Why career activism is the key to talent retention

By championing internal mobility and giving people more control over their own development and progression, companies can nurture a more flexible, engaged – and loyal – workforce

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Beset by skills shortages and fierce competition for talent in recent years, firms have been raising salaries, tempting employees from rivals and trying desperately to diversify their talent pools. But, with UK job vacancies falling below 1 million for the first time in two years at the end of last year and hiring freezes on the horizon, many employers are focusing on retention rather than recruitment. 

According to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation’s latest JobsOutlook report, 6 0.2% of UK employers expect total staff numbers to remain largely level in 2024. This is mirrored by employees’ concerns about job insecurity. For its annual Global Workforce of the Future report, Adecco Group surveys 30,000 workers in 23 countries. In 2022, 61% of respondents said that they wanted to stay with their organisations. The following year, the proportion was 72%. 

The new emphasis on retention means that organisations are considering how they can better engage the talent they already have. So says JC Townend, the UK and Ireland CEO of LHH, a specialist provider of HR services. 

“One of the key things we’re seeing in the market is a real focus on employee retention and internal mobility,” she reports. “With the current talent scarcity, companies really want to keep their best people.” 

Help employees to rebrand themselves

Doing so means rethinking how HR professionals create career paths for high-potential employees. The job for life, with its steady ascent of the corporate ladder, is fast becoming an anachronism as the business world evolves apace. Employees are increasingly jumping between sectors, trying out different roles and seeking to develop a wide range of skills. This is the age of the non-linear career path. 

But employers haven’t traditionally excelled at offering such flexibility. According to LinkedIn’s 2023 Workplace Learning report, most aren’t providing effective career support. Only 15% of workers surveyed for the report said that their firm had helped them move to a new role in the past six months, while only 14% said that they had been encouraged to form a new career development plan. 

“Traditionally, people have had to quit their company to rebrand themselves,” Townend says. “If an accountant wanted to move from finance into marketing, say, there was no pathway for this. Their finance manager might not have wanted to lose them, so didn’t give them that opportunity to move internally. They therefore had to leave the organisation to try out the new role.” 

Empowering employees to advocate for the skills they want to gain and the career paths they want to take is one way to reduce such attrition. Offering employees career coaching, resources to understand their attributes and guidance on taking a more active role in career conversations is vital in engaging people via the provision of internal opportunities. 

Townend uses the term “career activism” to describe this approach. She stresses that “teaching employees how to take control of their careers is so much more effective than HR trying to create structures that work for everyone”. 

Take the impact of technology on recruitment via interventions such as talent marketplaces, for instance. Many HR teams have spent big on such tech – designed to accelerate the hiring process and better match skills to jobs – only to find that employee take-up is slow. 

“We’re asking people to put their CVs into a system but not giving them any reason to do so – everything is being done from the organisation’s standpoint,” Townend explains. “We need to draw people in, get them excited about moving internally and then use talent marketplaces to make these moves.”

Embrace people power

Getting employees invested in internal mobility is something that LHH practises itself. The company recently put 22 of its high-potential employees through the same Career Navigator programme it offers its clients, helping them to understand their ideal roles and how to go about preparing themselves for those positions. 

Motivating them to take control of their own careers and offering opportunities to develop new skills made subsequent career conversations much more effective, Townend notes.

Effective employee engagement is about helping people to understand their own career motivations

“Participants came to me and spoke of their excitement in developing at LHH and the transferable skills they could offer in the roles they wanted to grow into,” she says. “They were well prepared and it was so much easier and more effective for me to be reactive to those conversations and help guide them on the paths they were already considering. Not one of those people has left – two have even moved to new teams. Career activism is about putting power in the hands of the employee.” 

Is there a risk that ceding too much power here could leave an employer with workforce planning problems?

“Every company has a wide variety of roles and skills they need from the marketplace and most companies will have a lot of the opportunities people are seeking, so there is the chance to do something very different while staying at the same company,” Townend says. “Effective employee engagement is about helping people to understand their own career motivations, then giving them the platform, networks and relationships to move into the right role.” It means as people get tired of their existing role, they can look internally for new inspiring areas of work.

She continues: “Now obviously, if someone decides that their dream is to be something highly specialised, like a veterinarian, then most companies don’t have that position. But then it’s fine for them to move on to fulfill that dream elsewhere. You want people to be fulfilled and happy. If they want to be a vet, it’s likely that they’d never be truly happy in any role with your firm anyway.”

Rethink line management

Support from line managers is vital to the effective provision of career mobility. They play a key role in developing individuals’ skills and assisting their career development, but too often they are squeezed from above and below by the sometimes conflicting needs of their staff and those of senior managers. 

It’s important to provide training and support for line managers that enables them to hold regular career conversations with those who report to them – and incentivise them to encourage internal moves that might temporarily weaken their own teams, Townend notes. 

“Career activism is about motivating employees to take control of their careers. In the past, we’ve been guilty of charging their line managers with doing that. Most don’t have the time, attention and, in some cases, will to do so,” she says. “We need to support them on that.”

Encouraging employees to develop their careers in a direction that appeals to them isn’t an act of generosity; it makes business sense. Amid talent shortages and a tough economic climate, employers would do well to hang on to those who show a desire to develop and advance.

LHH specialises in career transition and mobility, leadership development and recruitment solutions. Find out more at lhh.com/uk