how HR can identify and remove unintended barriers to talent mobility

In today’s tight labor market, companies are focused on retaining talent and engaging employees in new ways. Many organizations have begun looking more closely at upskilling and reskilling their current employees and encouraging them to redeploy into new roles within the organization. This provides a fast track to filling open roles and shortening the time to productivity for the organization, as well as providing an engaging employee experience for workers.

Yet many organizations, while encouraging more internal job mobility, find that programs that are introduced go unnoticed or are underutilized. Internal leaders continue to clamor for more talent and open roles remain unfilled while good talent exits the organization. Many companies that have tried to implement their own talent mobility programs tell us they continue to hear a common refrain in employee engagement surveys and exit interviews: It’s easier to get a job outside the company than inside.

Could HR be the problem?

In our work with Global 2000 organizations, we find that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, there are cultural, procedural or managerial challenges that impede an employee’s movement from one part of the organization to another.

What can HR do to ensure positive intentions for career mobility can be followed through by employees?

cultural barriers to talent mobility

Cultural challenges can take many different forms and can greatly hamper a talent mobility program from achieving its desired success metrics. Organizations today can result from mergers of different companies and become a conglomeration of cultures that each maintain their legacy identities. One company we worked with told us of the different attitudes people had toward expense management between parts of the sales organization that came together through a merger. In one part of the company, employees were carefully budgeting and managing travel, traveling only when absolutely necessary. In another, employees were traveling to nearly every meeting. Though both followed the same corporate guidelines, each organization’s culture dictated how the guidelines were managed. An HR leader can imagine the challenge that an employee would have moving from one division to another and given the exact same travel policy to follow but without the unwritten rule book of how that culture interprets it.

Another cultural barrier can emerge when a division, location or product line is seen as less important, impactful or visible than another. This can create an unintended perception that a job transition is a step down for an employee who would otherwise be willing to make a lateral move to a new role. One organization we know faced this problem with a division that was well-known to be an experimental start-up with a high chance of failure. An employee who moved from the parent company to the startup division told us that peers warned her she was making a mistake, giving up the security of her current job and taking a big risk.

Cultural challenges can also include perceptions of what an internal candidate can and cannot do based on what they are currently doing in the organization. Christy, a director at a Fortune 50 US firm, has experienced this bias as a manager and as someone who has been moved and promoted several times during her 16 years with the company. She noted how, in her organization, if a person has skills they aren’t currently using in their role, the company assumes those skills don’t exist or are not valid. Employees can market themselves externally and land a new role based on those skills, but because they’re not part of the current role, it’s more difficult to convince internal people that the employee can perform in a new role that requires those skills.

Related content: talent scarcity weighing you down? A redeployment strategy is your pick-me-up.

how HR can bring down talent barriers

HR leaders can remove disincentives for employees to move within a company by taking the following actions.

1. Invite transparency and shine light on cultural beliefs. Invite confidential conversations with employees who choose NOT to change roles internally to find out why. Address differences between legacy divisions or teams openly through dialog or collaborative channels like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Ask open-ended questions and promote discussion through these channels to get a sense of peoples’ beliefs.

2. Address the reality. Are these beliefs based on facts that are no longer truths for the company? One talent training company we know had difficulty getting its top talent to work for the ‘new’ digital division. Once the company showed its own employees how customers were demanding more from the digital product and the expectations for the future of the product, there was a noticeable shift in people who wanted to work in this division.

3. Reward early adopters. If there are beliefs that a division or department is ‘less than,’ ‘riskier’ or ‘not as desirable’ as other divisions, those can be difficult to work out of company culture. Consider rewarding people who transfer to those divisions with signing bonuses or other rewards like flexible work schedules. In our example of the employee whose peers warned her not to go to the new division, she was enticed by the idea that the company might spin off from the parent company and offer stock options. Within a year of her transfer, that’s exactly what happened and the income she received from those options was her reward for joining the new division—one far beyond any bonus she could have received in her old job.

4. Use a skills inventory to match skills to internal roles and allow participants to put forward their whole skill sets, even if those skills not currently used in the role. Many HRIS systems have tools for employees to add and update their current skills and certifications, making it easy for internal recruiters to objectively search and find employees with the right skills for the right roles. In the absence of an inventory, call attention to the tendency of internal bias to negatively impact internal candidates. Invite hiring managers to consider not only what they’ve seen or heard of the person, but their whole set of talents as illustrated in the resume – just as they would an outside candidate.

Related content: how to move your talent development strategy to the fast lane.

systemic and procedural barriers to talent mobility

If your company is like many we know, your policies and procedures are created for a moment in time and don’t always support the bigger picture. Often, these systems or procedures can create unintended barriers to internal transfers.

One company we know decided to keep separate email addresses for each division for branding reasons. Employees of each division had an email address that reflected the individual brand they worked under. It worked great for marketing purposes, as it helped promote customers’ familiarity with the brand. However, as the company started to encourage more cross-training, project work and mobility among internal divisions, employees found it cumbersome to contribute to other divisions because it meant they had to change email addresses. Many times, this led to a break or barrier in maintaining previous relationships with customers, the opposite of what the policy was intended to create.

Compensation or different leveling of jobs can also be unintended barriers to transferring to new roles internally. Julio is a mid-level employee at a global company who has held eight jobs in the 18 years he’s been with the company. His company had a policy in place for many years that mandated only lateral transfers could be made internally and only with manager prior approval after the employee was in role for more than two years. An employee might be eligible for a higher level, but preference was given to outside candidates for these roles. This forced many people to exit the company, get experience outside, and boomerang back to change levels.

In the past few years, the company policy has shifted to encourage more internal mobility, allowing employees to apply after only three months in a role and without manager prior approval. However, Julio says moving internally from one level to another is still difficult. He was able to move to a higher level in his last job move by taking responsibility for selling himself as he would if he were an external candidate.

It would be virtually impossible for HR to anticipate all possible systemic and procedural barriers to an internal transfer. However, there are ways you can tune-in to what stands in the way in your organization.

1. Review results of your employee engagement surveys, especially the open-ended questions about career options. If you’re making internal talent mobility a priority but people are still reporting a lack of career options, dig deeper. Find out if systems or processes can be changed to better support internal movement.

2. Interview candidates who successfully transition to new role—and those who do not—to try to uncover hidden procedural challenges. Find commonalities and choose three to address each year. You’ll never get to all of them (think of it as an ongoing whack-a-mole game) but you’ll at least annually clear the path for the most common ones.

3. Include internal process questions in your exit interviews by asking, “Did anything ever get in the way of your career development here at Company X? If so, what?” You’ll likely discover issues you never even considered would be roadblocks.

Related article: overcoming recruiting and retention challenges with talent mobility solutions.

managerial barriers to talent mobility

The biggest obstacle, by far, that we find to creating an organization where talent moves around freely is the one caused by managers. Managers often hold onto talent, hoarding employees either temporarily or permanently, and keeping individuals from making internal movements. Many managers we talk with say they WANT to support their people moving to new roles—to grow and learn internally—but managers have an unintended incentive to encourage employees to stay. In today’s metric-driven work environment, managers are almost always gauged more highly on short-term performance measures. Near-term success means keeping productivity at its highest, which leads managers to keep their people exactly where they are and at the same level of productivity. Relinquishing a person who wants to move to a new division means a likely a short-term dip in performance for the group, even if giving up that person is what’s best for the employee and the organization in the long run. In short, the manager gets dinged for doing the right thing.

HR can help by establishing performance metrics based on a manager’s ability to develop talent. One organization we know is experimenting with providing incentives and bonuses to managers who groom and let go of talent for other internal roles. HR can also help by looking at some roles as temporary within teams that are more permanent. We are familiar with one company that has been using its finance division as a starting point for rotational programs throughout the organization. The finance team comprises six long-term team members and one rotated-in member who holds the position for six months. This kind of planning for a support structure around a rotational position allows companies to ensure the work gets done efficiently and accurately while also providing a learning opportunity by mobilizing people.

Related content: helping managers effectively promote career development.

take time to investigate

A look inside your organization can reveal high-impact reasons why your company may not be achieving its internal talent mobility goals. Identify and address cultural impediments bit by bit. Uncover systemic issues by tuning in to reasons why people do and don’t successfully move internally. Attention to rewarding managers for grooming and redeploying talent internally can encourage behavior that promotes talent mobility to the benefit of the company. Analyzing the barriers to talent mobility begins with listening to employees, then making the business case to company leaders about the opportunities to improve engagement and retention that can ultimately lead to a more agile, competitive business.

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jeanne schad.

talent solutions and strategy practice leader

09 January 2020

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