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What Makes a Great Career Development Policy? These 7 Essentials

Workers today value professional growth opportunities that can help broaden their skills and ultimately advance their careers. We know this from our 2019 survey, which asks the American public what matters most when it comes to business practices today.

Successful career development programs can certainly help workers achieve their career goals, and they can also pay off significantly for the companies that offer them. They increase employee retention and engagement, improve overall company branding, aid long-term workforce succession planning, and help to fill internal skills gaps.

However, “successful” is the operative word here. Many companies don’t successfully pull off career development initiatives. A recent Gallup survey, for example, found that while 66% of managers participate in a professional development program, most still don’t see a clear career path for themselves or how such programs are benefiting them.

Another recent survey from Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning found that nearly half of all workers surveyed are dissatisfied with their employer’s learning and development programs.

So, what puts one career development program above the rest? The reality is that exactly what constitutes a great career development program will differ from employer to employer, but the most successful ones adopt most or all of these seven basic qualities.

Quality #1: They’re Tailored to Employees’ Needs

Leaders often create career development initiatives around what they need to build a talented workforce, but they overlook employees’ needs and goals. If employees’ goals aren’t factored in, the program won’t be successful.

Companies that do it right ask employees for input on what type of career growth and training opportunities they would benefit from and appreciate the most — and then tailor their policy to those findings. This can be done through employee surveys or even on a more personalized level.

HubSpot — which scored very well for providing workers with skills training and opportunities for career development in our 2020 Rankings — has garnered a reputation for listening to its employees’ development needs while also providing professional growth opportunities targeted at different jobs.

Among many programs, the software company offers everything from an online course platform to small-group manager discussions (Think Spaces) to its annual HubSpot Fellows “mini-MBA” program in which HubSpot executives and Harvard Business School professors deliver a four-day course to “high-potential” employees on topics ranging from high-stakes decision making to leading with empathy.

Quality #2: They Don’t Take a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

The most effective programs are those that are designed to fit the various skills and long-term career needs of employees. And that generally means taking a multifaceted approach — because no two employees are the same.

DocuSign, which is the number one company for career development in our 2020 Rankings, offers a full range of career development opportunities tailored to individuals, including internal mentorships, internships, job rotation — so employees can learn about other roles and departments — and training courses.

DocuSign’s mentoring program has been so successful among women in particular that in 2017, the company introduced “speed mentoring” events for female employees.


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Quality #3: They Are Transparent and Remove Barriers to Participation

A career development program won’t be very effective unless employees 1) know it exists and 2) are encouraged to take part. This means knowing that their manager will let them take time to, say, attend an online training session or shadow another employee.

Employees are much less likely to seek a degree that could help their career growth if they worry their boss will be suspicious of their future intentions.

Thus, companies that actively promote their training and other career development opportunities to employees are likely to see the most participation — and, in turn, positive impact.

Salesforce’s Trailhead program, for example, is an online training course that is used both to onboard new employees as well as provide various types of training throughout their careers at the company. Salesforce not only encourages all of its own employees to use it, but the company also makes it available to other companies looking to train their staff on Salesforce usage.

Quality #4: They Encourage Outside Education

The reality is that employers can only provide so much training and experience internally. To provide employees with the most cutting-edge skills or the certification or degree that will equip them with the right credentials and knowledge, companies typically must provide employees with training from an external organization, whether a university, local technical college, or even professional membership group.

The most forward-thinking employers today offer their workers some degree of tuition reimbursement or student loan repayment assistance benefits.

Synchrony Financial, for example, offers full-time employees up to $20,000 per year in tuition reimbursement and part-timers $5,000 per year. Since 2015, more than 900 Synchrony employees have participated in the program.

Adobe’s Learning Fund will reimburse employees up to $10,000 per year for tuition and books for courses and degree programs that meet the company’s eligibility criteria. Employees can also get up to $1,000 annually for short-term learning and skill development opportunities, such as conferences, workshops, and training courses.

Quality #5: They Look to Future Workforce Needs

Smart companies are always staying one step ahead — and that goes for internal development as well. They forecast what skills their workforce will need in the future and work on building those skills today.

One example: Investment and insurance company The Hartford has taken a proactive approach to reskilling its workforce for the future by introducing HartCode, a program that provides non-developer employees with the skills and training needed to become junior developers on its IT team.

Quality #6: They Provide Training That Grows with Employees

The assumption that only the most junior employees — or those still in early or middle stages of their career — want training and development isn’t true. In fact, an AARP survey found that more than eight out of 10 employees ages 45 to 64 want the opportunity to learn something new on the job.

Companies that want to keep all of their employees satisfied need to acknowledge that every employee can benefit from training and feeling like their workplace is helping them grow.

AT&T is one company that promotes continuous learning among even its most veteran employees. The telecom giant has encouraged employees of all ages to take online courses on technology-focused topics such as Big Data and virtual technologies.

Quality #7: They Measure Participation — and Success

One common problem is that leaders don’t have a handle on the effectiveness of their company’s career development program, because they don’t track it closely enough.

Companies currently report things like the number of people who participated in training programs, the average amount spent on each employee, or the average amount spent on career development. While these stats are a start to understanding utilization, understanding performance requires tracking how people progress at an organization and whether the skills they’ve garnered through the program have benefitted them and been useful.

Air Products, which offers a variety of online learning courses, provided employees with an average of 32 hours of training in 2016. But more importantly, an analysis found that the training led to a 19.2% improvement in job performance and that 85.7% of employees used the new skills they learned within one month.

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