How to Invest in Career Development to Boost Employee Engagement

Did you know that while 98% of employers have career development programs in place, almost 80% of their workers feel they are “on their own” to navigate their career development?

It’s no surprise then that employee productivity is down. This is a situation that is all too common. HR leaders must recognize something needs to be done to boost engagement.

Graph of productivity levels from 2015 to 2023 across Canada, the United Kingdom, the Euro Zone and the United States.


In many organizations, issues with morale or productivity are generally tabled until the annual employee engagement survey. But by the time results are gathered, processed, and distributed, six months or more may have passed and no real action has taken place. Occasionally, someone will pull together a task force or a tiger team, but it is very rare for real change to result. Meanwhile, the situation continues to deteriorate and employees feel even more disengaged due to a lack of tangible action.

As an HR leader facing climbing rates of employee disengagement, you’re not alone. It’s an issue that all organizations are facing. Actual career development is a major gap at most companies. At the same time, it can be an opportunity for genuine growth and a way for your company to break the mold.

So how can talent leaders break out of this cycle? Here’s how to invest in career development to boost employee engagement that actually works.

3 Steps to Invest in Career Development and Employee Engagement

Employee disengagement can have a substantial financial impact on companies. McKinsey estimates that large organizations can lose up to $255 million a year due to disengagement. Over five years, this could amount to more than $1 billion per company. 

The complexity of the issue calls for a multifaceted approach that addresses the root causes and aligns with employees’ evolving needs and expectations. Investing in career development is a pivotal strategy to boost employee engagement. 

There are five drivers of employee engagement. Does your employee development program speak to them all?

Five drivers of employee engagement: Purpose, development, a caring manager, ongoing conversations, a focus on strengths.

Via Gallup

As you analyze your talent, consider the gaps in what employees seek versus what organizations offer. That will not only help in solving an age-old problem, but will build a more resilient and productive workforce. Remember, communication continues to be the root of many issues at workplaces. Committing to career development and employee engagement is a bold show of faith to your employees.

Simplicity is key to keeping talent. Here are three actionable steps you can take to push career development forward and increase employee engagement. 

1. Move on From the Measurement Phase

Measurement is important—it can provide a solid basis for understanding and addressing issues. However, structured surveys aren’t the only way to get a pulse on what is happening in the organization. In fact, they can be a form of procrastination—many HR leaders sit around and wait for survey results to confirm what they already know. Yes, data is valuable, but in this case, you probably already know what the results are going to be!

Look at how your organization has handled issues in the past. Do you prioritize ongoing career development conversations or have you only done surveys in the past? Utilizing the data and insights from prior years means you can make predictions and take action. If little has been done to address the areas for concern from the last survey, there’s no reason to think the situation will have meaningfully changed.  

This allows you to move forward and demonstrate to employees that you’re actively trying to solve the problem, not just asking them to fill out another survey for what feels like the millionth time.

2. Set a Reasonable Goal

There’s often a significant gap between what employees value for career advancement and what employers perceive as important. Are you sure that you and your employees are on the same page regarding goals? A mismatch in desires can derail efforts to boost employee engagement.

Transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It requires patience and persistence. Unrealistic expectations mean disappointment and discouragement. But setting realistic goals provides direction, focus, and motivation. Consider your organization’s capabilities, resources, timeframe, and level of motivation. 

To help with this, look at what your competition has done for their development programs or employee stipend ideas. Use this as a reference to break your engagement goals down into smaller, manageable steps. 

These attainable milestones keep your talent motivated while also showing leadership that strategic employee development practices have results. You have the opportunity to celebrate small victories. Those victories add fuel to the fire and help you answer the common question, “Why is employee development important?

However, remember to balance high feasibility with impact. Success can’t take three years. To jumpstart, consider bringing in keynote speakers or doing virtual development programs. Show your employees that you’re providing resources to move the needle.

3. Focus on Show vs. Tell

Despite the fact that many employers recognize the burnout issues brought on by COVID-19, employee unhappiness has continued to worsen. This indicates that the disengagement issue is deep-rooted and not easily resolved by short-term measures. 

Employees want to know their time isn’t being wasted. Just filling out surveys is mind-numbing. Without action, they’re a waste of time. 

To avoid this, stay away from generic messaging after surveys. Demonstrate what you’re actually doing to create actual employee development plans.

Employees want to know you are taking action now. Bring them in on the process. Be transparent. Celebrate wins and then fight the war of low engagement scores. 

If you give employees something to grab onto related to their career development, employee engagement rates will likely rise. You don’t need perfect execution to get credit.

Ask yourself: “What can I provide in a tangible way that my talent will recognize?” This could include implementing visible changes, sharing progress updates, or involving leadership in development initiatives. Doing so builds trust within the organization. That’s crucial for long-term employee engagement and retention.

Download the free eBook: Five Real Ways to Create Employee Development for Everyone

To Invest Correctly, Remember to Act Instead of Just Measuring

Career development and employee engagement are tricky challenges for organizations. But it’s solvable. Like so many issues within a company, it comes down to understanding the problem from top to bottom and then actually acting on it. 

As an HR leader, remember that you already have a deep understanding of your company culture. You likely already know how to develop high potential employees! Show your team you’re ready to move boldly into the future and take their feedback seriously. 

If you do, they’ll be ready to run with you for the long haul. 

Want expert help with your employee coaching and development initiatives? PILOT offers budget-friendly tools for you to take action now.

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