Despite benefits, many employers not offering job rotations: Survey

Successful program requires commitment, transparency, buy-in from leaders
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2016

Fidelity Investments Canada knows well the benefits — and challenges — of job rotations. The company offers three types of programs in Canada: one for co-operative students and summer students; another as secondment opportunities to cover contract opportunities and maternity leaves or sick leaves; and a third as a pipeline for the sales group.

“For the employee, it’s just a great way to be developed and be successful,” said Diana Godfrey, vice-president of HR services at Fidelity in Toronto. 

Despite the obvious benefits, job rotation programs are not promoted by more than one-half (53 per cent) of employers, according to a survey of more than 270 Canadian CFOs by Robert Half Management Resources.  

While conceptually it makes sense and people know it’s a good thing to do, it can be hard to get the prioritization and opportunity to do it meaningfully, said David King, Canadian president of Robert Half Management Resources in Toronto.

“We see similar themes with things like succession planning where companies recognize that having a robust, strong succession plan in place is a real benefit to the organization, however, very few companies would say they have a very strong program in place.”

And while employers often offer role rotation for new graduates — to provide insight into different departments, functions and career tracks — it doesn’t have to be exclusive to that cohort, he said. 

“You can have it for any level of the organization and, arguably, I believe it makes an individual a more dynamic leader, a more valuable senior manager if they’ve had a chance to see all the functional areas so they can not only understand their core discipline area but also how it interacts with other areas and functions with the organization. That typically gives somebody a more holistic appreciation of how the company would function.”

Job rotation can be a powerful tool for employers, according to Ron Leduc, managing director of Clearlogic Consulting Professionals in Timmins, Ont.

“There’s a real potential for creating efficiencies or creating teamwork or creating morale within the organization because they’ve been exposed to other functions, other people, other challenges, so now they ‘get it’ better.”

Job rotation allows an employer to try out “potential shining stars,” said Leduc, “with an agreement that it’s for a specific duration, under specific conditions, so it allows you to grow them, to minimize risk, to provide them opportunities, to really engage your workforce in some very future-thinking and very practical ways.”

Benefits

When it comes to the greatest benefits of role rotation, offering staff exposure to different business areas comes out on top, according to 29 per cent of the CFOs surveyed.

Sun Life Financial’s Rotational Leadership Development Program gives graduates the opportunity to rotate through three different roles over a three-year period, in Toronto, Montreal and Waterloo, Ont., according to Sandy Delamere, vice-president of HR. 

“By placing new graduates in a rotation program, we knew we would be able to accelerate their development and build the kind of leaders we need to fill key roles in the future,” she said. “We wanted to offer our participants a journey so they could explore different roles, business units and functions — all with the hope that they could eventually be in a role best-suited for them as an individual.”

The second greatest benefit (27 per cent) of role rotation is people “gain fresh perspectives on existing roles.” Employees often do the same tasks for an extended period of time so sometimes a different set of eyes can help, said King.

But it’s important that departments are open to that kind of input, said Leduc.

“There’s where perhaps that opportunity for friction may start. So I think there needs to be some coaching… on the job rotation individual but also some receptiveness to that department about those opportunities for improvement. And how those get routed.”

For several years, Fidelity has been encouraging employees and leaders to listen to new ideas, according to Nancy Lupi, vice-president of HR at Fidelity Investments Canada in Toronto.

“These things were done specifically to ensure that mostly managers understand that their job is to encourage and listen to new ideas. So I think for us, we’re in a good place that way.”

Enhancing recruitment and retention is the third greatest benefit of role rotation (18 per cent), according to the survey. 

“What used to be a more expected path of joining a company and staying a very, very long term in the same job for an extended period is not as appealing, and I think when people have fresh opportunities to consider, they will embrace those and get a chance to enrich their career opportunity with that organization,” said King.

However, a rotation program should be used wisely by an employer, according to Leduc.

“There should be a demonstrated history of development within the organization, whether it be self-study, whether it be formal courses, whether it be learning on the job. But job rotation is not the tool to turn an unhappy employee into a happy employee. It’s a tool for skills development.”

Accelerated professional development and strengthened succession planning tie for fourth (12 per cent each) as the greatest benefits of job rotation, found Robert Half.

“By having a healthy internal job rotation environment, in theory, you should always have potentially a candidate or two to consider an opportunity when it becomes available, and whether that’s somebody in the immediate succession line to the job that’s available or somebody in a different area of the organization but has had a job rotation through that function, maybe you’ve just increased your pool of potential internal candidates,” said King.

When the rotational program was launched, Sun Life Financial identified a gap in its future talent pipeline and realized it needed a way to identify and develop future leaders early on, said Delamere.

“Through this program, we hire a select group of graduates and develop them to become the future leaders of our business.”

Challenges, best practices

Despite the benefits of job rotation, there are also costs, uncertainties and risks, said Leduc. For example, there can be concerns about favouritism, a lack of understanding by leadership or greater injury rates because of employees moving into new areas, he said.

It can also be a strain for managers, said Lupi.

“It’s very challenging to do, it’s not easy to do, to make it work… Getting the buy-in from the managers — it’s a pain for them, having to train somebody every four months.”

At Fidelity, leaders have come to realize that the energy, enthusiasm and ideas of the rotating people outweigh the disadvantages, said Godfrey, “but it’s taken a while to demonstrate that.”

Support from managers is key, said King.

“Everybody is trying to get their primary function done and their primary duties and responsibilities so… for a line manager who has an employee in their group who is probably one of their better-performing employees who is aspiring to learn more about the balance of the organization through a job rotation opportunity, it’s hard to give that person up because they’re an integral part of your team, so… it has to be supported across all levels of the organization in order for it to be a real, meaningful program.”

The program also needs to be structured effectively so when it doesn’t work out, there’s a recall mechanism, said Leduc. That means paying attention to how employees are selected, what they need to exhibit, what their rates of pay will be and what happens if and when they go back to their previous position.

“They also need the opportunity to say, ‘This isn’t working for me.’ Whether it be the change in demands, which is impacting their family life; perhaps a lack of understanding of the position and the fact that it’s just not a good fit; the lack of career pathing or the misexpectation about the career pathing. So both parties need to be able to have that dialogue upfront and have that dialogue through the duration.”

Fidelity’s assessment is relatively transparent, said Godfrey.

“We make sure that the managers they’re working for are sharing that information with them and they understand if they have any deficiencies and what their strengths are, so they can actually share with us what their desired outcome would be as well.”

The rotation program allows a successful person to quickly move through the ranks based on meritocracy, results, productivity and performance — and it’s all measured, said Lupi. 

“The reporting is very transparent where they’re having successes and if they decide at some point through the process that that’s not really the job for them, that there’s something else in the organization that they’re better suited to, we look for those opportunities as well, so it does allow us to act as a feeder for other areas when the time arises.”

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