Article main image
Jul 14, 2014

Virtually every company says it values career development. Yet one of the most common reasons for turnover is a lack of development opportunities.

If development is so important, why does it seem to be in such scarce supply?

One reason is many companies actually do things that discourage people from engaging in development activities.

You can tell a lot about how much a company values development by looking at the criteria used to guide compensation and promotion decisions.

For example:

  • Are managers and employees rewarded for investing time in building long-term talent?
  • Or, is it all about last quarter’s business results?

The following are examples of ways companies actually punish employees, managers, and human resources leaders for investing time toward development.

Punishing employees

The best way for employees to develop is by taking on goals that require performing new job roles, adapting to new work environments, and learning new capabilities. These goals are typically harder to complete than familiar goals because they require learning new things.

Many companies do not distinguish between developmentally challenging goals and familiar goals when evaluating employee performance. All that matters is whether employees meet their targets.

As a general rule, if an employee hits 100 percent of their goals year after year, they are not setting challenging goals. Yet, employees who achieve familiar goals with little development value may appear to have stronger performance than employees who set unfamiliar and far more challenging goals.

Punishing managers

From a short-term operational standpoint, investing in employee development is a lousy managerial strategy.

Why should a manager risk short-term targets by giving stretch job assignments to employees who have not done them before? Why take time away from daily operations to invest in employee learning?

And moreover, why encourage employees to pursue career opportunities or promotions elsewhere in the company? How does giving away talent help the manager?

The degree to which a company supports developmentally-minded managers can be assessed by evaluating whether managers who “promote people past them” are rewarded or punished.

  • Are these managers celebrated as talent creators or looked down upon as people who have hit a career plateau and are now being passed by?
  • Similarly, are managers rewarded for hiring and developing less experienced and less costly candidates?
  • Is there any incentive for managers to save on salary costs by developing talent instead of buying it?
  • Are there metrics related to talent development and retention on the scorecards used to evaluate managers?

I once asked a business leader how his company rewarded managers who developed and promoted people out of their teams. His answer was, “We don’t, we punish them by not backfilling their positions.”

Given this, it is little wonder that a lot of managers express skepticism toward the relative value of development programs.

Punishing HR

The saying “what gets measured gets managed” is as true in HR as anywhere else. But, many of the things that are easy to measure in HR do not support investment in development programs.

For example, it is far easier to track the cost of training than to track the value created by training. As a result, more emphasis may be placed on using inexpensive development methods rather than effective ones.

HR metrics can also create conflict within the HR organization itself.

An example of this occurred in a company I was working with where the Director of Leadership Development was rewarded based on the percentage of positions filled by internal candidates while the Director of Recruiting was rewarded based on the number of external hires.

This placed the Recruiting organization in direct competition with the Development organization. Rather than cooperating to see if it made more sense to treat specific positions as opportunities to develop internal talent versus opportunities to bring fresh talent into the company, it was just a race to see who could fill them first.

Do you give lip service to the value of development?

I doubt any company intentionally creates rules and cultural norms to discourage development. These things result from a failure to think through the implications of organizational policies and leadership decisions.

Compare these examples to the methods your company uses to recognize and reward performance. Are you truly supporting people who invest in developing themselves and others, or do you merely give lip service to the value of development without actually rewarding it?

Note: This is an excerpt from Steven Hunt’s book Common Sense Talent Management: Using Strategic Human Resources to Improve Company Performance.