“Who is responsible for career development?” is a popular question that many people pose. The answer matters because it can shape organizational strategy related to career development, which affects employee well-being and the bottom line of the organization.
Also, supervisory actions can differ depending on the answer. For example, let’s imagine there are two different supervisors. Supervisor A believes that their role is simply to make sure that the work gets done. Supervisor B believes that supervisors are also responsible for team members’ career development. What would the quality of employees’ organizational lives within each team look like? Which team will have more engaged employees?
The fall of organizational career development
In the 1970s and 1980s, when there was still such a concept of “lifetime employment,” many organizations believed that they were responsible for employee career development. However, organizational commitment to career development didn’t last. As Dr. Richard Swanson, co-author of Foundations of Human Resource Development, recalls, “I watched sophisticated career development programming disappear overnight with career development challenges reverted back to the individual.”
“But what will happen if organizations and managers believe that the responsibility of career development is solely with the individual employee?”
Many organizations now believe that career development is the responsibility of employees, not the organization. Organizations in that camp use a “buy strategy” as opposed to a “make strategy.” The buy strategy views employees as replaceable when the organization needs, rather than investing in their development for the long-term success of both employees and the organization. Some organizations with that philosophy do not even have a talent development-related function. Compared to the 1980s, many more organizations have now shifted to that direction.
Conversely, the make strategy is based on a belief that employees should be developed for the current and future needs of the organization; thus, they invest in talent development.
With the proliferation of the gig economy and project workers, it appears to be inevitable that organizations will embrace the buy strategy. But what will happen if organizations and managers believe that the responsibility of career development is solely with the individual employee? Employee engagement will suffer because the employees are likely to be treated just like replaceable machines. That means that they are working to perform for the given or contracted job descriptions. That may work for highly agentic individuals who perform excellently regardless of the environment. However, most people thrive when they work in a supportive environment where they see a brighter career future.
The 3 agents for career development in organizations
The responsibility of career development is with the following three key agents: the organization, the supervisor and the employee. In recent studies that my research team conducted in various countries, such as Belgium, Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Oman, the United Kingdom and United States, we found the following:
- Providing organizational career support practices, such as mentoring, coaching, a career portal, training, stretch assignments, succession planning and job rotation, that are aimed to enhance employees’ career development have a significant correlation with employees’ hopeful career state.
- Perceived supervisor support, which is the extent to which employees feel their work and development are supported by their supervisors, has a significant correlation with employees’ hopeful career state.
- Employees’ hopeful career state is a significant predictor for employees’ work engagement.
- Work engagement, in turn, affects important outcomes such as job satisfaction, (decrease of) turnover intention and task performance.
The conclusion is that supporting employees to be hopeful about their current and future careers makes employees engage more and perform better with less likelihood of them leaving the organization. According to the Work Institute, which publishes an annual retention report, a lack of career development has emerged as the top reason for turnover year after year.
The cost of not taking care of employee career development is high. Employees will feel less hopeful about their future careers and they will be less motivated to work, which leads to low job satisfaction and prompts them to think about leaving the organization. Finally, individual task performance suffers. What will happen if employees demonstrate poor performance and there is a high turnover rate? The organization’s future won’t be sustainable.
Although employees themselves have the primary responsibility for their career development because it is about their lives, supporting employee career development within organizations can do wonders. Although there is no right answer to the question, ‘Who is responsible for career development in organizational settings?,” there is a functional answer to it. It is everyone’s responsibility to thrive collectively.
To learn more about what each agent – the organization, the supervisor and the employee – can do for hopeful employee career development, refer to the following article, titled “Mechanisms for Hopeful Employee Career Development in COVID-19: A Hope-Action Theory Perspective.”