Career Development Career Conversations

Where, when and with whom do effective career conversations happen?

It is well documented that career development efforts within the workplace significantly benefit organisations and are an important part of driving performance improvement.

The problem is, in many organisations, career development initiatives are not championed, nor are they done consistently. The result of this haphazard approach for many organisations is that effective career development rarely takes place.

In an increasingly competitive global market where the availability of skilled workers is shrinking, career development efforts are essential, contributing to employee retention, motivation and satisfaction. 


Managers typically assume that providing employees with feedback about their performance once a year in a performance review meeting makes it more likely that performance on the job will be improved, the employee will be satisfied and will be retained. Yet most HR professional and leaders would be aware that this widely accepted view in the HR world is being continually challenged by a growing body of research around the ineffectiveness of most performance management practices.

The main discrepancy between the annual performance review meeting and ongoing career conversations is this: career conversations ensure that the individual's goals are aligned with the organisation's goals and that each party is working towards a common objective. The alignment between the organisation and the individual significantly benefits the organisation, helping to boost motivation and engagement through answering the employee's question, 'what's in this for me?'.

What support do employees need?

Research indicates that most organisations expect employees to take responsibility for their own careers, but recognise that they need to offer support and training in order to do this.

This support may include:

a) provision of information regarding jobs and career paths within (or external to) the organisation;

b) information and feedback on employee’s skills and performance, including how the organisation views the employee’s potential; and

c) advice about possible career options and action plans for future success.

How do you provide this support in an effective and constructive way?

Career conversations.

Career conversations are gaining momentum as a way of replacing the annual performance review as a career development strategy, keeping employees motivated and satisfied and positioning the organisation as an employer of choice.

Responsibility for career conversations is shared equally between the employee, their manager and the organisation.

So how can career conversations be used as an element of career development for your employees?

When should career conversations happen?

According to Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis in a recent HBR article,  annual reviews are largely constrained and this is why more and more companies are abandoning them: The annual review doesn’t focus its efforts on improving current performance and grooming talent for the future, both of which are critical for an organisation’s long-term survival. Instead, its main focus is in on holding employees accountable for their behaviours over the past year, looking retrospectively at what could have been done better with an often heavy emphasis on financial rewards or 'punishments'.

The other issue with the standard one hour annual performance review is that it is not a forum which easily allows for the sort of in-depth career discussion most employees are looking for. An easier way to facilitate meaningful conversations that fosters the careers of individuals is via more frequent, less formal one-to-one meetings – or career conversations - where career issues can be comfortably raised. Research has shown that there is a clear preference for informal career discussions over formal processes for doing this, although some people would like a mix of both formal and informal opportunities to discuss their careers.


As much or as little as you and your employee choose

The benefit of career conversations is that they can be held as frequently, or infrequently, as the manager and each employee agrees to. Some employees will prefer a feedback model of 'a little and often'; others like more in-depth support much less often.  According to research by Kidd et al (2004), individuals agree that positive career discussions happen much less often than they would like and that they would like more. Research also indicates that employees would prefer to have discussions about their career when it suits them and when topics are relevant, rather than on a once a year basis.

Ongoing career conversations allow employees to constantly evolve and improve as they receive regular feedback from their manager. It encourages employee focus on areas of strength and areas to be improved upon. It also allows for a reflection on behaviour and whether certain behaviours need to be adjusted in order to reach short and long term goals.

Career development steps taken by the organisation, such as mentoring programs and development centres, may provide a level of career conversation support if they are conducted by people who are skilled and genuinely concerned with helping individuals to navigate their career issues. The same can be said for those who hold specialist roles within the organisation such as career counselling managers.

Who should career conversations happen with?

There is a common misconception that career conversations can only happen with an employee's line manager. However research by Kidd et al (2004) suggests that this is not the case. There are a number of people who can provide this ongoing support to employees, including:

  • Line managers
  • Bosses up the line
  • Other managers outside of the employees direct line
  • Facilitators/events (training courses, career development centres etc)
  • Informal mentors
  • Formal mentors or coaches external to the organisation
  • HR

It is important to note that the relationship between giver and receiver of feedback and the compatibility of personality types of both parties is likely to be more important than their title and role within the organisation.

In the research conducted by Kidd et al (2004), effective career discussions were held with a diverse range of givers of support, not just the manager. The majority of conversations were held with managers who were not the individual’s direct boss, however the role of the immediate boss was important too. On top of providing direct support, immediate managers were able to give individuals access to more senior people through their own networks.

This suggests that perhaps organisations will see successful career conversations occurring with less emphasis on the manager as the single source of career support and more focus on re-positioning the responsibility to the line as a community.

HR's role in career conversations

HR was involved in almost 25% of positive discussions reported in Kidd's research.  Many individuals within the study looked to HR as a source of direct career support, contrasting with the modern view of the role of HR as a systems designer, rather than an active participant in the career processes.

Both parties, givers and receivers of career feedback, believe HR should act as a partner in the careers space, with the ability to offer valuable support to the line managers as well as confidential advice to individuals.

Others who may be able to provide valuable advice within the organisation include managers who aren't the line manager, peers and 'grandmothers' or 'grandfathers' of the organisation.

One-off career conversations, particularly with people who are not well known to the individual, are also very common. In Kidd's study, 60% were one-off conversations and over half of these took place with people the receivers did not know well.

Further, Kidd's research suggests that employees are able to access powerful career support outside of a formal mentoring program. There does not need to be a formal setting in place for a positive career conversation to take place. To demonstrate this point, around half of the discussions reported on did not form part of a formal HR process.

Interestingly, very few effective discussions took place within appraisals, though a few more were within follow-up meetings to appraisals. The appraisal process often tends to be overloaded, and its focus on short-term performance can set the wrong mind-set for considering development.

As organisations move away from the formal development processes such as performance reviews, they need to encourage a culture of informal discussions and the formation of “developmental networks” (Higgins & Kram, 2001).


Employees will always be interested in their own career development as it shapes their future working life and for many, forms a central part of their core identity. This is why the responsibility for career development lies with the employee - but on top of that - why it is important for the organisation to understand its importance to the employee.

Unfortunately, many organisations treat career development as an optional extra to performance management and are more interested in simply ticking the 'performance review' box each year.

Ultimately, employees need much better access to effective career conversations. Based on the research and literature available, only a small number of employees have satisfactory access to discussions that are likely to assist them with their career into the future. 

Organisations must look at their current processes, messaging and culture around formal and informal feedback and change the narrative about the importance of feedback and where and with whom career discussions should take place. The training and understanding around how to have these conversations effectively should be made readily available to all levels of employees within the organisation. Currently, we train managers and employees in goal setting and performance review. What we should be training them on is how to manage their own and other people's development, and – as part of that – how to conduct an effective career discussion. It is about much more than simply designing forms – it is about practical training in basic career management for all employees.



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Career Development, Career Conversations
Career Development, Career Conversations