The new dance of employee career development: The war and the walk

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About the authors:
Denise Jepsen is Associate Professor in Management, at Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, Sydney Australia. You can contact her at
Narelle Hess is Career Development and Education Manager at Sydney Roosters, and Sessional Academic at Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University. You can contact her at

For years we have been told that employees need to take charge of their own careers, that employees can no longer rely on an employer to manage their career development.  Gone are the days of “a job for life”. Instead, “Me, Inc” has highlighted the need to take personal responsibility for one’s own career. Proponents of protean careers encourage employees to develop transferrable skills to support their own employability, while boundaryless careers advocates have encouraged employees to look beyond the boundaries of their current role, employer, or sector to develop their careers. Employees, we are told, need to take charge. And if their career goals are not being met in their current employment, look elsewhere.

Yet on the other hand, we have heard since the late 1990s about the “war for talent” and the intense competition for valued employees. The shift in human resources function from an administrative to a strategic function suggests we see employees as a commodity requiring investment. We are focused on developing and retaining our key talent through targeted and organisational wide initiatives. We have software that tells us who is on the bench, ready now or soon to fill those critical roles and we feverishly negotiate i-deals (individualised, tailored conditions for some employees) to attract or retain key people.

So what is going on? Are organisations developing their people? Do employees need to manage their own careers outside of their employer?  Frequently we see either side of this argument presented in the popular press and the scholarly literature. The tension between these two schools of thought intrigued us, so we tried to establish what is going on.

There are two parts to this tension: the organisation’s perspective and the employees’ perspective.

We started with the organisation’s perspective. We looked at 20 years of data on how organisations (larger than 100 employees) manage their employees’ careers. We looked at individual career planning practices such as performance appraisal as a basis of career planning or mentoring, and also more strategic organisational level practices such as high flier schemes, succession planning and career breaks. Given talk of employees taking responsibility for their own careers, we expected there would be fewer of these practices in use today than 20 years ago. We were wrong. We found more than half the practices increased over that time, not decreased. We found that internal job postings, performance appraisal for career planning, succession planning, career paths, assessment centres, secondments, job rotations, mentoring, and high flier schemes are more likely to be provided by organisations now than in the past. Most notably, the most popular organisational career management practices in the most recent survey period, with more than 80% of organisations offering these practices, were the individual employee-focused practices of performance appraisal as basis of career planning, career coaching, and mentoring. Phew. Organisations have not given up on supporting employee career development.

We then asked employees what they thought. More than 50 interviews later, we found something special. Rather than walking away, we found the opportunity for a genuine partnership between employees and the organisation. Not a walk, but a dance with the organisation. But who or what is “the organisation”? That turned out to be a critical element to our interviewees. We found there could be a beautiful partnership under certain conditions. The most important condition, we found, was the manager. That’s the key to how this works.

Our key takeaway: When the manager is able and willing to invoke the strategies and opportunities orchestrated by HR, then the employee AND the organisation both win.

To put it another way… when the manager does not respond to the employee’s request or desire for development or career opportunities, the employee is almost forced to look elsewhere for this support and career development. Walk away, talent. The war is lost.

What does this mean for you? Well, as an employee it means a few things:

  • First, pick your managers wisely if you have any choice in the matter. Some managers do, and some managers do not support employee career development. If you do not have this support in your current manager, identify who else can be your career support person – you don’t need to do it all on your own!
  • Second, identify what career or developmental opportunities may be available in your organisation. Don’t just ask your manager, rather do your research with HR and your peers to see what is possible, then ask your manager. Be specific. Be focussed on their needs also, not just your needs. What skills and development would help them achieve their objectives? Be a partner with your manager.
  • Third, develop your own career management skills. Do you know how to network, identify your own training needs, or have meaningful career conversations? Look for opportunities to develop these skills in your organisation, university, professional association, or with a qualified career coach or career development practitioner.

And if you are a manager? You are asked to do a LOT. We get it, and your time is even more demanding now because careers are no longer linear and easy to navigate. What advice people told you, may not work for your employees, so where to start?

  • First, start the conversation, but do not be surprised if your employee doesn’t have the answer. Do you know where you will go next? They probably don’t either, and if they are scared or fearful or lacking in confidence, they will be even less likely to know where to go next.
  • Second, it is therefore even more important for you to develop the skills you need to have meaningful career conversations. Seek out advice from HR, look to engage in your own professional development to build career coaching skills.
  • Third, some of your people will be genuinely not focused on career development, that’s perfectly fine too. But don’t be surprised when they change their minds. We all do, right? And be ready to open the conversation at a later time. You have the opportunity to be your employees’ best dance partner as they navigate their careers, but if you are not their support person, we know from the research they will find the support from someone else. Take the lead.

And if you’re the HR department? Again, three key things you can do:

  • First, support those managers to be motivated to develop their employees, give them KPIs and other metrics around developmental targets.
  • Second, ensure you have a suite of developmental opportunities – that the managers know about – available for when they are needed. And
  • Third, engage career development expertise in the design of your strategic human resources management systems.

So, what do we conclude? We found that organisations can support employee career development AND employees have an important role to manage their career development. We found that HR is not the key player but is a key support for this dance partnership between the manager and employee. Both the manager and employee are key for this dance to work. But they need HR to build the dance floor and create the playlist .

How are your employees? Are they up to the job? Do they know how to manage their own career development and have meaningful conversations with their managers?

How are your managers? Are they up to the job? Are they developing your people, giving them the opportunities to grow and develop into the employees you want to keep?

You’ve heard the saying: “What if we develop our people and they leave? Well, what if we don’t develop our people and they stay?”

Findings are based on the paper:

Hess, N. & Jepsen, D. (2018). Organizational career management in a protean and boundaryless world: A mixed-methods study. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Chicago, Illinois, USA on  August 6th.

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