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Will it take another 20 years for career development to improve?

With many employees considering their employment options after the disruption and anxiety of the past couple of years, employers will lose good staff if they don’t listen to what their employees are thinking and feeling about their careers.

Given this context, it is shocking to discover that employers still say and do much the same things about career development as they said and did 20 years ago. 

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In 2020, a clear majority of HR respondents to a survey from the Corporate Research Forum (CRF) said their organisations were becoming more active in supporting career development for all staff. But less than half communicated a clear statement on career development to all staff.

The same survey showed that career development is seen more as a partnership between the organisation and the employee, than just the responsibility of the employee. But the idea of career development as a partnership is not new.

Back in 2003, in a similar survey by the CIPD, at least 80% agreed that a partnership approach to career development is essential and that employees need advice, support and training to be able to manage their own careers.

Many organisations expect line managers to have ‘career conversations’ with employees, but do not give them the information or the skills to do this effectively. Only about half the 2020 survey respondents offered managers training for their role in career development, and only a small minority made this training mandatory. This was no better than in 2003.

Most medium-sized and large organisations expect employees to manage their own career moves by applying for advertised job vacancies. This requires employees to know what opportunities they should be looking for, which is difficult without good advice.

Also, because the ‘best fit’ candidate is selected, individuals who are not on special programmes or in talent pools rarely get the chance to change the kind of work they do. This also constrains organisational flexibility.

The CRF study found that HR professionals do not think these widely adopted career development practices are effective.

If you want to improve career development at work, here are six cost-effective things to consider:

  1. Clarify who in HR is responsible for career strategy and co-ordinating its implementation. If it’s no-one’s job, how do you expect it to happen?

  2. Communicate clearly to all staff the organisation’s career development philosophy, broad kinds of jobs and careers, areas of growing opportunity and where to get further support.

  3. Train all managers for their role in career development. If you already train managers in coaching skills, extend this into career coaching.

  4. Ensure all employees have access to someone they can talk to about their career who is not their line manager. Options for this include mentors; advice from L&D or HR professionals; and trained volunteer internal career coaches.

  5. Offer career workshops or career courses, these days often facilitated online for groups of employees.

  6. Widen access to developmental work experiences. Project working, job enrichment, job swaps, job rotation and work shadowing benefit the business as well as developing employees.

We know we need to do something about career development in organisations and we know what we could do. Do we really have to wait another 20 years to see a partnership approach to career development become a reality?


Wendy Hirsh is principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and visiting professor of career development at the University of Derby


This piece appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.