Why internal mobility efforts often fail—and how HR can do better

Despite increasing the time and money spent on internal mobility to improve employee retention, attraction and engagement in today’s market, some employers may not be seeing much return on their efforts. And, according to experts, managers could be a big part of the problem.

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According to a survey of more than 300 talent acquisition and HR vice presidents, recruiters and IT professionals by Aptitude Research, 29% say managers make it difficult for internal candidates to apply for a position within their organization. That’s even though 70% of employers say they have increased their investment in internal mobility.

“I haven’t seen too many organizations do mobility well,” Haig Nalbantian, co-founder and co-leader of the Workforce Sciences Institute, tells HRE.

Haig Nalbantian, Workforce Sciences Institute
Haig Nalbantian

Getting internal mobility right can be critical for an organization.

A 2023 study by Cornerstone People Research Lab and Lighthouse Research & Advisory, for instance, found that nearly three-quarters of global workers want to know about career opportunities within their organization and nearly half are more satisfied with work if they can explore internal opportunities. What’s more, employees who don’t have this visibility into internal mobility are 61% more likely to quit.

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See also: Why talent mobility must be at the heart of your 2023 people strategies

Internal mobility failures and fixes

Across the internal mobility landscape are development and training programs, technology to match candidates with internal jobs, and mentoring efforts. But a number of issues, involving both managers and executives, can derail these strategies. However, experts say, HR can pursue actionable fixes to address these failures.

Talent hoarding spurred by wrong incentives

Problem: One major reason internal mobility efforts fail is that managers want to keep their best talent, largely because they are rewarded based on how their units perform, says Nalbantian, author of a Harvard Business Review article titled Making Mobility Matter. As a result, these managers are likely to dissuade employees from participating in development and training that could lead to a promotion or lateral move, he adds. “This directly impedes the ability of the internal labor market to secure the best matches,” says Nalbantian.

Solution: HR needs to press for major changes in the design and implementation of variable pay programs, he says. Consider incentive systems based on organizational performance versus team or unit performance, Nalbantian advises. He also suggests taking a central governance approach to internal mobility programs. For example, larger organizations may want to appoint an internal mobility leader who can facilitate matching the right people to the right jobs and arrange relevant training, he says.

Another solution calls on senior executives to educate middle managers about the medium- and long-term costs of stifling employees’ internal mobility—specifically, it can hurt retention, says Paul Green, an assistant management professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business. HR leaders can work with senior executives to share information on these unseen costs related to recruiting, retention and employee engagement, Green adds. 

Paul Green, University of Texas at Austin
Paul Green

Efforts should also be made to clearly show how releasing a talented employee to work elsewhere in the organization can benefit both the employee’s former and current groups, he says.  

Confusion about lateral moves

Problem: Many executives and managers don’t understand what their employees want in terms of career development and think their desire for internal mobility is all about climbing the ladder, Green says. As a result, they may not direct employees to consider a lateral move, he notes.

Solution: With HR’s help, many large organizations are now building career paths that allow employees to remain individual contributors for the duration of their careers but still expand and shift their roles. This individual growth creates value for the organization, he says. ”When this becomes a norm in an organization, managers begin to think more expansively about what opportunities exist for internal expansion,” says Green.

Infusing internal mobility into the culture

Problem: One common mistake employers make is implementing a career management system as a one-off and leaving workers alone to take the reins, create skills profiles and look for internal jobs, says Josh Bersin, co-founder and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company. The trouble is, nobody uses that type of system. “They don’t touch it because it wasn’t part of the culture of the company,” Bersin says. “It just feels like an afterthought.”

Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin

Solution: To infuse internal mobility into the culture, HR needs to rally management into supporting it and go beyond simply standing up an internal careers system, he says. “You’ve got to get employees to understand what’s in it for them. You’ve got to get managers to understand what’s in it for them,” he says. “And you have to get executives to understand what’s in it for them.” 


By exploring these solutions, HR leaders can be better positioned to capture a return on their organization’s increased investment in internal mobility. 

“Mobility done right can be a boon to organizations,” Nalbantian says. “We often find that employees respond more to what I call ‘career rewards’—the tangible and intangible value that accrues to employees over time—than to the here and now of pay and benefits. Strengthening motivation can lead to higher productivity and business performance.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.