Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Forbes in May 2023.
by Scott Pulsipher
With several prominent business leaders recently going viral for demonstrating a lack of empathy for members of their teams, it appears the social contract between employers and employees is shifting—and that’s a good thing.
In 2019, Business Roundtable, an association of more than 200 CEOs of America’s leading companies, redefined its statement on the purpose of a corporation to include a commitment to investing in employees, such that individuals are not only compensated fairly but supported through “training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.”
Recent coverage notwithstanding, it's encouraging to see more employers investing in the development and advancement of their people—recognizing that these wonderful individuals are not mere resources, but the most vital factor in delivering on their strategies and priorities. That the "bottom line" is an outcome of the effort and contributions of many, and that their effectiveness is intimately connected to their engagement. That their engagement is influenced not only by doing meaningful work, but also by the organization's recognition of their worth and commitment to enabling their desire to progress—intellectually, socially, and economically.
As a society, we need to elevate our mindset and recognize that every individual is innately talented, worthy, and motivated, with expanding promise and possibility. When employers accept this simple premise, they’ll not only focus on filling roles, but also recognize that when they do so they are hiring a person, and it's their responsibility to help that person feel empowered to do their best work and thrive in their careers. They’ll understand that human progress and upward mobility are the key measures of organizational effectiveness, and that creating an environment for individuals to thrive serves to advance the enterprise itself.
Employers need to be asking themselves: How can I ensure that no one gets stuck in an opportunity cul-de-sac? Practically speaking, that means helping each individual acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities to take on an ever-expanding scope of responsibility. In turn, leaders can start thinking critically about the pathways that are available and their role in facilitating their employees' progress.
Every individual deserves the opportunity to experience self-actualization. To that end, I invite leaders to consider the following questions with respect to their organizations:
1. Are we fair and equitable about how we evaluate, coach, and promote talent?
Commitment to equity doesn’t end with equitable hiring practices or increased representation across diverse backgrounds; it’s also about ensuring all individuals are able to experience mobility and satisfaction at work, no matter their identity. This starts with fair and consistent performance evaluation with a disposition for helping individuals leverage personal strengths, while also developing greater strength in noted weaknesses. Fulfilling that commitment requires an understanding that each individual experiences unique circumstances and various social, emotional, and practical needs that call for personalized mentoring and individualized goals.
If an individual is underperforming or disengaging, leaders should assume the best. That is, that the person is capable, engaged, and motivated to do great work, but their contributions may be limited due to barriers that need to be addressed, or skills that are underdeveloped. No one works to be considered incompetent. The coaching conversation then becomes, what is the work you want to do? How does that align with the organization’s needs and priorities? How do you want to acquire the skills you’re lacking, and what is limiting your advancement? Supporting just one individual can have profound effects—for the individual, sure, but also for their families, perhaps even their communities, and certainly the organization where they work.
2. Do employees understand which pathways are available to them, and which skills and abilities are needed to progress?
While managers can play a pivotal role in helping team members think through what they can do and want to do, individuals must ultimately decide for themselves which pathways they wish to pursue. But for them to exercise that choice, they need to be empowered with information.
Unfortunately, studies suggest we have significant room for improvement in providing greater transparency to employees about available pathways and needed skills, as well as accurately capturing employees’ skills so they may be evaluated fairly.
A Harvard Business School survey, for instance, revealed a lack of career pathway clarity along the recruiting funnel, with 37% of those polled saying their company rarely or never described pathways on the company website, and 25% saying their company rarely or never described pathways even during job interviews. Further, research compiled by Degreed in their State of Skills 2021 report shows that 61% of workers do not get regular feedback on their performance or skills. This challenge is compounded by the fact that employers’ understanding of employees' skills is limited; while skills data is inferred from job descriptions and other organizational data, 40% of employees say they frequently complete tasks outside their job description.
3. Do employees understand how they can acquire needed skills and abilities, and better yet, have we invested in pathways to increase alignment and engagement?
For individuals to advance they not only need to understand which skills and abilities are needed to traverse from one track to another, but how and where they can acquire those skills. Fortunately, major employers including Amazon, Walmart, McDonald’s, and KFC are increasingly engaged in the design of educational pathways, either through in-house educational programs, or partnerships with online providers. Investing in these pathways has never been more critical as our economy continues to see growing misalignment between educational outcomes and skills needed in the workforce. In fact, McKinsey found that 87% of employers are experiencing, or expect to experience soon, a skills gap.
Research shows these partnerships are also highly valued by employees, who otherwise face the daunting task of determining which higher education credentials will deliver the greatest value and provide the most optionality for the future. In fact, survey data from the Strada Education Network found that Americans without college degrees cite employer-education partnerships as the number one factor that would increase their confidence that additional education or training is worth the cost.
For many employers, the primary motivation to provide education is what I consider a first-order benefit: employee retention. But if we’re serious about helping individuals progress in their lives, that necessarily means some will leave to pursue other opportunities—and that’s ok. Retention, therefore, should be one, but arguably not the primary metric used to gauge an education program’s success; engagement and mobility should be. This can run counter to how some employers may perceive such benefits, preferring instead to have limited use to keep costs low.
When someone asks me what my primary job is, my response is to motivate and inspire the individuals at my organization to do the great work they already want to do, and to help each of us become better than we were before. As leaders, it's our shared responsibility and privilege to not only ensure our organizations provide something of value to society, but to help the individuals at our organizations advance in their lives. When we accept that everyone is top talent, and that inherent worth exists among every individual, we will be one step closer to fulfilling the promise of our human-centered, democratic ideal: that each has the opportunity to live a self-determined life and create a better life for themselves and their families.