Career Talk, Startup Corner, The Tentmakers

When Winner Take All Battles Backfire at Work

Sue Shellenbarger

If career planning at your office is starting to resemble an episode of “Survivor,” you’re not alone.

More employers are sparking internal competitions by posting job openings online and encouraging interested employees to apply. The internal horse races that ensue open up new career opportunities for many, but also risk leaving angry, dispirited runners-up in their wake.

“It’s a really great thing” if these rivalries give employees fairer, faster access to new opportunities, says Minneapolis executive coach Kevin Cashman. “But they create a bit of a monster” if employers fail to provide career-planning help and support for those who lose out, says Mr. Cashman, global head of Korn Ferry’s CEO development practice.

It’s possible to emerge a winner from one of these bake-offs even if you don’t get the job. But it requires some careful career planning and social skill.

Pitting insiders against each other can give rise to destructive tension. Kristen J. Zavo and several hundred other consultants in her division at a previous employer vied annually for a handful of openings for new director positions. Politicking among candidates seeking to align themselves with the most powerful internal allies led to backbiting and undermined co-workers’ trust in each other, Ms. Zavo says.

The rivalry intensified the pressure consultants already felt to work 80-hour weeks. And those who lost out were left seething over the outcome, she says. She resigned after the stress began harming her health. Ms. Zavo is a Cincinnati career coach and author of “Job Joy,” a book about finding meaning and satisfaction in work.

The takeaway for her: Employees shouldn’t join such battles without first figuring out what they’ll do if they don’t get the job. They also should size up each opportunity based on how well it fits into their own long-term career and personal plans.

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Winner Takes All

Employers tapped current employees to fill 21% of all 2017 job openings, up from 11% the previous year, according to a survey of more than 700 employers by SilkRoad, a Chicago-based talent-management technology company.

Posting jobs internally attracts a larger pool of highly qualified applicants for hiring managers to choose from, compared with allowing managers to handpick candidates on their own, according to a 2017 study of 8,107 internal hires at a large health-insurance company.

It found that employees who win the job are 17% more likely to stay with the company for at least two additional years, and 28% more likely to be promoted within three years, compared with managers’ handpicked candidates. JR Keller, an assistant professor of human resources studies at Cornell University, conducted the study.

Many employers also hope internal postings will attract a more diverse applicant pool and help address concerns over racial, ethnic or gender bias.

But internal postings risk driving losers out the door. Also-rans in Dr. Keller’s study were 2½ times more likely than the average employee to quit the company in the ensuing six to 12 months, according to unpublished follow-up research.

As employers replace old career ladders and predictable promotion schedules with more flexible internal postings, career-planning responsibility is falling to employees. And many of them aren’t ready. “People just don’t know how to build careers within organizations,” Dr. Keller says. Without some career-planning help, “the only way to figure out what your opportunities are is to actually apply,” he says.

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