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Developing Employees


Employee development refers to training and related opportunities for employees to gain new skills and competencies. While many employers view development as a shared responsibility with employees, it is almost universally recognized as a strategic tool for an organization's continuing growth, productivity and ability to attract and retain valuable employees.

Training and development opportunities increase the likelihood that employees will develop not only expertise in the skills needed for their current job, but for other positions in the future.


How Learning and Development Can Attract—and Retain—Talent

Employees Want Additional Opportunities for Career, Skills Development

Report: Employers Reap Benefits of Employee Training When Done Right.

This toolkit addresses the following topics related to developing employees:

  • The business case for these programs and HR's role.
  • Guidelines and methods for designing effective programs.
  • Challenges in implementing programs.
  • Issues related to communications, legal requirements, technology, metrics and global employee development programs.

See Introduction to the Human Resources Discipline of Organizational and Employee Development

This toolkit does not cover the topic of employee development for organizational leaders and managers. For information specifically related to that topic, see Developing Organizational Leaders and Developing Management.

Business Case

Employers today must often develop the employees they have rather than find new staff in the marketplace. Reasons for emphasizing employee development include:

  • Remaining competitive. Organizations are competing not only for market share but also for employees. Employees want to work for an employer that will upgrade their skills to keep them competitive with peers from other companies. See How to Help Your Team Advance and Report: Employers Most Likely to Train New Employees.
  • Dealing with ongoing skills shortages. Facing a tight job market and a dearth of employees with the right mix of skills, some employers are investing in training that will enhance workers' expertise and prepare them for new jobs with better opportunities. Called "upskilling" or "reskilling," it's a strategy that can deliver a win to employers and workers alike. See The Reskilling Imperative and Upskilling Benefits Companies and Employees.
  • Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. Corporate diversity initiatives all too often focus on external recruiting rather than training current employees to encourage promotion of women and people of color. See To Build a Diverse Company for the Long Term, Develop Junior Talent and How Managers Can Help People With Disabilities Advance.
  • Creating a culture of learning. An agile learning culture is needed now more than ever—one that enables employees to demonstrate their ability to quickly adapt to new environments, new protocol and shifting market demands. See Build a Learning Culture.
  • Reducing turnover. The more money an organization spends on employee training and development, the greater the concern that the highly skilled people will leave and take their knowledge somewhere else; however, research has shown that employee training actually reduces turnover and absenteeism. See Career Progression: Workers Will Stay if They Can Advance Their Career.
  • Aligning employee development with the organization's needs. Employers should let strategic needs drive development. For example, facing impending retirement of many older workers, an organization might broaden those workers' skills so they can add variety to their jobs and take on new responsibilities. Such measures could encourage experienced workers to stay on the job.

Guidelines for Effective Employee Development

Successful employers integrate development and succession planning programs into the organization's overall strategy, ensuring all programs drive toward the same set of objectives. These guidelines can help management plan employee development programs:

  • Gain executive support. Ensure executives understand and agree with how development fits into workforce planning, a succession process or a retention program.
  • Involve management. If executives show support, there is a good chance that management will pay attention to employee development. Managers play a vital role, ensuring a connection between development strategy and real-world implementation.
  • Relate to performance management. The employer must be clear about development's place in the performance management process. Managers should differentiate between short-term plans for projects, long-term plans for the organization, career development plans for the employee and skill building for immediate performance deficiencies. Each should be handled at the appropriate phase of the performance management process.
  • Assess and adjust workloads. Be realistic about what an employee's workload will be while in training and make adjustments. See No Time for Training? Consider Role-Specific Learning, Reassessing Workload.
  • Look for skill adjacencies. Employees may have competencies that are related, in a way that may not seem obvious, to roles employers are seeking to fill. See Address Skills Gap by Identifying 'Skill Adjacencies'.
  • Understand what the employee values. Employees often have an intense interest in their own development. Knowing what each employee values and how that relates to his or her development needs should greatly affect the type of development activities provided for the employee and, ultimately, for the success of such activities.
  • Know the desired outcome. Have a clear understanding of exactly which skills will be enhanced by particular employee development initiatives.

Although these guidelines do not guarantee a successful program, failure to follow any of them will almost certainly make the development program less effective for the employee and the organization.

Employee Development Methods

Some methods of employee development occur on the job, with the manager or an experienced co-worker leading the development activity in the context of the actual work environment. Other development occurs at training facilities or other locations. And increasingly organizations use online methods to develop employees.


Coaching involves a more experienced or skilled individual providing an employee with advice and guidance intended to help him or her gain new skills, improve performance and enhance the quality of his or her career. The hallmarks of coaching are that it is personalized and customized, that it has a specific business objective, and that it is usually accomplished one-on-one over a period of time.

Coaching should be approached like any other strategic goal. Successful execution requires commitment from the organization and the person being coached, a plan to obtain results, qualified coaches, and a follow-up evaluation.


Coaching in a Business Environment

Virtual Coaching Takes Off

Coaching Apps Address Soaring Demand

Coaching in the Workplace: It's Different from Traditional Managing

How Coaching Changes Workplace Interactions


Mentoring matches less experienced employees with more experienced colleagues through formal or informal programs. Formal mentoring programs can reduce turnover, enhance recruitment, and improve performance and the work environment, especially for women and people of color.

Effective mentoring programs do the following:

  • Match mentors and mentees based on skills and development needs.
  • Outline and track goals.
  • Designate minimum time commitments.
  • Monitor the mentoring relationship.
  • Hold both parties accountable.
  • Link mentoring to talent management strategy and goals.
  • Link mentoring to business strategy and goals.


Authors Offer Advice on Creating a Mentoring Program

Creating a Mentoring Program: Yodas Not Required

Female Students Gravitate to Female Mentors When Other Info Is Scarce

Individual Development Plans

To accelerate the pace of employee learning, organizations may use an individual development plan (IDP). This document details an employee's intentions and learning outcomes as well as support necessary to meet his or her tangible growth goals. Beneficial IDPs reflect adult learning strategies, experiential learning and symbolic interaction.

See How HR Professionals Can Use an Individual Development Plan and Employee Career Development Plan.

The 9-Box Grid

The 9-box grid is an individual employee assessment tool that evaluates the employee's current and potential levels of contribution to the organization. The grid is most commonly used in succession planning as a method of evaluating an organization's talent pool and identifying potential leaders.

For performance appraisal purposes, the 9-box grid provides a visual reference that can include appraisal and assessment data to allow managers to view employees' actual and potential performance. With information from the grid, managers can design IDPs. See What is a 9-box grid?


Cross-training refers to training employees to perform job duties other than those normally assigned. Cross-training can be a short-term or ad hoc fix, or it can be an ongoing, planned process. Cross-training usually does not result in immediate advancement, but it does indicate that an employee is interested in learning new skills. This skill diversity may help him or her meet qualifications for future career advancement.

Employers find value in cross-training because it is usually more efficient than bringing in new hires. Many managers take those efficiencies to the next level by leveraging technology to improve cross-training efforts. Many employees appreciate cross-training because it allows them to broaden their skills.

All cross-training should begin with two basic steps: 1) identifying the knowledge and skills needed for each position and 2) cross-referencing that list of knowledge and skills with an inventory of current employees' proficiencies. These steps reveal gaps between employees' current skills and those the organization needs. Technology makes it easy to gather and analyze such information.

See What is job swapping? Is it the same as cross-training?.

"Stretch" Assignments

On-the-job training projects and "stretch assignments" give employees a chance to learn while doing real work. Developmental assignments allow employees to develop new skills, knowledge and competencies necessary for higher-level positions.

Getting to the next level in business often means having the right experiences. Yet many workers do not know what experiences best prepare them for upward mobility. Experts say that people who have experiences characterized as "accelerators" of potential will be more likely to succeed.

Research has shown, for example, that first-level leaders are more likely to succeed if they have had cross-functional experiences, midlevel leaders are more likely to succeed if they have had experiences handling tough challenges (e.g., a difficult employee situation), and new executive leaders are more likely to succeed if they have had high-risk and high-visibility experiences. 

Job Enlargement and Job Enrichment

Job enlargement involves expanding the employee's job by adding more tasks and duties, typically at the same level of complexity. Job enrichment builds more depth to an employee's job through more control, responsibility and discretion.

Organizations often redesign jobs to increase employee motivation; however, when jobs are enlarged but not enriched, motivational benefits are unlikely. Although the distinction between job enlargement and enrichment is fairly straightforward, employees may not correctly perceive the changes as enrichment or as enlargement.

Job Shadowing

Job shadowing requires more than just having an employee follow a colleague around all day. Shadowers view the organization from a different perspective and learn firsthand about the challenges facing workers in other departments. This perspective helps employees realize the impact their decisions have on other groups.

Job Rotation

Job rotation is the systematic movement of employees from job to job within an organization.

Rotation programs may vary in size and formality. Though larger employers are more likely to invest in a formalized job rotation program, organizations of all sizes might consider implementing a job rotation program. Typically, formal rotation programs offer customized assignments to promising employees to give them a view of the entire business. Assignments usually run for a year or more.

Many reasons exist for implementing a job rotation system, including the potential for increased product quality, giving employees the opportunity to explore alternative career paths, and perhaps most importantly, preventing stagnation and boredom. Possible downsides include increased workload and decreased productivity for the employee, temporary disruption of work flow, line managers' possible reluctance to allow high-performing employees to participate in job rotation programs, and the costs associated with the learning curve on new jobs.

See How do I implement an effective job rotation program in my company?

Succession Planning

Succession planning identifies long-range needs and cultivates internal talent to meet those needs. Succession plans typically focus on a one- to three-year process of preparing employees—not preselecting them—for new roles in the organization.

Many business leaders believe that succession planning is a complex process, restricted to the largest organizations with the most sophisticated organizational development departments. However, succession planning can also benefit smaller organizations with fewer resources.

See Engaging in Succession Planning and Succession Planning Is Critical in Uncertain Times.

Assessment Centers

An assessment center is not necessarily a physical site, as the term might suggest, but a program of tools and exercises designed to assess an employee's or job candidate's suitability in relation to a particular role. Centers may be used for selection or development purposes. Assessment centers usually take place over one or two days and can involve several employees or candidates at a time. Evaluators rate participants based on standardized activities, games and other simulations to predict the candidates' future performance.

Assessment centers may help the organization make decisions about filling jobs, promoting employees or identifying employees for placement in succession planning programs.

See SHRM Talent Assessment Center.  

Corporate Universities

Corporate universities focus primarily on on-the-job skills, company-specific proprietary knowledge and branding, and certification. At a corporate university, the focus is on learning that will benefit the organization, not just the individual. Benefits of the corporate university format include strategic alignment with company goals, consistent quality and uniform messages that reach all learners. A corporate university is also a tangible symbol of the organization's commitment to learning and growth.

Online Employee Development

Organizations typically use classroom-based learning for topics unique to the particular employer and online learning for more universal topics. Online training allows self-directed, just-in-time, on-demand instruction. Employees in e-learning situations have more control over their time than they have in a classroom.

To keep employees engaged during online development activities, the training should deliver content in small, easily understood pieces. Employees also need to understand how the content will help them do their jobs better. Other tips for successful implementation of e-learning employee development programs include choosing topics linked to specific business goals, providing introductory training so employees know how to use online training systems, and providing online support and easy access to supplemental information.

See 3 Workplace Learning Tech Trends to Know, Learning Technologies Will Drive Innovation and Growth, Study Shows and 4 Digital Training Options for Workplace Learning.

Common Issues and Challenges in Developing Employees

Organizations should be aware of potential problems that may arise in employee development programs, such as funding problems, lack of analytics and metrics, diversity issues, and generational differences. Special challenges stem from the current economic climate and diverse work environments.

General Issues

Some typical hurdles for employee development programs include the following:

  • Lack of accountability. Few organizations consistently hold managers or executives accountable for developing their direct reports.
  • Gaps in talent development capabilities. Research shows that few organizations have the managerial capability to grow people in their jobs or provide feedback to support employee development.
  • Lack of alignment between human capital and business strategy. Fewer than one in five organizations consistently aligns workforce and business strategies.
  • Inconsistent execution. Most organizations have fundamental processes in place, such as workforce planning, high-potential development programs and succession planning, but few employers execute these programs consistently.
  • Limited use of meaningful analytics. Few employers track the metrics that matter, such as the effectiveness of talent management programs.

Funding Challenges

When work and revenue flow, taking employees away from their desks for development is difficult. But when work slows and employees have time for training and development, there is less money in the training budget. Some employers have found ways to break free of this vicious lack-of-time or lack-of-money cycle. Here are some tips:

  • Seek government funding. Grants are available through many federal, state and local government workforce initiatives, as well as through privately funded programs. Employers can also seek employee development funds through unemployment agencies, economic development organizations, chambers of commerce and community colleges. Grants may restrict which employees are trained, by whom and on what topics.  
  • Analyze and prioritize. Employers should analyze the costs and benefits of current development methods and seek economies. For example, employers could consolidate multiple training contracts into a single contract, and they could also be more selective about who receives training.
  • Determine what is essential. Employers can focus training and development efforts in areas critical to infrastructure and on jobs that have the most impact on corporate revenue.
  • Cut back creatively. Employers could cut travel costs, schedule training to minimize impact on working hours, and use on-the-job development such as mentoring, coaching and job shadowing.
  • Tap free resources. Free resources include communication tools such as Zoom, free, online university courses and podcasts of business lectures. See Training Employees to Train Others Can Be a Career-Advancing Benefit.

Generational Issues

In earlier generations, an unspoken "sink-or-swim" approach to on-the-job training was often good enough to bring new employees up to speed. That approach might be less effective with those from the Millennial demographic, a group raised with different expectations and work styles. Millennials, possibly more than any other generation, require clear direction, guidance and goals from their managers. Most Millennials are accustomed to well-defined assignments, clear benchmarks, and continuous feedback and discussion. The lack of success many employers have experienced in working with Millennials is the result of a collision between this generation's worldview and how most organizations function.

Enlightened employers are redesigning supervisor and leadership training and development to accommodate the more interactive and collaborative work styles of Millennials. Organizations that rethink their approaches to developing younger workers are likely to gain a significant advantage.


Workers Across Generations Dissatisfied with Employer Training

Generation Z Seeks Guidance in the Workplace

Viewpoint: Teaching Young Employees to Have Hard Conversations

The Hard Facts About Soft Skills

Soft Skills to Pay the Bills

7 Ways Managers Can Develop 20-Something Workers

How to Build Your Youngest Employees' Skills

The development needs of older workers are quite different. To recruit and retain employees over 50, employers need ongoing training and development because mature workers view development as a top attraction in an ideal workplace.

See The Power of Reverse Mentoring and Make It Part of Your Business to Provide Training to All.


Clear communications about employee development programs are essential to their success. Employers must take care that messages about development do not create unrealistic expectations or generate confusion about who receives development opportunities. Some aspects to consider include these:

  • Expectations. Too often, supervisors and managers suggest that promotion, job changes, exempt status, rewards or pay increases will occur at the end of a development cycle. Employers should ensure that reasons for development are well understood, avoid over-promising and not make promotion or pay commitments at the front end of a development program.
  • Eligibility. Organizations must be clear about eligibility for each specific development program.
  • Opting out of development. Employers must determine whether the program will be mandatory or if employees will be allowed to opt out. If someone does opt out, does that affect his or her performance appraisal? For employees who do express a desire to opt out, managers can emphasize the link between development and their careers, so employees clearly understand the developmental needs addressed by a particular program.
  • Identification of "high potentials." Whether to tell high-potential candidates they are on the fast track can be a tough decision. Some organizations skirt the issue for fear that egos will erupt or that the motivation of those not selected for leadership development will wane. Other organizations argue in favor of telling high potentials they are special, saying the news increases engagement and encourages a strong bench of leaders ready to move up.

See Managing Organizational Communication.

Legal Issues

Employers should make certain that employee development programs do not create potential liabilities for discrimination, retaliation, and wage and hour violations or breach copyright laws.


Employees who are excluded from employee development opportunities, such as mentoring programs, may perceive that the exclusion is due to discrimination based on their membership in a legally protected class. Employers should be well versed in the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other non-discrimination laws.


If an employee engages in activities protected by law and is then denied the chance to participate in employee development programs, the employee could allege illegal retaliation by the employer.

Given the expansive definition of "retaliatory conduct" in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White (126 S. Ct. 2405), employers should also be careful: Any treatment of an employee that is materially adverse—even ignoring an employee or giving an employee the cold shoulder—may conceivably be enough for an employee to seek legal redress. See Retaliation Presentation.

Payment for Training Time

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay nonexempt employees for all hours worked. Similar state laws also often apply. Training time is considered work time for which nonexempt employees must be paid, unless all the following conditions apply to the training:

  • Attendance is outside regular work hours.
  • Attendance is voluntary.
  • No productive work is performed during the training.
  • The training is not directed toward making the employee more proficient in the individual's present job.

See Fact Sheet #22: Hours Worked Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), DOL Clarifies When Continuing Education and Travel Time Are Compensable and Can we require employees to repay training costs if they leave the company?

Use of Copyrighted Materials

Employers should be aware that using other people's training content without permission can land them in court. Misuse is particularly easy in the Internet age, when someone else's training material is just a click away.

If material is only "substantially similar" to other sources, that similarity is still enough to generate a copyright infringement claim. Copyright laws do permit the use of copyrighted material in certain circumstances, allowing fair use for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research. But employers should take care to learn about and adhere to copyright laws as they relate to training materials.


Advancements in technology touch everything, including employee training and development. From simple online training to virtual and augmented reality experiences, employees have greater access and can immerse fully into training and development activities than ever before. Employers will want to keep abreast of developments that can enhance employee learning.


Why Virtual-Reality Training for Employees Is Catching On

Are Chatbots the Future of Training?

Augmented Reality Comes to the Workplace


Demonstrating the value of training and development to executives can be a struggle. As discussed above, an integrated learning management and performance management system can help demonstrate value; such systems provide data quantifying the training's impact at every level.

Evaluation is a critical component of an employee development program. Those responsible for the program are accountable not only for what employees learn but also for ensuring that employees transfer that knowledge to work performance. Assessment of employee training and development programs may be conducted at five levels—participant reaction, participant learning, participant behavior on the job, business results and return on investment.

See Worker Training Needs a Common Metric.

Global Issues

Employers must be savvy about differences in learning and talent development practices in different countries. Some examples of these differences include:

  • Preferred learning styles. For example, in the United States the preferred style is participative learning, whereas in Africa and Asia learning is more of a didactic, lecture-driven practice.
  • Popularity of coaching. Coaching by line managers is viewed as the most effective development intervention in the United Kingdom but ranks lower for practitioners in the United States and India.
  • Proliferation of e-learning. Learning and development specialists in the United States are likelier to use technology-enabled learning—and to consider it effective—than are their British or Indian counterparts.

When conducting employee development in another culture, management should apply the same lessons used when conducting any business internationally. Employers must be aware of differences in language, ways that cultures use humor, meanings of nonverbal gestures, appropriate greetings and local attitudes toward time management.

See Where can I find international employment law and culture information? to access SHRM's GlobeSmart Culture Guides, and after entering a country name, select "Leading People" and then "Training and Coaching" for individual country information.

Additionally, as more organizations expand their global footprint and employees increasingly conduct their work from anywhere around the world, companies have a growing need for workers who can speak and write effectively in the native language of their clients and co-workers.

See How Technology Is Changing Language Skills Assessments, Training.

And when creating an international mentoring program, it's important to pay attention to the role of culture to make sure these relationships are successful. And while many multinational employers focus their mentoring efforts on expatriates who are sent from headquarters, broadening this view to include mentoring of host country nationals (HCNs) can enhance the professional development of everyone involved.

See A Guide to Effective Mentoring of International Employees.

Additional Resources


Job Rotation Policy

Professional Training, Certification, and Membership Policy

Professional Development Reimbursement Policy

Sample forms

Career Development Plan

Skills Analysis Form


Our Mentoring Program

Agencies and organizations

U.S. Department of Labor, Education and Training Administration


2022 Workplace Learning & Development Trends (SHRM, TalentLMS)

Association for Talent Development