Why honesty is the best policy when it comes to career development conversations with employees

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I’m pretty sure I’ve interviewed at least 12,000 candidates throughout my career – either for clients or for my own teams. Despite that being a lot of people, there are still some interviews that to this day have remained vividly in my mind. 

One of the very first questions I would ask any candidate is what prompted them to meet with me since I always believed that at the root of whatever answer they gave me would be one of two reasons – that they were either running away from something, or they were running towards something. And when they were running away from something, it was very often because what they were promised had never come to fruition. 

  • “I was promised ‘uncapped commission’. Turns out it was more like unachievable commission” (a good reminder of the danger of shifting the goal posts). 
  • “I was told they had a ‘work-hard-play-hard culture’. I’ve worked like a dog but there’s never even been a pizza delivered”. 
  • “I was excited by the idea of ‘extensive travel’. I’ve been there over a year and so far, I’ve been to one external meeting … and we took a cab!” 
  • “Perks? If they mean the company branded pens and umbrellas, I’ll happily give them back!” 
  • “The ad described ‘incredible opportunities for advancement and career development’. I honestly feel like I’m being held hostage!” 

Whether through what you write in your job ads or what you say during an interview with a candidate, overpromising and then not following through on your promises doesn’t only lead to staff disengagement, it will likely lead to resentment and ultimately resignations.

And high employee turnover won’t exactly do wonders for your employer brand. 

For the purposes of this particular article, I want to focus on the last of the five candidate responses listed above.  

Deceiving candidates about career or professional development opportunities is simply poor form.  

Sure, you might be able to lure them in by painting a picture of a long and fruitful career with your organisation, but the moment there isn’t a sign of the potential to advance, learn or develop new skills, they’ll be out the door – quite often running into the arms of your competitors. 

Research off the back of ‘the great resignation’ and coming out of the pandemic shows that after two years of uncertainty, employees are now craving career progression. And for employers, this means understanding (and respecting) that if this progression or development can’t be offered internally, then it’s highly likely that those employees will seek it elsewhere. 

Discussions around career development give your team members the sense that they are valued and that you are willing to invest in them to help them reach their full potential. 

Whenever I had someone new join a team or business I was leading, or when I had a new team member join my own company, I would sit down with them (either face to face or on a video call) on their first day and tell them that one of my key priorities was to ensure that when (not if) they left the business, they felt that I had contributed to their career development. 

For many, this was a very strange conversation to be having with their leader on day one. I also made it very clear that if they didn’t feel like they were developing professionally, that they should flag it with me, but that if I couldn’t provide them with what they were looking for, then I would help them find it elsewhere. And I was always true to my word. 

If your job ad refers to ‘incredible opportunities for advancement’, or in your interviews you highlight the ‘focus on career development’ as one of your organisation’s unique selling points, then it’s up to you to deliver on these promises. 

Are you setting regular time aside with your team members to discuss their next career step(s)?  

What are their short-, medium-, and long-term goals? Many leaders will make assumptions about their employees’ career aspirations without even asking the question. Some might want to climb the ladder; others might be happy to stay in a role that offers stability; while there might even be those interested in making a Knight’s move (from chess) where their next role is ideally a horizontal move before they’ll be looking to move up or ahead. 

If an employee is seeking or craving development, please understand that it’s not entirely up to you to be the hands-on deliverer of this development.  

In fact, you may even prefer to engage a coach who focuses on career development either in a one-to-one or group setting – so long as your team member is seeing you follow-up on your commitment. 

Delegation and empowerment are two other strategies leaders often use as part of their commitment to develop the careers of their team members. Whilst these are great strategies, they have to be carefully positioned in terms of exactly where and how they fit into an employee’s career or professional development plan.

It’s also important to consider whether your team member actually has the bandwidth to take on additional responsibilities and will view the task as a challenge to potentially help them fast-track their advancement, or if it will create additional stress. Also, if not discussed sufficiently up front, (unfortunately) many high potential employees will simply view the delegation or empowerment as a chance for you (their leader) to off-load tasks or projects that you can’t be bothered doing yourself and this isn’t exactly career inspiring. 

With the war for top quality talent in full force, it’s often tempting for some leaders to want to hold on to their top performers either because they can often make the leader look good in terms of their overarching goals, or because they know how hard it would be to find someone else of that calibre if they were to let them move into another role within the organisation.  

While internal mobility is high on the priority list of several organisations today, unfortunately holding top performers prisoner becomes an even higher priority for some individual managers who want to keep their strongest resources close. This will not only have a negative impact on the employee’s career, but also on the company’s employer brand. Besides, surely one thing we’ve learned from watching The Shawshank Redemption (one of my all-time favourite films), Escape from Alcatraz, or Prison Break is that prisoners become obsessed with getting out.  

As a leader, you don’t want your people planning their escape (often right under your nose).

If, for whatever reason you or your organisation are not able to offer your team members what they may be craving in terms of career advancement, then rather than holding them hostage and suppressing their development, if the best opportunity for them happens to be outside your organisation, then open the door for them; encourage them; and support them as they embark on the next stage in their career.  

Rest assured; they will respect you so much more for it. 

The majority of employees want to know what their career path looks like. And whilst career development should become a natural part of an organisation’s culture, the reality is that this can’t always be the case. If a leader can honestly explain how their team members can potentially progress within the company, that’s great. If a leader can talk about internal mobility and promotion opportunities, then at least employees can see what the path ahead looks like. 

However, there are far too many organisations out there that know full well they can’t offer sufficient career development opportunities but claim they can; and then there are those who spruik that they place career advancement as a priority but then do absolutely nothing about it. Whether it’s the failure to deliver on a promise, or misleading employees from the outset, when it comes to the career development of your most important resource, honesty is always the best policy. 

Of course, hellomonday can provide support to every team member, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching.  

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This article doesn’t just help leaders lay the foundations for having more meaningful developmental conversations, it gives them the bricks. Whilst it may have been written with client-facing team members in mind, it can certainly apply to non-client-facing team members, too.
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