Beware of Internal Transfer Traps

By Steve Taylor Jun 14, 2010
Reuse Permissions

When a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member recently sought the guidance of fellow HR professionals on SHRM’s HR Talk bulletin board, respondents got straight to the point. The question was: If a worker who was on the verge of being terminated for “issues with stealing” and “not following manager instructions” was transferred to a job in another department—a job that didn’t involve handling money—would the move be seen as “retaliatory?”

  • “Well, it is retaliatory,” commented one respondent. “What does a person have to do to get fired at your company?”
  • “Never transfer trouble,” advised another. “Coach them up or out.”
  • “Not to be snarky,” commented a third respondent, “but we call that ‘Pass the Turd’ where I come from.”

The founder of this colorful discussion did not respond to a query about how the case was resolved. However, e-mail and telephone conversations with HR practitioners, consultants and lawyers produced a variety of opinions and one consensus: Lateral transfers can make sense for a variety of reasons, but, with a few exceptions, disciplinary retaliation is not one of them.

What’s the Motivation?

“Why are you transferring?” asked yet another respondent to HR Talk. “The answer to that question is critical…”

Experts agree and note that there are cases in which a transfer makes sense.

Peter Rosen, SPHR, president of HR Strategies, a consulting firm in Atlanta, said a lateral transfer to address a discipline problem “is a bad idea for a lot of reasons [but] if a person was put into the wrong role because of the mismatch of skills possessed and those needed then it may be appropriate.”

“[It] avoids the discomfort and awkwardness associated with managing a problem employee's performance,” agreed attorney Nancy Leonard of Constangy Brooks & Smith, a labor and employment law firm in Kansas City, Mo. “Often, the employee does not even know the transfer is disciplinary in nature, as the performance problems are never identified and addressed.”

Leonard offered the example of a customer service worker who has trouble getting along with customers. HR professionals believe that the employee is salvageable and could succeed in a different role, and there is a warehouse job for which the worker is qualified. “Transferring the employee to the warehouse position may be appropriate,” she said, adding that “a transfer under these circumstances could be fairly characterized as an ‘opportunity,’ as opposed to ‘discipline’!”

Sometimes employees ask for a lateral transfer, recognizing that they have problems that might be solved to their companies’ advantage as well as their own. “It could be they’re not happy with the supervisor but also they want to change careers but don’t want to leave the company,” suggested Bettina Seidman, whose firm Seidbet Associates in New York offers outplacement services and executive coaching. “I’m really in favor of that stuff because you end up with a more motivated and productive employee.”

Grooming or Cross-Training

Many companies have organized programs of lateral transfers aimed at developing the skills of high-potential workers. “Some companies say there is no vertical movement unless you’ve had two to three lateral moves,” observed Alan Vengel, whose Danville, Calif., consulting group offers seminars and training for managers, including HR professionals. “Moving from marketing to operations to sales … develops a well-rounded business sense in the employee.”

“Lateral transfers can be extremely useful to both the organization and employees in terms of cross-training and eventual promotions,” agreed Seidman.

“It also renews the motivation of the employee,” Vengel said. “About every three years, on average, most employees plateau.” At that point, he said, a lateral move can “get them charged up again [by giving them] new skills, new leverage to old skills, new learning.”

Many employees might look at such altered responsibilities with suspicion, regarding them as sugar-coated denials of an outright promotion. “But you know what?” Vengel asked. “There aren’t as many promotions these days.”

“There’s definitely a cultural stigma” in lateral transfers, acknowledged Claudia Saran, partner in charge of KPMG’s People and Change advisory group in Chicago. “You have to reinforce them—when you take high-level performers and put them in a lateral move—that there’s still recognition” of their worth to the company.

Avoid Denial

That cultural stigma, experts say, comes from a widespread and unwise use of lateral transfers. “Some companies have a history of ‘parking’ people who should be in a progressive discipline process or terminated,” Seidman said. “The reasons are many. Sacred cows who can’t perform … an employee who is ill and underperforming … a long-term employee with anger-management problems. These are companies in denial.”

“This method of ‘discipline’ is really just a way to avoid properly and effectively managing an employee with performance problems,” said Leonard. “The problem employee remains a problem, but for a different manager, in a different department.”

And that might be the point.

“Sometimes one manager wants to get rid of a problem but doesn’t tell the other manager,” Vengel said. An unethical supervisor might even file intentionally inaccurate performance reviews to avoid responsibility for his or her own deficiencies in managing the problem employee—something that Vengel said is “really terrible.”

In many cases, the supervisor won’t get away with it indefinitely. “If someone is such a poor leader and manager,” Saran said, “I would think that would rear its ugly head sooner or later.”

But, meanwhile, these disposal transfers can become “a roadmap for other problem employees,” Leonard observed. “Don't like your manager much? Cause enough of a disruption and you, too, will be moved to someone who might go easier on you.”

Other Risks

An accumulation of shuffled, unproductive employees usually opens the company to legal exposure, said Vicky Brown, SPHR, president of Idomeneo Enterprises, an HR outsourcing firm in West Hollywood, Calif. “The longer a nonperforming employee is kept on the job, the greater the chance of claims such as harassment, workers’ comp [for stress], etc.”

Leonard laid out a scary scenario: “Suppose a male employee is a jerk to everyone in his department. Instead of attempting to correct his behavior, the company transfers him to a new department, reporting to a new manager, who puts up with his behaviors. Then, a female employee has similar behavior problems but the company refuses to transfer her. Instead, her employment is terminated. Arguably, the female was treated less favorably than the male employee. Without a solid, legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanation, this scenario could spell trouble for the employer.”

Alternatives to Transfer

“Instead of transferring the problem employee, management should take steps to address the performance problem,” advised Leonard. “The goal here is to identify the problem and allow the employee the opportunity to correct it.”

She suggests that management:

  • Make sure the issues are shared with the employee, in writing.
  • Be sure to follow all progressive discipline steps.
  • Provide corrective action, if improvement is not made, up to and including termination.

“And, of course, document, document, document!” Leonard said. “Remember, if it isn't in writing, it didn't happen.”

Steve Taylor is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Related Articles:

Is Progressive Discipline a Thing of the Past? SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Jan. 19, 2010

Disciplinary Demotions Can Be a Risky Proposition, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Aug. 19, 2008

Horizontal Paths Keep Employees Engaged, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Aug. 4, 2008

Reuse Permissions


Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect