The surprisingly effective retention power of lateral career moves

Climb the ladder at your own pace.
Climb the ladder at your own pace.
Image: Reuters/Eloy Alonso
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What keeps someone happy at work for the long haul?

Alas, if an easy answer existed, we’d share it with you. But we do have some data mined by LinkedIn that can shed light on part of the riddle.

In its recent analysis of data from 32 million profiles, the work-focused social media network found there was a 70% chance that people who were promoted at a company would still be there after three years, while only 45% of people who stayed in the same position were likely to be around three years later.

But promotions aren’t the only way to get people to stay. Compared with those who got bigger or better jobs at their company, retention rates after three years were only slightly smaller (65%) for people who had made a lateral move.

Other research has shown that people are more intrigued by the possibilities of lateral moves than managers might assume. In 2016, a survey of 2,000 full-time employees by software maker Cornerstone on Demand found that 89% of respondents would consider making a lateral career move without getting a raise. The most common reasons they chose to explain why they’d make such a jump were “to find greater personal satisfaction (57%), to pursue an entirely new career path (41%), and to take up a professional challenge (40%).”

Encouragingly for managers, lateral moves seem to be most appealing when they don’t involve switching employers. Only 27% of respondents to the Cornerstone questionnaire said they’d look for a sideways move into a job at a different company, compared with 66% who said they’d rather look for internal opportunities.

Perhaps these numbers can be explained by the changing nature of work, or a shift in the way we understand the purpose of a job, or a growing sense that there’s more than one way to design the arc of a career (Quartz membership exclusive)—or perhaps people just want to feel like there’s some spark of newness in their daily lives and a sense of evolution in their career path. Either way, the numbers seem to be capturing what has always been true: Upward is just one direction for growth, and not always the best one.

Of course, the data alone can’t tell us with certainty whether the LinkedIn users who left their jobs within three years did so because they weren’t moved into fresh roles, or if economic or performance-related factors drove them out. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other culture and power dynamics within a company that seem to play a role in whether employees stick around. For example, LinkedIn’s study found that companies that are highly ranked for “open and effective management” and places where “employees have influence” both had better retention rates than those with lower scores for these two traits.

But it’s easy to see how all of these factors may fit together: Perhaps one sign you work for open and effective leaders is that they see the wisdom in giving people the power to move around.