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Recap – Employers Masterclass: Progression

Published: 24 Mar 2022

How does someone successfully climb the career ladder in your workplace? In our first Employers Masterclass of 2022, we explored how employers can support employees to progress within their organisations by setting up clear frameworks, investing in training and supporting their career aspirations. Catch up on the session, download the slides and read our key takeaways from Tuesday’s session below.

Inclusive progression is about #whogetson, not just who gets in.

With so many companies working so hard to build socio-economic inclusion in their workforces, it can sometimes be easy to forget that your efforts to promote inclusion shouldn’t stop at the hiring stage. Social mobility is as much about who gets on in your workforce as it is who gets into it, so ensuring that your frameworks enable and support that progression is crucial.

In our progression masterclass, SMC Employer Engagement Lead Edward Donkor was joined by Donna Catley, Chief People Officer at Compass UK and Ireland, and Charlotte Chirwa, Social Mobility Lead at the Department for Work and Pensions, to discuss what equitable progression looks like in practice.

So why do some people struggle to progress?

“We started to observe that we had amazing examples of where people have progressed – for example we had people starting as a cleaner who moved on to be trained to be a chef,” explained Donna Catley, Chief People Officer of Compass Group UK & Ireland. “But we also had stories where people felt trapped, and their line manager wasn’t as able to support as we would have liked.”

Training and engagement is important to progression regardless of background, but past SMC research has found that employer funded training is less likely to go to lower skilled workers. This leads to a training gap between skilled and non-skilled workers that inevitably impacts on progression.

In addition, cultural norms and expectations often play a role in progression, influencing the volume and quality of support managers offer and the networks you make that support progression.

Finally, an individual’s confidence in their own abilities and potential can be a major barrier. Employees with huge potential but less confidence can struggle to engage with overwhelming frameworks and will rule themselves out as a result.

How to design effective inclusive career progression frameworks?

1. Secure buy-in from senior leaders

For individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the barriers to progression can be wide ranging. For leaders, the barrier is often a case of prioritisation. Few leaders report addressing progression as a priority, while many regard it as not within their remit.

Development and progression for all colleagues needs to be a priority at every level. Without senior leadership buy-in, it’s much harder for those staff responsible to address these barriers and dedicate the time and resources needed to enhance progression frameworks. Managers need to be empowered to drive change and be accountable for their efforts to senior leadership.

Linking progression to improved staff retention, and the likely improvement you’ll see in the quality of service delivery is key. This can help to overcome the view that many senior managers take that frontline staff are replaceable and therefore that progression isn’t worth investing in.

2. Review your company structures – what does inclusive progression look like?

Many frontline staff can struggle to conceive of what “the next step” in their career looks like. With no clear route to a role in your organisation that is more senior, better paid or even simply more interesting, this can lead to staff losing interest in their work and seeking alternative employment.

Think carefully about how your organisation’s structures could better support your employees to progress while also supporting your business objectives. Your progression pathways should be transparent and attainable. Try to be transparent about what pathways look like for different roles in your organisation and be clear about the skills and qualifications you need to make the move upwards – or even sideways.

For Compass Group, this was a priority: “We saw too much luck involved in being able to progress. We wanted to make the experience more consistent so wherever they are they understand what it takes to get on.”

“We wanted to demystify progression, and make it so easy for frontline staff to understand by putting it into their hands,” Donna explains, noting that all their information about progression is available both online and offline, enabling everyone to engage.

When developing these frameworks, Compass group looked at particular functions and the considerations that would be applicable for employees in each:

“What are the skills and experience that are needed. What are the criticals and the nice to haves?  What’s the training and education you need to support?”

3. Create the space for staff to talk about training and career progression

 “Line Manager buy-in is essential” – Charlotte Chirwa, Social Mobility Lead, Department for Work and Pensions

In many organisations – particularly fast paced sectors with large numbers of frontline staff such as retail and hospitality – it can be hard to find time to have conversations about career development. Line managers may struggle to find the time,  and as such, employees may feel that the company isn’t concerned with their development and progression.

“Helping others to rise and progress doesn’t diminish achievements of those who have progressed… what we can do through social mobility is rise other elements of equality”

Finding the time for those conversations is important – as is empowering and supporting line managers to think about the future and potential of those they manage. Leadership buy-in will go a long way to making this a reality; if managers think that progression is important to their managers and that their performance is at least partly judged on how they support others, then this will help to embed inclusive progression within the organisation’s culture.

4. Embed measures within your company that ensure you’re prioritising and supporting individuals’ progression in an inclusive way

That said, there’s only so far a career development conversation can take you without structures and processes that support action.

It’s important to make sure that you’re putting your money where your mouth is and ensuring that there are processes that enable your employees to develop and progress. A dedicated, ring fenced training budget to support employees to gain the skills they need is important – as are dedicated roles whose responsibility it is to provide learning and development throughout the organisation.

Opportunities to learn and develop within the organisation are also important. Charlotte spoke about the DWP and wider Civil Service programmes that enable employees to shadow colleagues in other departments or other functions, helping them to better understand what roles in those departments look like and what the skills needed for those positions are.

Final thoughts

“Unless you’re measuring, you don’t know if what you’re doing is making a blind bit of difference” – Donna Catley, Chief People Officer, Compass Group UK & Ireland

Every effort to open up progression and remove arbitrary barriers should be applauded, but both our speakers emphasised the importance of measuring progress, and using the data to better develop and target interventions – as Donna explained around Compass Group’s plans to improve their measurement, data “is critical, as it enables us to course correct.”

Find out more about how to measure socioeconomic background in our socioeconomic diversity and inclusion toolkit.

There’s also a question of building confidence, as Charlotte highlights: “time after time when engaging with our socioeconomic diversity network, we have feedback that they don’t have confidence to put themselves forward for talent programmes.” Progression frameworks aren’t just about providing opportunities, they’re about ensuring your employees are confident enough to engage. Make sure those support conversations and processes include mentoring, training and support with applications and interview preparation that can help build that confidence.

Finally, remember that these efforts take time to embed. As you reform your structures and seek to change your practices and the support you offer, keep measuring and improving, but understand that you won’t create inclusive progression overnight.