The Employee Development Dollar Debate

By Kris Dunn

Mar. 23, 2015

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Let's face it; any time we talk about employee development, we talk in glittering generalities.

The thought process goes something like this: “Everyone needs to be developed. We’re going to invest in you and make you better.”

But you and I both know that not everyone wants to be a star. There are a lot of people in your company that just want to do their job, keep cashing checks and clock in/clock out. They’d rather not be part of your expansive plan to move everyone two levels up in the organization.

They’d like to define themselves as “well placed.” Of course, when you come around and ask them what they want to be in five years, they’re not going to say, “Exactly what I am now, boss.” There is, after all, risk in the American workplace in not having ambition.

Yet ambition is exactly what a large percentage of your employees don’t have. And that should be OK. What if you had opt-in employee development plans? What if your employees had the right to say “leave me alone” when it comes to professional development?

If you gave employees the ability to opt out of professional development, many would take you up on the offer, and they’d be happier and more content as a result. They find the whole “What do you want to be?” conversation exhausting.

But how can you break through all the posturing related to employee development to truly understand which employees just want to be left alone?

If you’re looking to identify which employees really want development, give them something to work on skillwise to help them reach the 'great' level in an area of their performance.

Your first option is to build enough trust where you could ask the question and get honest answers. But that’s probably not going to happen at most companies.

Option two is more pragmatic. You’ve got to make your employee development plans contingent upon the employees actually guiding themselves.

Here’s how it works: You give workers access to employee development in their first two years in your company and let them tell you the truth with their actions. No action across time is the equivalent of the “leave me alone” opt-out related to employee development.

Getting started with this type of employee development program is easy. First, assume every employee entering your company could be a star or part of the great class of disgruntled employees that’s dragging many companies down, one crappy interaction at a time.

Next, you’ll want to link employee development to what’s going on at your company from a performance management perspective. Having a goal-setting process or definition of what good vs. great performance looks like in each job is critical.

To make employee development truly “opt-in” in nature, you’ll want to reserve employee development funding for employees who show true discretionary effort to do more than is required in their job.

The best way to systematically identify discretionary effort is to structure your performance management across routine meets/exceeds or good/great categories.

You probably think you hired well enough that your employees should be able to meet performance expectations without much investment beyond new hire training. That’s why you tie employee development to effort surrounding exceeding expectations in an area of a job.

If you’re looking to identify which employees really want development, give them something to work on skill-wise to help them reach the “great” level in an area of their performance. That helps you, but also helps them be more marketable long term.

But here’s the key:  To unlock the development dollars you’re willing to spend on the employee, they have to take the first step.

Once they cross a threshold of documenting that effort, you unlock employee development dollars for the individual employee to pursue external training, education andresources toward becoming even better in the area in question. 

Most of you already hate this. That’s because we’re classically trained as HR pros to believe we have to treat people equally in all areas. But tying employee development dollars to discretionary effort gives all your employees something that all stars had at one time — opportunity. They either run with it or they don’t.

I understand you can’t engage people and encourage them to say, “leave me alone” when it comes to employee development. But you can make people do some of the work. If they choose not to, you can quietly restrict your effort (and their access) related to employee development.

Odds are they wouldn’t even notice. They’ll tell you “leave me alone” based on their actions if you set your program up in the right way.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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