corp. in Menlo Park, California., for example, has created what it calls the IIINsiders Network, which stands for Internal Informational Interview Network. Launched last December, IIINsiders is a computer database of 360 people in the company who are willing to talk with other Raychemers about their careers, their functions and their divisions. Workers on the database come from all levels of the company, and include the CEO, senior managers, professionals and associate employees.

According to Sue Burish, career-center manager, these employees have volunteered to sit down with other employees and talk about how they got their current jobs, what they do in their positions and what the division does. "Essentially, they give career advice based on their experience," Burish says. Employees interested in making lateral career moves simply sit down at their personal computers and search for names of employees who are working in divisions or positions in which they're interested.

Taking its cue from Raychem, Apple Computer also recently launched an electronic database of employees who agree to do informational interviewing. Employees access the database through their own desktop computers. "The system allows professionals to share information with others who are growing careers in the same functional area or with others who are looking to make lateral moves," Dewey says. "Rather than placing a lot of emphasis on formal mentoring, we're using technology to set up networks for people to do real-time mentoring by sharing their expertise. Fortunately, we've gotten a tremendous response. Networking is such an important piece of career management."

Enriching current jobs eliminates the need for upward movement.
If people aren't going to move as quickly as they used to in organizations, companies have to make it more interesting and challenging for employees to remain in the jobs they currently have. If people can't grow vertically in the organization, they have to grow in place.

Ironically, the massive organizational restructuring that has blocked career progression for millions of workers also is opening up new opportunities for them in their current jobs. "What happens," Perro says, "is that when you take away layers, the jobs and responsibilities get reassigned. If you take away the vice president position, the people below have to make more decisions. This gives people a broader perch and broader accountabilities, and therefore, the jobs become much more challenging."

The shift to teamwork also is creating ways for employees to find renewed enjoyment in their careers. Research indicates that job satisfaction comes from performing a variety of tasks, seeing tasks to completion, having decision-making authority and receiving frequent performance feedback. Self-directed work teams offer job enrichment in these ways.

The intense focus on customer satisfaction also enhances job enjoyment for many workers, because when employees are put in direct contact with their customers, they have the opportunity to see how their activities affect the final product.

In the majority of companies where work is being redesigned, it's being done as part of organizational reengineering, total quality management or another strategic initiative rather than because of its value to career management. However, it's a fortuitous coincidence that job redesign also can boost stalled careers and motivate plateaued workers.

Align compensation with the career-management system.
As responsibilities change, pay, recognition and status must follow suit. Encouraging people to revitalize their careers through job redesign, lateral transfers or technical career paths requires a substantial shift in a company's reward and compensation system. As Perro says, "You have to use the reward system to motivate people within a job rather than encouraging them to seek a higher one." Put another way, you have to encourage employees to develop their skills over time through a variety of challenging assignments, and then you must reward them on the basis of their demonstrated mastery. If you can't reward people with new, more impressive titles, at least give them more cash at the end of the month. Employees will be much more willing to take on the responsibility for career management and their own personal development if they see the potential for reward.

Compensation systems are being redesigned to support career-management initiatives in a variety of ways, including:

  • Skill-based pay: people are rewarded for acquiring new skills
  • Variable pay: compensation rises and falls in direct relation to the organization's financial success
  • Broadbanding: clusters jobs into wide bands with expansive salary ranges and no job titles. Theoretically, broadbanding encourages employees to spend less time worrying about their next promotion and more time worrying about how to get the job done.

New York City-based RJR Nabisco Co., for example, put seven salary grades having three pay ranges apiece into four broad job bands. As one of the first companies to implement a broadbanded structure, Nabisco did so in an effort to de-emphasize the importance of titles and increase the likelihood that employees would be more willing to make lateral transfers.

Johnson & Johnson, which also has broadened its salary ranges, did so at the time it eliminated four layers of management—thus four layers of job titles. According to Huseth, broadbanding has allowed the company to continue to provide "personal, professional and financial growth" to employees who must now climb across the organization instead of up.

Career management by employees requires honest communications from the organization.
Clearly, the focus of career management today is shifting from the employer being responsible for an employee's career, toward the employee taking responsibility for his or her career growth.

The effort to permanently change this paradigm doesn't stand a chance, however, if organizations don't communicate with employees about their new responsibilities and the reasons for them. "Career management requires very open and honest communication," Collard says. "How can you expect employees to take on this new responsibility if you don't give them the information necessary to make good decisions? You have to work on building their trust and you do this through communication."

Right now, with regards to career management, corporate America is in an awkward in between stage. HR professionals know employees have to be responsible for their own careers, yet few employees have taken this notion to heart. Let's face it: it's tough to reverse generations of conditioning. We—and our parents—entered the workplace with our bosses talking about career ladders and promotions. Our culture glamorizes the climb to the top, and we idolize workers who are rising stars, fast trackers and gogetters. Successful careers have always been built on the notion of advancement—in most cases, through promotions for which the company has groomed us.

So, we have a ways to go. Employees, particularly those in industries hard hit by the recession, are distrustful and nervous about any corporate initiative that may place more demands on them. Older workers are especially resistant to the notion of career self-management. They've planned on promotions all their professional lives, and just when they were ready to burst out of the middle-management ranks, the door to upper management has been slammed in their faces.

What does all this mean? Have patience. It'll take time for employees to understand their new responsibilities. But like kids who've gone off to college, it's time for them to grow up and take charge of their lives. Employers can—and should—provide the necessary support, but employees are ultimately responsible. As Kaye says, "You can't go home again."

Personnel Journal, April 1994, Vol.73, No. 4, pp. 64A-64P.

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