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The Hunger for Professional Development

A child at a laptop signifying professional development

Last summer, we discussed psychological safety in the workplace, addressing head on how workplace bullying can affect the mental health of employees, the responsibilities employers have in protecting their employees from such harassment, and the steps they can take to ensure their workplaces are psychologically safe for all. This blog has also discussed the concept of total compensation, which involves customizing a compensation package based on an organization’s corporate culture, and which typically includes a mix of cash, benefits, retirement plans, as well as other programs, such as onsite daycare to show family support and foster employee loyalty and discounted gym memberships to ensure employee health and productivity.

The common thread between all of these ideas is that employees require more than cold, hard cash to drive an organization to success; they need to feel appreciated and cared for by their employer. However, meeting those needs involves more than providing compensation, recognition, and rewards. Employees need to feel, not that their employers are doing them favours or simply abiding by the law, but that they see them as integral parts of the whole. That’s why true employee morale – and all the benefits that come with it for individual workers and the organization – stems from the very basic human desire to feel like they belong. Professional development, because it conveys gratitude and empowers employees to be their best, helps foster that sense of belonging. And although this blog has talked about the components of effective professional development efforts before, it’s time now to consider the time, energy, money, and decision-making that come with those efforts.

Why is professional development neglected?

While many organizations do a good job of presenting their employees with chances for professional development, many more still do not. Among the most common reasons are:

  • It’s too difficult to measure the return on investment (continue reading to find out why the return on investment is practically immeasurable, yet immense)
  • It detracts employees from their core duties, therefore lowering productivity and costing the organization money (once more, continue reading)
  • There’s very little time available to carry out the necessary activities required to ensure such a program is properly administered (check out our previous article for details).

What all of these reasons equate to, however, is an organization too mired in the present and not focused enough on long-term success – of which professional development is a definite cornerstone.

Professional development and employee wellbeing

The benefits of professional development that tend to come to mind include better employee morale, and therefore more loyalty, less turnover, higher productivity, and all the cost benefits associated with those outcomes. However, there are also what you might call psychological safety factors that come into play. For instance, while the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) identifies four reasons for mental unrest in the workplace (role overload, work-to-family interference, family-to-work interference, and caregiver strain), the World Health Organization, in its discussion of workplace stress and what constitutes a “healthy job”, takes some of the emphasis off of how one’s work and personal life can clash.

Instead, WHO states that “A healthy job is likely to be one where the pressures on employees are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources, to the amount of control they have over their work, and to the support they receive from people who matter to them.” This definition parallels CCOHS’s “role overload” category, but highlights the importance of support. In fact, WHO goes on to say that, while unrealistic workloads can cause stress, it “is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.” WHO’s point emphasizes the need for coworker support to maintain a psychologically safe workplace (also noting that “merely the absence of disease or infirmity” is not enough to make a healthy workplace), but they even go a step further, saying that stress-related hazards at work can include issues surrounding career development and under-promotion, underlining that “people go to great pain to gain acceptance and approval” and remarking that “being appreciated is one of the most important factors that increases motivation and satisfaction as well as health and well-being.”

What WHO’s findings reinforce is that organizations who foster opportunities for professional development not only significantly increase their employees’ morale, but that they meet a deep, universal human need that can mean the difference between having a psychologically safe workplace and not having one.

The cost efficiency of professional development

In addition to the psychological safety factors above, fostering employees’ professional development has some serious statistical advantages for many businesses, particularly when it comes to promoting from within. According to a 2011 study by Matthew Bidwell, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, external hires were paid 18% to 20% more than their internal counterparts for the same jobs, but that they were also 61% more likely to be fired or laid off, and 21% more likely to quit. Furthermore, the costs associated with onboarding and training an external hire only take more money away from the bottom line. The fact is that, unless an organization needs to make a profound change in direction or truly cannot find the talent it needs within its own ranks to fulfill a dire hiring need, there is little reason to seek outside help.

How to spot employees for professional development

It isn’t only an organization’s HR department that is responsible for scouting talent, especially since only the managers within specific departments know which of their subordinates would make the best leaders of tomorrow. Still, just because someone excels in their current role doesn’t mean they’ll excel in another, even if it is just another step up. When hiring from within, be sure to ask the following questions about potential candidates:

  • Are they open to learning new things, and can they learn quickly?
  • Do they take constructive criticism well?
  • Are they well-respected and able to build positive relationships?
  • What motivates them? Do they genuinely want to better themselves and make a difference in the organization, or do they just want more money and power?

Keen observation, discreet discussions with coworkers to gauge their perceptions, and effective performance evaluations will help answer these questions and pinpoint the most promising aspirants.

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