What To Know About Career Pathing and Career Ladders

As your company grows, so do your employees’ goals. Many want to know that there is a future in your company and what it might look like. 

Utilizing career pathing and career ladders are good ways to reduce employee churn and improve the recruitment process. It also makes tasks the HR department leads easier by putting a foundation in place. These are two ideal processes that take two approaches to the same goal—retaining employees and giving them a clear roadmap for advancement.    

The main difference is while HR and other departments are integral in both setups, career pathing is more employee-led while career ladders are more company-driven. 

Career Pathing

Career pathing is a structured, comprehensive development planning process intended to help employees visualize their career potential within a company. This option is intended for organizations with formal processes like performance development planning. You might have heard it called performance appraisals, though those sometimes are not as detailed. 

Career pathing, again, can increase employee engagement, productivity, and efficiency like many other processes you’re likely considering. It is great for HR departments because it can enhance employees’ skills and knowledge that can lead to mastery of their current jobs, promotions, and transfers.

It also can be implemented in four steps. 

  1. Identify the company’s career progression needs. Just because an employee would like to advance doesn’t mean that it makes sense for the company (or for them in the long run). Work with leadership to identify business goals and outline where and how what an individual employee wants fits into that outline. 
  2. Build a foundational framework. First, ensure you have an up-to-date listing of job role profiles that includes competencies, education, experiences, credentials, and qualifications. From there, take the organizational goals and put them into plain terms to turn them into tangible actions employees can take. 
  3. Set employees up for successful career pathing. We have talked many times about creating a space where open communication is welcomed. Here is another example. Looking at an employee’s profile together and comparing it to other roles can help them develop their paths in ways that are meaningful to them.
  4. Communication, development, and assessment. That open communication scenario appears here as well. Communicating employee expectations and implementation methods is vital. Employees and managers will require training to understand how career pathing will change the way job performance and career options are managed. Employers should also create assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs and whether improvements are needed

Using career pathing is a good tool for onboarding and retention. But HR needs to do its due diligence first. Just because someone in a department says there is a need for a position might not align with overall company goals. Making sure that there are real career opportunities available is key, as is making sure that a career path is visible to and understandable for employees. 

Finally, follow up on what you say you will do. Create a system to make these paths accessible and act on the advancements. 

Career Ladder

A career ladder is an organizational process that outlines an employee’s potential job progression. As an employee demonstrates abilities and competencies, they move up the ladder, taking on more responsibilities. 

Some companies use a career ladder as eligibility criteria for promotions and raises. Other companies use a career ladder to show career paths from the employer’s point of view. 

The best reason to use career ladders is for retention. Employees understand what needs to be done, when, how, and why in order to advance. Some employees might take this information and realize they are comfortable with their current role, which opens the door for other conversations and retention efforts. 

There are three types of career ladders: 

  • Predefined: Defines a clear set of requirements that an employee must meet to advance to a higher position.
  • In-range: Can be adopted when an organization lacks established job classifications..
  • Individualized: Allows you to promote employees to positions in separate job classifications. 

As an HR professional, your role is to find the right ladder that works for your company (or maybe even individual departments). One of the first steps is to determine the main objectives and primary responsibilities of job families. 

From there you can create and get leadership approval on a hierarchical structure of positions and then detail the responsibilities of each (with department input…you don’t have to do this alone!). The final step is to create an evaluation rubric to measure employee performance in different positions.

Along the way, don’t forget to survey employees to better understand their career goals and desires.


Using a combination of career pathing and career ladders might work for your business, especially if this is the first time you’re taking a harder look at employee roles and employee wants. You can be successful at this implementation by working with other department leaders for input, review, and assistance. You also can use this new HR Toolkit — Career Pathing to get yourself started.