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How HR Can Prioritize Employee Career Development Post-Pandemic

Cheerful female employee sitting at desktop with laptop noting down important information, company career development seminar

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy continues to strengthen, many companies are wrestling with staffing and workforce planning challenges, and debating return-to-work scenarios.  It is a “hot” labor market, with the number of job openings in the U.S. at a record high of 9.3 million in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  A recent WSJ article described remote work as the “new signing bonus,” as companies adjust their hiring practices to emphasize remote work and flexibility to attract new talent.

However, this tumultuous staffing activity masks a more fundamental talent issue: the ability to retain and develop a productive workforce that will differentiate a company in the marketplace.  The “quit rate” – the number of workers leaving jobs – was 2.7% in April, the highest since 2000, showing the difficulties many companies have not only in hiring but also in retaining talent.  Engagement, productivity, and learning are the growth drivers of the future, which puts a premium on maximizing the potential of workforce talent.  A constantly churning workforce, with historically high numbers of employees leaving, makes this a Sisyphean challenge.

But what is at the core of this talent retention challenge?  What stands out is a basic mismatch between what employees’ want from their employer and how companies have responded.  The most valuable asset any individual has in today’s competitive and rapidly changing business environment is their “career capital” – the unique combination of competencies, knowledge, and work experience that allows them to produce value.  To build and sustain their career capital, ample research has shown that employees look for three essential elements from their employer:

  • Meaningful work
  • An opportunity for growth, learning, and development
  • A connection to a broader purpose and mission

Yet, how have companies responded?  First, a macro trend over the past 20+ years has been to disinvest in employees, with companies shifting much of the burden to employees for professional, personal, and financial growth.  Common examples include the movement from defined benefit retirement plans to 401(k) defined contribution plans, the reduction of tuition reimbursement budgets, and the flattening of organizational hierarchies, which eliminated many career pathways.

Another trend is that HR programs and resources have disproportionally focused on leadership development and support while under-investing in employee development.  While HR has always straddled the line between employee advocacy and management support, it has historically been viewed as a management function, designed to primarily support leaders and managers.  In a recent CCI webinar, for example, 70% of participants – all HR leaders – indicated their HR delivery model and the program content delivered to the organization prioritizes leadership development over employee development and advocacy.

So, although many organizations routinely tout their workforce as “our most critical asset,” what employees have experienced is a different reality, one in which companies have shifted the responsibility for career growth and development to the individual and have underinvested in resources employees need to enhance their career capital.  And while the COVID pandemic has given rise to increased remote and flexible work options, it is not without some career risk: recent SHRM research highlights the lack of promotional opportunities for remote workers compared with employees who are physically present in offices.

Savvy HR leaders understand there is both an opportunity and a compelling need to reinvest in employee career development.  Doing so will incent employees to stay with your organization, decreasing the “quit rate,” minimizing the churn of the workforce, and retaining employees’ skills and institutional knowledge within your organization…. which creates value and a competitive advantage.

But how can HR leaders and organizations reverse these trends and make a meaningful commitment to employee career development?  Several options should be explored, focusing on the design of the HR delivery model and the programmatic content HR offers:

  • Re-think the HR Business Partner model – and evolve the role to ensure the Business Partner is a resource and support for employees in the same manner it is for leaders.
  • Make it easier for the Talent Acquisition function to identify and place internal candidates. Re-assess job posting guidelines to ensure they facilitate, not inhibit, internal placements.
  • Don’t let leaders “hoard” talent. Many leaders try to hold onto their employees – to maintain stability in the work unit – rather than let employees pursue promotional opportunities.  Instead, reward those leaders who view talent as an organizational asset, encouraging growth and movement.
  • Visibly support internal career development by offering career management workshops for employees and providing coaching, training, and support resources.
  • Consider building a new “center of excellence” in the HR delivery model focused on “Career Navigation.” This COE could have company-wide ownership of career management policies and programs, including job posting policies and career management programs referenced above, and be a centralized resource for both employees and leaders.
  • Re-invest in formal employee development programs – job rotations, job shadowing, “intrapreneurship” programs, etc. These programs adhere to a basic development tenet that the best learning outcomes come from on-job experiences.
  • Leverage Employee Resource Groups as a career management tool. An example comes from a CCI client in healthcare which created an ERG focused on career navigation and professional development, and routinely invites senior leaders to share their personal career journeys with employees.

The past 15 months have been an incredibly challenging time.  In the frenzy of rebuilding and recovering from COVID, it pays to remember a few basic equations, one from an organizational perspective, the other from the employee perspective:

Organizational Lens:  Engagement + Learning = Productivity

Employee Lens:  Engagement + Learning = Career Capital

It is a win-win proposition for those organizations that tangibly invest in internal career development, enabling companies to retain and grow a workforce that will be a competitive advantage.

Rob Croner
Vice President, Senior Executive Services
CCI Consulting

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