Employee Growth

What Is Career Pathing?

August 20, 2020
June 23, 2022
Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

While this dreaded interview question might be every job candidate’s biggest pet peeve, it is an important question every individual should ask themselves. It’s also part of a larger conversation every company should be having with their employees.

Careers have many unpredictable ups and downs, but it’s helpful to have an ideal career map in your mind to provide a roadmap for your future. To help employees map out their careers, many businesses develop career paths that outline internal growth opportunities and job paths employees can take to further their careers within the organization.

Here’s a look at what career pathing is, how you can introduce it in your company, and why it’s beneficial for both employers and employees.

What Career Pathing Is

A career path is a sequence of jobs an employee aims to hold throughout their time at an organization. It maps out potential roles and the skills, knowledge, competencies, experience, and personal characteristics required for each job level as an employee moves up the corporate ladder.

While career paths traditionally go from entry-level roles to C-suite roles within a department, not all career growth is vertical. Career paths can be flexible and allow employees to move laterally or cross-functionally as well. Having a detailed framework in place makes it easy for employees to understand which of their skills are transferable to other departments and roles within an organization, and encourages internal career changes.

The Benefits of Career Pathing

For Employers

Career pathing can help engage and retain talent because it shows people their opportunities for growth within the organization. Employees who don’t see clear growth potential in their current role will ultimately turn to opportunities elsewhere. In fact, a study by Glassdoor revealed that 73% of employees change employers to get ahead in their careers, while only 27% of employees stayed at their current employer for their next role.

“If you're not part of your employees’ career planning conversations, then your company may not be part of their future plans,” said Mark Herschberg, author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You. “Having well-defined career paths at your organization allows you to provide clarity on how your organization can help employees on their journey. If they can't see that path with your company, they'll look for it elsewhere.”

Career paths can help employees envision a long-term career at your company, which can increase employee retention and reduce hiring costs.

While 72% of millennials value professional development and growth, they still need to be convinced how their company can and will help develop their careers. Clear, defined career paths can give employees a better understanding of their career options and motivate them to work hard to move up at your organization.

“Career pathing is known to have a positive impact on the levels of employee engagement and retention,” said Melissa Cadwallader, MBA, PHR, an HR leader at ZenBusiness, an Austin-based business formation service company. “It gives the workers an improved sense of direction as they strive for the kinds of incentives associated with greater responsibility and advancement.”

Another bonus of having established career paths at your company is that it can help with succession planning. You can have candid conversations with employees about future planning and invest in their journey to develop the skills and knowledge needed to fill highly-specialized senior positions.

“Investment in career pathing will also safeguard the business, as employees are equipped with the skills and knowledge required to move into senior positions,” said Cadwallader. “This process of workforce optimization will inevitably result in increased productivity and profitability.”

Career pathing can also help you identify skills gaps in your current workforce, which will aid in creating a formal training plan to grow talent within your organization, or begin the search for an external hire.

For Employees

For employees, the most obvious benefit is understanding internal career opportunities and using this information to establish long-term and short-term career goals. While it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities of your current role, it’s important to keep in mind your larger career aspirations, too. This can motivate you to do your best work, take on different challenges, and learn new skills.

As an employee, it’s also reassuring to know that your company is invested in your career growth. “For many employees, if their future at your company isn't clear to them, they may feel anxious about their career,” said Herschberg. “Having well-defined roles with clear requirements helps direct their professional development. They'll know what skills to develop and the rewards for developing them.”

This sense of direction enables you to set and achieve milestones along the way, and ultimately get closer to achieving your career goals.

Career Path Best Practices 

While just implementing career pathing is a step in the right direction, you want to ensure that your organization and employees approach it thoughtfully and intentionally. Here are a few best practices to follow at your company.

For Employers

1. Establish your internal career paths. To start, you’ll need to build your career paths. Go through and outline all the core competencies required for each career path and identify potential cross-departmental movements. A caveat, though: Stan Kimer, President of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer and former executive sponsor of career development for IBM’s 3,000 sales operations employees, cautions against companies making career paths too narrow and prescribed.

“Employees can get discouraged when they do not get the next position in their desired path,” he said. “The ideal career pathing approach needs to show employees that there are multiple ways of growing careers.”

2. Share the plan with employees. Once you’ve established your career paths, the most important thing you need to do is make your employees aware they exist. An easy way to do this is to introduce new hires to your career paths during onboarding. You can show new employees from day one that your company is invested in their growth and wants them to have a long, successful career with your organization.

For existing employees, make sure the information can be easily found so employees can chart their own career paths and identify personal growth opportunities. To help keep internal growth top of mind, be sure to post and share job openings internally and encourage qualified employees to apply.

Another way is to highlight successful internal mobility stories from your employees. “Personal stories resonate with employees better than contrived career maps on paper. Consider sharing career maps of actually successful and respected people in the organization that showcase their career progression with your company,” said Kimer. “Be sure to show flexibility with these stories, too. Try to show employees that there are multiple ways to get from point A to point B. Career growth doesn’t always have to be linear.”

3. Continue to invest in employee development. Aside from that, HR should create and maintain a learning and development (L&D) program that helps employees learn new skills and hone existing ones. For newly appointed managers, HR should help ensure they have a smooth transition into their new roles and obtain the management training necessary to lead a team and hire new employees.

Lastly, your organization might want to consider implementing coaching or mentoring programs to connect junior employees with more senior managers. This can give them an extra resource to help them along their career trajectory at your organization. 

For Employees

1. Write down your intended career path. Once you’ve decided on your intended career path, write it down to hold yourself accountable. Not only does this give you clarity on what you want to achieve, it also memorializes your goals, letting you revisit them again and again as needed to motivate you, especially during challenging stretches.

2. Enlist the help of others. Sharing your career plan with your manager or mentor can also increase your likelihood of making your goals a reality. They can then assign you to projects that grow your skills, give you more exposure to senior leaders, and even help incorporate your personal goals with your quarterly or annual performance goals. Your manager can assist you in setting realistic milestones to ensure you’re on track to meet your goals and provide impactful feedback along the way.

3. Own your career development.
No one is more dedicated to your professional development than you are. Ultimately, you’re the one who has to own your career development and put in the hard work. Continuously commit to your own professional development by taking advantage of internal L&D or mentorship programs, developing your skills on your own time, volunteering for projects outside of your comfort zone, and meeting new people within your organization. At the end of the day, the ambition and drive you bring to advancing your career are entirely up to you.


While the future can seem far away, it’s important to have career conversations with your employees today. That way they know your company is invested in their professional growth. Even if a promotion is out of the question at the moment, talk to your employees about where they want to be in a few years. You can expand their role or give them more influence so they can continue to grow within your organization, instead of having to find growth opportunities at another company. When done effectively, career pathing can benefit your company and your employees, assisting them in having a fulfilling career, reaching their potential, and growing within your organization.