· 5 min read · Features

Career planning – the elephant in the room?

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With the rise of the gig economy HR needs to acknowledge the elephant in the room: people's need to move on

See it? That huge, grey, unsettling thing making a poor job of concealing itself behind the photocopier? Its vast significance and distracting, wandering trunk are impossible to ignore. You’d like to get on with that important team-building exercise, but the damn thing has just eaten Ruby’s pot plant and you’ve come to the queasy realisation that when you turn your back it’s going to mess up your plans too.

Yes, it’s the elephant in the room. And in this instance, the discomfiting metaphor stands for the awkwardness of talking to employees about their career aspirations. Or rather the fact that they may not involve your firm.

According to research by Right Management, the global career expertise arm of ManpowerGroup, a shocking 46% of British employees claim they have never had a “high quality” conversation about their career with their manager, while 84% say they only talk with their employers about their career once or twice a year. This is despite the fact that a majority of employees are keen to discuss their career goals more frequently.

It’s a worrying imbalance. And from the employer’s perspective, this failure to engage can prove highly counterproductive. Like it or not, in today’s talent ecosystem-driven gig economy, young employees in particular often don’t expect or intend to stay with one company for a long stretch of time. Which means everyone should be much more open and honest about the reality that employees may be looking to move on.

“Organisations need to have much more transparent career conversations,” says David Shields, global head of diversity and inclusion at international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF). “We are encouraging partners and managers to have more transparent career discussions where you are a bit more upfront with individuals and understand where they are coming from. The best managers and partners are doing that anyway because they appreciate the importance of retaining good people. We are looking at what we need to put in place to be more flexible with our people.”

HSF has identified several issues it is addressing via more open conversations. One is gender-related. HSF has noted a trend among female lawyers to make big decisions about their future career at around two or three years post-qualification – often ruling themselves out of aiming to become partners in the firm. Frequently this decision is made for family reasons but Shields says other factors come into play as well.

Shields says that by having mature open conversations, the firm is able to set out a range of flexible options that may allow it to hold on to people or ensure excellent career progress for talented individuals.

One way HSF aims to retain key people who might otherwise leave in order to accrue broader experience is through secondments, either abroad with overseas HSF offices for those keen to acquire international experience, or in-house with corporate clients.

Insurance group Aviva is also engaging with workers around career opportunities. It recently convened a number of focus groups across the organisation to find out how its employees feel about their careers and access to learning. This found that 72% of Aviva staff said they had the opportunity to develop their skills in the last six months, and 83% felt motivated to go beyond their job responsibilities.

“Accessing and helping every employee to realise their full potential is not just a ‘nice to have’; we know that people who develop their skills at least every six months are more than twice as likely to be engaged employees,” says Aviva talent and organisational development director Michelle Maynard. “We find it motivates individuals to know they have an employer who gives them the opportunity to explore their aspirations, hopes and fears.”

Although Maynard feels Aviva has already done a lot to talk honestly with employees about future career choices, she is quick to concede “there is always more we can do”. Aviva will shortly launch a new learning and careers portal – Grow – to provide access to information about career development, including vacancies, secondments and curated content. The design of the portal has been inspired by how people access information and knowledge outside of work via Google and YouTube and, adds Maynard, will “complement the very valuable development conversations employees have with their managers already”.

At Anchor, England’s largest not-for-profit provider of housing and care for older people, there is also a clear acceptance that things need to change. “We will need to have a different relationship with our employees,” says Anchor head of training Anita Cunningham. “We will need to understand the aspirations and interests of the existing workforce.” Failure to do so, she believes, could lead to Anchor not having enough staff to meet the growing pressures of social care.

The way to do this, says Cunningham, is by understanding and asking what people’s desires are as part of ongoing one-to-one conversations, as well as at formal appraisal and interview stages. Encouragement should be given to employees to be honest about their aspirations internally. Anchor, for example, has a ‘grow your own’ programme: a development programme it is initiating to help talent get the learning they need to help them be job-ready when promotions come up.

Cunningham adds the importance of factoring in the attitudes and expectations of the millennial generation. “Young people in the workplace today will tell you it as it is,” she says. “If they don’t like or agree with something they will challenge it, regardless of hierarchy. They are very determined and focused, keep their goals in mind, and know where they want to get to. Their grasp of technology is very different and they are more likely to drive the use of technology and be talking to their colleagues of a similar age on social network sites that they own and drive.”

However, as we have seen with the rise of LinkedIn, it is not only younger members of the workforce who are using online avenues to unearth career opportunities for themselves. The idea of a ‘job for life’ is gone. According to a survey by ADP 47% of UK employees plan to change jobs within the next three years.

“We are seeing that people are less likely to enter one profession and move up step by step, and more likely to shift sideways as they climb the career ladder,” says Dan Dackombe, sales director EMEA, search and staffing at LinkedIn. “As the traditional linear career path becomes less common, employers need to both recognise and embrace this change to keep attracting and retaining the right talent.”

“The traditional career conversation needs to be refocused, both for new candidates and existing employees, to acknowledge that an individual may not be with a company forever,” he adds. “Employment isn’t a one-way street; people need to be gaining as much from the job as the company is gaining from their time. Conversations should focus on how staff can gain skills they need for the long term, not just those that help them in their current role.”

Dackombe goes on to argue that it is important employees understand that they now have a greater level of personal responsibility for their career progression. As such, they need to create and maintain their own professional brands and immerse themselves in the industries they work in. “Managers should be mentoring their employees on how to leverage their networks, and help to connect them with the right people and organisations to develop their skills,” he says. “Having a strong professional brand is hugely beneficial to both the worker’s progression and to their organisation.”

Moreover, as David D’Souza, head of London and head of engagement for the branch network at CIPD, says: “If you can have relationships with team members that are human and trusting enough to explore careers then you can be sure that day-to-day interactions will also benefit from that dynamic. The manager needs to set the tone for those conversations; legitimising the subject by bringing it up first while reassuring the team member that it is being raised out of a desire to meet and support their ambitions rather than for nefarious means.”

Acknowledging the potential awkwardness of the conversation and the fact that you understand that people do move roles will help ease some of the tension, adds D’Souza. That might seem a bit risky, but burying your head in the sand is even more so, given the ever-ballooning size of that elephant in the room.