Developing Employees

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Scope—This article provides an overview of strategic and practical considerations for employers creating or maintaining employee development programs. These programs tap current employees' potential and build their competencies to achieve the employer's goals. The focus of this article is on development for employees that are not yet in, nor are being specifically groomed for, management or executive roles.

Overview

Employee development is almost universally recognized as a strategic tool for an organization's continuing growth, productivity and ability to retain valuable employees. If organizations neglect certain challenges, then the employee development process will be cumbersome for the organization, frustrating for employees and of uncertain value for both.

This article addresses the following topics related to developing employees:

  • Past and current approaches to employee development programs.
  • 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 article 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.
  • Dealing with ongoing skills shortages. According to SHRM's skills gap research, 83% of HR professionals are having recruiting difficulty and of those HR professionals, 75% say there is a shortage of skills in candidates for job openings  In the short term, organizations should rekindle entry-level job training programs. In the long term, businesses should participate in community partnerships to rebuild the broken talent creation system.

  • Taking employee development "off hold." Previously, many U.S. employers placed some individual professional development initiatives on hold due to limited budget and resources, shifting business priorities, lack of time, and lack of senior management support. In today's labor market, companies must invest in employee training to build the talent needed in the current workplace. See Amazon Commits to Investing Millions in Training.
  • Adapting to changing business structures. Leaner, flatter, continuously evolving organizations need employee development to ensure engagement and commitment. By providing creative development, executives signal that they value employees. See
  • Increasing worker productivity. Workers who receive training and educational opportunities are more productive.
  • 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.
  • 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.

See Employer-Led Training Survey.

HR's Role

Today, HR encourages employees to manage their own career development while HR still ensures that the organization provides ways for employees to be more effective in their current roles. HR needs to show both managers and employees that development brings benefits. Without a clear payoff, managers will balk at training costs and at lost productivity time. Moreover, employees will be less enthusiastic about development programs if they fail to see gains in their job performance and career opportunities.

These rules will help HR professionals align employee development with the organization's talent management strategy:

  • Know the organization well. Study the organization in detail and include this knowledge in employment development and talent management planning.
  • Know the needs of employees. Study employees' training needs and backgrounds before developing any program.
  • Know the industry. Develop a best-practice approach to any training program.
  • Know how to quantify outcomes. The more an employer can quantify training outcomes, the more effective its employee development initiatives will be.

HR professionals, usually the ones tasked with organizing employee development, should remember to focus on their own professional development as well.

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 HR plan employee development programs:

  • Gain executive support. If executives do not understand or agree with how development fits into workforce planning, a succession process or retention program, HR will have real problems obtaining funding and support from the top.
  • 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. HR must be clear about development's place in the performance management process. HR professionals 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.
  • 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.

See:

How to Win the Talent War on Your Own Turf? Help Employees With Their Careers

Crowdsource Your Employees Before Investing in Learning and Development

Is Your Manager Preparing You for the Next Career Step?

8 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture

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

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.

See:

Coaching in a Business Environment

7 Steps to Becoming a Better Coaching Leader

How to Build a Coaching Culture

Mentoring

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.

See Viewpoint: How to Formalize Mentoring and LinkedIn Invites Users to Help Close Career Opportunity Gap.

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 Fill Skills Gaps Using Learning Sabbaticals and Workers Look to Managers for Training Encouragement.

The 9-box grid

The 9-box grid is an individual employee assessment tool that evaluates the employee's current and potentia 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 and HR can design IDPs. See Succession Planning: What is a 9-box grid? and On the Grid.

Cross-training

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? And Enhance Your HR Effectiveness with 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. See Help Employees, Managers Recognize the Why of Lateral Moves.

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. See The Benefits of Having a Chief of Staff.

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. See 5 Strategies to Motivate Burned-Out Workers.

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. Succesion 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 and HR practitioners 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

Retool Your Succession Planning to Meet Future Challenges

Succession Planning Is Easier Than You Think

 

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 Predictive Assessments Give Companies Insight into Candidates' Potential.

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. See Why would a company institute a corporate university? and A Personalized Approach to Corporate Learning.

 

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 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. HR professionals 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. HR professionals 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. HR 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 Skype, free, online university courses and podcasts of business lectures.

See Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs.

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.

See:

Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success

Being the Boss Not a Career Priority for Millennials

Meeting Millennial Expectations Can Benefit Your Entire Workforce

A 16-Year-Old Explains 10 Things You Need to Know About Generation Z

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 How to Avoid Ageism and Employing Older Workers.

Communications

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

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

Discrimination

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.

Retaliation

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 Avoiding a Worker May Constitute Retaliation and Retaliation Power Point.

Payment for training time

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay nonexempt employees for all hours those employees work. Similar state laws also often apply. Training time is considered work time for which nonexempt employee 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) and What must be included as "hours worked" when calculating weekly overtime? 

Use of copyrighted materials

HR professionals, who often oversee the development of training materials, 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 HR professionals should take care to learn about and adhere to copyright laws as they relate to training materials. 

Technology

More employers are integrating their learning and performance functions as technology makes integration easier and more affordable. Most integrated learning management (LM) systems and performance management (PM) systems are based on a competency model. Competencies, or skills, are identified for each job position and become the basis for performance appraisals.

The development plan is a seamless part of the appraisal process: After the manager rates the employee's performance in each competency, the system identifies gaps between the employee's rating and the desired rating for that competency. Those gaps then populate the employee's development plan. The system can recommend learning and development opportunities to address gaps, based on available curriculum. Managers may enter additional development goals, and employees may log on at any time to review development plans. HR can view aggregate competency gaps across the organization and plan training accordingly.

See:

Rise of New Consumer-Like Technologies Shakes Up Corporate Learning Market

Why Virtual-Reality Training for Employees Is Catching On

Are Chatbots the Future of Training?

Tap into the Power of Technology to Enhance Employee Training

Metrics

HR professionals often struggle to demonstrate the value of training and development to executives. 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:

How to Create a Learning Culture

9 Tips for Using HR Metrics Strategically

Worker Training Needs a Common Metric

Global Issues

HR 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, HR professionals 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. 

 

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