Keeping employees growing when the ladder is jammed

July 16, 2012
Sponsored by Robert Half International

An ever-lengthening horizon for retirement and less voluntary turnover have led many professionals to stay in their current roles — longer, perhaps, than they might in an environment with more abundant opportunities.

Consider these findings from a recent survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute: 70% of workers said they wouldn’t retire until age 65 or later, with 26% saying they’d work until age 70 or older. At the same time, the percentage of workers expecting to retire before age 65 has dropped from 50% in 1991 to 24% in 2012.

While a seasoned and stable workforce certainly has its advantages, a lack of flux can make it harder to provide employees at all stages of the career ladder with the ongoing challenges they need to continue to grow professionally.

But promotions aren’t the only way to keep your staff moving forward in their careers. Consider these low-cost or no-cost steps you can take to ensure employees continue to expand their skills and increase their value to your firm:  

Recommit to training and development. Many firms have skimped on their commitment to training and continuing education in recent years. Just over one-quarter (26%) of financial executives interviewed for a Robert Half survey said their companies offer staff full or partial reimbursement for the education units required to maintain professional certifications, such as the CPA designation. This is down significantly from 46% in 2006. A full 73% said they currently don’t provide any reimbursement.

Unreversed, this trend could prove counter to companies’ best interests. Although many workers may be content in their positions or hesitant to move on, as the job market strengthens in many professional fields, retention is becoming more of an issue. Firms need to solidify employees’ loyalty by offering benefits that help them upgrade their skills and advance their careers. Not only does a commitment to professional development help employers recruit and retain top talent but also allows them to benefit from developing a workforce that is capable of meeting evolving business needs.

Expand into a new segment or business area. As alluded to above, when employees expand their skill sets ­— maybe they earn an in-demand certification or obtain specialized training in an area where there’s a dearth of practitioners — it broadens opportunities for everyone and may enable your firm to branch into serving a new market segment or offering a new service. As opportunities expand, employees can move into new roles, making more room for others to move up and take on different responsibilities. For instance, a firm might add a business valuation practice or a wealth advisory group as staff members develop interests in those areas and gain the appropriate certifications.

Mix things up. Even if there aren’t many opportunities to move into new roles at your firm, consider whether you can restructure certain jobs or responsibilities to allow employees to continue to build new skills, experience fresh challenges, and stay engaged in their work. This might involve shifting an accountant’s workload so that the allocation of work changes somewhat — e.g., less time spent on tax work and more time dedicated to business advisory services.

Another way to keep things fresh might be to periodically rotate client accounts among staff members. This requires professionals to get up to speed on a new client’s challenges, procedures, and so forth, which can help to rekindle their interest level and motivation. It can also be a positive for clients, who benefit from having a fresh perspective and set of eyes applied to their business. Other ways to keep employees engaged and growing professionally are to involve them in higher-level meetings or draft them to participate in initiatives that seem to fit with their strengths, such as the firm’s business development efforts.

Upgrade titles. Roles and responsibilities often change over time, whether intentionally or not. If you have long-time employees who have taken on added duties but have not actually moved into a new position because of a lack of openings, consider offering a title promotion that reflects the growing importance of these individuals to your firm. It could be something as simple as adding a “senior” designation to someone’s title or formalizing a role that has been evolving over time — e.g., “technology acquisition specialist.” Ideally, you could also offer a salary increase to underscore the importance of the new title, but even if you are not able to do this at the same time, chances are your top performers will still find some satisfaction in the enhanced title.

Although these strategies can help to invigorate both your employees and your firm, be sure to also engage your best people in regular discussions about how you can keep both them and the business moving forward. Your top performers have already made an investment in your firm — and you in them. It only makes sense for both parties to continue to build on that investment.

Founded in 1948, Robert Half International is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm. Its financial staffing divisions include Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources, for temporary, full-time, and senior-level project professionals, respectively. The company has more than 350 staffing locations worldwide. For more information, visit www.roberthalf.com and follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.