Helping Managers Help Employees

Supervisors have plenty of room for improvement in terms of assisting employees in managing their careers, according to a new study. Experts say HR can be instrumental in helping managers provide their people with a solid career support system.

Monday, January 27, 2014
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If recent research from Towers Watson is any indication, many managers aren't providing their employees with the career support they need to thrive.

The New York-based professional-services firm's 2013-2014 Talent Management and Rewards Study found 37 percent of 321 companies saying their employees understand how they can influence their own careers.

Moreover, the study found only one in four organizations (26 percent) saying their managers are effective at providing career-management support for employees, with just 16 percent reporting their managers conduct career-development discussions with employees outside the performance-management process.

So, why do so many managers seem to be lacking in this department?

"The short answer is that managers don't see guiding career management as part of their job," says Diane Bock, senior consultant in the leadership solutions group at Pittsburgh-based Development Dimensions International.

"Sometimes [managers] hold a deep and not entirely invalid belief that career management is the personal responsibility of each individual. But more often, the career-management system -- or lack thereof -- is the culprit."

Indeed, managers may generally be lacking in terms of providing career-management support, but many employers don't avail supervisors of the right career-management resources, says Keith Carver, North America practice leader for talent management and organizational alignment at Towers Watson.

"Unfortunately, most organizations fail to adequately equip managers with the appropriate tools or training [that enables] them to effectively address key and relevant aspects of career management with their employees," says Carver.

"Despite the value organizations assign to career management -- and the obvious potential impact managers may have through effective career discussions -- the importance does not translate into action or accountability," he says, citing the aforementioned 16 percent of respondents reporting their managers conduct career discussions with employees beyond the formal performance-management process.

The Towers Watson study also finds that "career paths are often poorly defined" at many organizations, with just 32 percent of respondents saying their companies has developed effective tools and resources for career management.

HR should be instrumental in developing these tools and putting them in managers' hands, says Carver.

"There are a number of things organizations, and HR leaders in particular, can do to close the gaps in enhancing manager effectiveness in career management," he says.

For example, HR should ensure managers "have access to well-defined career architecture," continues Carver, "especially for employee segments [that are] increasingly hard to attract and/or retain -- high-potential talent or those in roles critical to business success."

Secondly, HR can provide relevant career-management education, and "equip managers with the training and tools to enable career discussions tailored to employees' skills and experience," he says.

"Finally, [HR leaders] can reinforce with managers the critical importance of their role in helping to shape the work of employees through effective career discussions, and provide continuous oversight of company career-management efforts."

Developing an effective career-management approach can be a tall order for any organization, says Amy Abel, director of human capital research at the New York-based Conference Board.

"Career management is challenging, because historically it was a 'one-size-fits-all' model, where an employee climbed the corporate ladder," says Abel. "And this meant the more senior the level, the more you were responsible for -- teams, people, projects, resources and so on."

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This model, however, isn't effective in 2014, she says.

"As employees are individuals, career management is an individual perspective. It's the manager's job to understand the career goals and aspirations of employees, and support them in achieving those goals where possible and appropriate," continues Abel. "These can be difficult conversations to have if managers do not understand this need or how to address [it] with reasonable solutions."

As such, HR must provide career-management policies and programs both supportive and flexible enough to accommodate varying employee needs, she says.

For instance, "HR needs to provide training programs to managers to help them understand their role in this process, such as 'managers as coach'-type programs," says Abel.

"HR can also provide supporting tools or programs so, when a need is identified, there are solutions that managers can match up to address the need -- sending an employee to training, providing executive education, bringing in an external coach, offering short-term assignments.

"There are lots of options, and this is where it can be confusing for managers," she continues. "HR needs to make this simple and easy for the manager."

In addition, HR must not overlook the importance of giving managers the proper acknowledgement and appreciation for their role in their employees' successes as well, adds Bock.

"Organizations like GE and McKinsey are admired for producing many of the world's CEOs," she says. "Think about that: Even when they lose this talent to another organization, it's a feather in their cap.

"Where's the pat on the back for the frontline leader who gives employees experiences that enable them to move to another job inside the company?" asks Bock. "More often it's a kick in the pants. HR can remove disincentives and implement recognition systems for managers who are effective at helping employees grow and advance."

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