Internal mobility: what it is, and best practices

Last updated:
August 31, 2021
September 29, 2021
min read
Brendan McConnell
Internal mobility
Table of contents

As more and more companies around the world struggle with employee retention and turnover, one topic should be at the top of every HR professionals mind: internal mobility.

By and large, a lack of growth opportunities is a leading cause of why employees leave a company. Offering vertical and lateral movement opportunities within your company - backed by professional development, training, and upskilling opportunities - will help to deter your high performers from looking for opportunities elsewhere.

What is internal mobility?

Internal mobility refers to the movement of employees to different roles or opportunities within your organization. These moves can be either vertical or lateral, and might involve a change in job title, or simply more responsibility and ownership over important projects.

Vertical moves, in this context, refer to movements up the org chart. These are typically promotions.

Lateral moves, on the other hand, might include taking on more responsibility, or changing to a new department and position at the same level of seniority.

What comes before internal mobility is just as important as the movement itself. That’s where things like learning and development, mentorships, job swaps, shadowing, and performance management come into play. These activities all contribute to an employee reaching the point where they can take on more responsibility, seniority, and pay.

Being deliberate about internal mobility provides employees with opportunities to grow their skill sets, and take on new professional challenges. As a result, employees are encouraged to grow and learn in their jobs, and are rewarded for the effort without having to leave the company for a new opportunity.

Why is internal mobility important in 2021 (and beyond?)

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Great Resignation phenomenon. It’s expected that as many as 40% of employees globally have either already made a move, or are looking to, now that the pandemic seems to be subsiding in many parts of the world.

The driving factors behind this mass resignation is a pent up desire for change, new growth opportunities, and more flexibility. In other words, a lot of employees are starting to realize that their current work arrangement doesn’t fulfill their personal and professional aspirations. And they want to change.

Companies who offer learning and development opportunities that lead to internal mobility will have an advantage in this landscape, and are likely already reaping the benefits.

Of course, the Great Resignation didn’t come from nowhere. It’s a symptom of a number of other factors and issues at play that are relevant to the topic of internal mobility.

These include:

  • Shifted workplace demographics. Millennials and Gen Z are now the two dominant age groups in the workforce. These professionals, on average, stay with companies for much shorter periods of time than their older co-workers. Growth opportunities - or a lack thereof - are at the top of the list of priorities for these generations. Internal mobility opportunities, therefore, are essential when attempting to retain these workers long term.
  • Career advancement is still a #1 priority. According to a recent survey by Gallup, a lack of career advancement topped the list of reasons why people leave their jobs. And in that same survey, employees who felt that their supervisors encourage development were 92% more likely to be with their company one year later. Clearly, internal mobility is a major priority for your employees. It should be for you too.
  • Most hiring is done to fill existing positions. According to the US Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95% of hiring in the United States is done to fill existing positions. That means that recruiters spend most of their time - and budget - on replacing people and skills, rather than acquiring new ones to drive the company forward. That is a huge drain on resources, and a major sign of issues with employee retention and development.
  • Workplaces are full of untapped talent. Virtually every organization has employees who are not living up to their full potential for one reason or another. Often, that’s because there’s a failure to identify and nurture potential. Companies that take a deliberate approach to coaching and mentoring, and who tie that into growth and development plans, are able to leverage that potential to help drive the company forward.
  • The competition for talent is red hot. Depending on your industry, the talent market is really tight at this point in 2021. This is facilitated by a shift to remote work that is giving employees more options than they did pre-pandemic (again, depending on the industry). This causes a headache for companies who aren’t prioritizing internal mobility. Remember the Great Resignation? For those who are, this is a golden opportunity to nurture and retain your best employees, even when other companies may be losing them. All it takes is a deliberate effort to encourage upskilling, professional development, and growth.

Each of these above points boils down to one key takeaway: employees don’t necessarily want to leave your organization. But, if your company is not actively encouraging internal mobility and growth, then they may feel like they have no other option but to leave.

If you’re reading this, then it’s likely your job to give your employees a reason to stay. Let’s talk about how to do that.

Internal mobility strategies and best practices

Before we jump into strategies and best practices for internal mobility, let’s step back and look at some obstacles you’re likely to face.

The three main ones include:

  • Assumptions about what it takes to succeed. Hiring managers may have an idea in their head about what it will take for a candidate to succeed in a vacant position. That assumption may not jive with what they know - or what they’ve seen - from the employees around them. As such, that manager will likely look for external talent, rather than identifying potential in an existing team member to fill that role.
  • Employees not wanting to appear disloyal. There may be an unspoken reluctance amongst employees to show interest in moving from their existing role. This may be out of fear of appearing disloyal to their manager, or ungrateful for their current job. In these cases, otherwise qualified employees will be overlooked due to a simple lack of confidence in the system.
  • Focus on existing skills rather than potential. Recruiters and hiring managers often get caught up in an employee’s or candidate’s existing skills, rather than their potential. As such, they’re more likely to hire someone externally who can demonstrate the desired skill set. This overlooks existing employees who may be interested in developing those skills, which can cause resentment.

All three of these obstacles may be deep seated within an organization. They will need to be addressed using a systematic and strategic approach that not only encourages but rewards internal mobility and development.

That’s where internal mobility best practices come into play. Let’s dig into those now.

1. Remove the taboo around internal mobility

First and foremost, you must make it clear that internal mobility is not only acceptable but encouraged at your organization.

Talk candidly with your teams - from the top down - about the benefits of internal mobility both within and between departments. Encourage managers to talk to their direct reports about internal opportunities and growth paths. Share the news when employees make internal moves, and congratulate them for the new opportunity. Make it clear that every employee is welcome to seek new internal opportunities if they wish.

The goal here is to make internal mobility the norm at your company, rather than something that people are reluctant to talk about.

2. Empower your middle management

Managers are the first point of contact for employees who may want to make an internal move. As such, their job can be a tricky one. They must be both subject matter experts and people managers who can identify and nurture potential in their direct reports.

If internal mobility is to be a priority at your organization, then you’ll need to provide support to your middle managers. That means providing coaching and training in people management, mentorship, and skills assessment.

It also means communicating the value of internal mobility to middle management, and giving them the power and budget they need to nurture their employees to the next level.

3. Create an internal mobility strategy

Your internal mobility strategy sits at the crossroads of all the other best practices identified here. This is where making a “deliberate” effort to facilitate internal mobility comes to fruition.

No two strategies will look the same, but they should include:

  • Proactive gap analyses to identify what skills you currently have, what you need, and where they are likely to come from.
  • A communications program to demonstrate the value of internal mobility.
  • A process for employees to follow when they are interested in an internal position, or want to work towards vertical movement.
  • Trackable KPIs, including the number of employees you’d like to see move internally each year.
  • Training and mentorship programs to help managers identify and nurture high potential employees.

Ideally, this strategy should form a coherent internal mobility program that makes it clear how employees can make vertical or lateral moves within your organization.

4. Create careers paths for employees

Ideally, every employee within your organization should know what the next step in their professional journey will look like at your company, and what they need to do to get there.

This typically starts with empowering managers to work with their teams to develop tailored development paths, personal goals, and learning plans. These should coincide with a clear “next step” in the employee’s career path: be it a promotion or a lateral move.

If you do this, it’s critical that you reward employees who meet their goals. That means giving raises, new responsibilities, or promotions.

5. Make learning and development a priority

Learning and development is the means by which employees get to the stage where they can move internally. To boost  the frequency of internal moves, therefore, you should strive to create and nurture a culture of continuous learning at your organizing.

That means:

  • Providing the right L&D tools and content
  • Encouraging and rewarding employees for professional development and upskilling
  • Communicating the value of L&D

L&D is one of the most effective ways to ensure that your organization maintains a forward trajectory in terms of skills and innovation, and will help to boost long term retention amongst your best employees.

6. Stop defaulting to external recruitment

Too often, organizations will take a default stance that they need to recruit external talent to fill skills gaps and leadership needs. While that may be true in some cases, it overlooks the large pool of potentially qualified candidates that you have internally.

If internal mobility is a priority, then you should add an extra step to the start of your talent acquisition process to promote openings to your existing employees. Make the job requirements and skills expectations clear, and encourage those who feel like it could be a good fit to apply.

This is where the ground work you’ve done to normalize internal mobility and encourage managers to identify potential pays dividends. It’s possible that, out of this extra step, an internal candidate will step forward who has been working toward the exact type of job you’re looking to fill.

If your internal recruitment efforts are successful, then you not only reward a valuable employee with a new position, but you also side step the costs of sourcing, screening, and onboarding new candidates. Bonus: that internal candidate already knows your company, the culture, and your workflows, so their time to productivity is much shorter.

7. Use the right tech

Last, but certainly not least, you need to leverage the right tools to facilitate internal mobility at scale.

Ideally, you should have a tech stack that allows you to:

  • Create an internal job board
  • Collect and analyze internal applicants
  • Assess and track internal candidates based on skills and performance
  • Integrate with an L&D platform to offer ongoing training and upskilling

Josh Bersin, a leading analyst in the HR tech space, describes this tech as “your internal LinkedIn inside your organization - with recruiting features, training and mentoring all included.”

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