Why do many employees think they are not progressing?

By Mark Beatson, Chief Economist, CIPD

Last week our contribution to the Great Business Debate was published.  It is part of the jobs, pay and progression thread, which is asking whether business does enough to help people into work and help them get on at work.  We looked at what employees thought, using questions in recent Employee Outlook surveys.  The strapline is in the final paragraph “… between a half and two thirds of employees appear to be either neutral about – or dissatisfied with – the challenge, support and opportunities open to them at work …”.  Here’s more on some of the underlying evidence.

Two regular questions in the Employee Outlook are:

• “My job is as challenging as I would like it to be”; and
• “My organisation gives me opportunities to learn and grow”.

In each case, respondents select an item on a five point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”.

We use the autumn 2014 survey data here because that survey contains other relevant questions on this topic.  We also exclude the self-employed, owner-managers and proprietors from the analysis.

We find that 62% of employees agree (or strongly agree) that their job is as challenging as they would like but the proportion who agree/strongly agree that their organisation gives them opportunities to learn and grow is lower, just 42%.  The two perceptions also tend to go together.  Among employees who agree/strongly agree their job is challenging enough, 57% also think they have opportunities to learn and grow.  In contrast, just 14% of those who disagree/strongly disagree on job challenge feel their organisation provides them with learning and development opportunities.

The chart below shows how much responses to these questions vary across employees according to their personal characteristics, the nature of their job and the organisation they work for.  Looking first at job challenge (the left hand panel), there actually isn’t a lot of variation in how different groups respond to this question (in most cases, the variations are statistically insignificant).  The significant variations are coloured a darker blue and we see that older employees (55+) are more likely to be content with job challenge as are the longest serving employees and those new to the job (presumably a “honeymoon” effect) together with voluntary sector employees.  More important, though, are salary and position in the managerial hierarchy: employees in the top two salary categories (earning over £45,000 p.a.) and employees in top, senior and middle management positions are far more comfortable with the challenge in their job.  Liking a challenge may have helped them get to their current position, but managers, in particular, typically have some autonomy in deciding what their role is, what needs to be done and how to do it.

We see a similar pattern of response to the question about opportunities to develop and grow.  In this case, agreement with the question also varies (positively) with level of educational qualification.  Better qualified (and better paid) people may well be offered more opportunities (especially if in management roles).  As more experienced “consumers” of learning and development, they may also be more aware of the opportunities available and the potential benefits.  

Does satisfaction with the challenge and opportunities on offer have knock-on effects on employees?  Yes.  There is an effect on employee engagement (both these questions are used in calculating an overall employee engagement score.  We might therefore expect dissatisfied employees to be less committed and reluctant to release discretionary effort.  However, this depends on the context.  When employees are asked if they work extra hours or carry out extra duties in order to help colleagues out, willingness only drops among those who are very dissatisfied with the challenges and opportunities on offer.  The damage is primarily seen in how employees talk about their “senior management” – less confidence and trust in them – and how they talk about their employer – less likely to recommend them to others.

Those negative views also translate into looking for an exit.  In the autumn 2014 survey, 26% of employees said they were currently looking for a job with a different employer.  For employees who agree/strongly agreed their job is challenging enough, this proportion is 15%, whereas it is 49% among those who disagree/strongly disagree (comparable proportions for the “opportunities to develop and grow” question are 12% and 45%).  Not all of these employees will leave but that may be a mixed blessing if the result is employees who feel trapped in their current role.
The autumn 2014 survey also included a question asking employees to reflect on how well the opportunities available with their current employer meet their career aspirations:

• “How likely or unlikely do you feel it is that you will be able to fulfil your career aspirations in your current organisation?”

Responses were a five point scale ranging from “very likely” to “very unlikely”.  More employees thought it unlikely/very unlikely they could fulfil their aspirations with their current employer (39%) than thought it likely/very likely (28%) as shown in the chart below.

When it comes to understanding the patterns in these data, the industry, sector and size of employer don’t seem to be statistically important factors. More important are personal factors (age and education) and job-related factors (length of service with their employer, salary, position in managerial hierarchy).  We find again that those in the top two salary brackets and those in top, senior and middle management positions are far more likely than other employees to see their current employer as capable of meeting their career aspirations.  Many of these employees have long service – over half of middle managers, for example, have been with their employer for over 10 years.  But that commitment has been recognised, however imperfectly.  More generally, the proportion of employees with a positive view of their organisation dips once the “honeymoon period” wears off and only picks up again for employees with long service of 15+ years.

Unsurprisingly, how employees view their job and the support they receive has an effect on whether they think their employer is capable of meeting their career aspirations.  For example, 39% of employees who agree/strongly agree with the job challenge question reported above think it likely/very likely they can meet their career aspirations with their current employer whereas the proportion for those who disagree/strongly disagree on job challenge is just 8%.  The equivalent gap for the question on opportunities to learn and grow is even wider: 50% compared with 6%.

The chart below summarises the data by presenting a measure of the statistical association between employee perceptions of the likelihood of being able to satisfy their career aspirations with their current employer and a range of other questions included in the survey.  The measure used is Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient (see Note for Techies below for a brief description).  So if we take the example of the job challenge question, we see it has a Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient of 0.4512 with ability to satisfy career aspirations.  This means that employees who have a positive assessment of job challenge tend to give a positive answer to the question on ability to satisfy career aspirations – and the further from zero the number is, the stronger the association.

Employees appear to take all parts of the employment “deal” into account in thinking about whether their employer can meet their career aspirations.  The strongest correlation is with overall job satisfaction.  The development side is important, shown in the positive correlations with opportunities to learn and grow, training and coaching that meets career goals and employee satisfaction with the training and development delivered.  But the correlations are nearly as strong with job content, job challenge and a satisfactory level of pay.  If employers don’t deliver on these, they risk employees “banking” the development opportunities and before looking for a better job somewhere else.

The chart also shows the negative correlation with over-qualification.  Most employees who think they are over-qualified for their current job don’t think they can nevertheless progress to more suitable opportunities that do meet their aspirations.  Over-qualification in this survey is self-defined and 29% of employees chose this category (but note this is very close to the 30% reported in the 2012 OECD survey of adult skills for England and Northern Ireland).  The proportion rises to 42% for employees with a university degree and 44% for employees with a higher degree.

Now it’s not necessarily a bad thing if employees don’t think they can achieve their career aspirations without a change of employer.  People can outgrow their roles. For those in specialist roles, in particular, there may be nowhere else to go within the organisation.  There are some occupations, such as local government officers or police officers, where those aspiring to senior roles are pretty much expected to move between organisations occasionally.

More generally, some turnover is good for both employees and employers.  People often benefit from a change of scenery, employers from fresh faces with new ideas.  But job-to-job turnover remains well below pre-recession rates even though, in many other respects, the labour market has recovered.  Unless and until turnover increases, employers need to think hard about strengthening the development opportunities on offer and employees need to think about how they can develop their skills and experience without a job change.  One way of doing this is by increasing internal job turnover; through, for example, greater use of internal exchanges and secondments, or attaching individuals to project teams alongside the “day job”.  None of these arrangements are particularly novel but they do rely on the time, attention and goodwill of line managers – for example, in accepting a degree of risk to delivery of short-term objectives if they release an individual to take on a development role.  If the organisational culture or reward systems elevate short-term performance over good citizenship, however, such efforts are likely to fail – and we will have more employees who feel both discouraged and trapped.


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