Career Ladders vs. Career Lattices - Tools for Employee Development


How are career ladders and lattices different? How are they the same? Which method is best for your organization's talent management strategy?

Although they’re both tools that organizations use to guide employees on a path of career progression, they differ in many ways!

In this article, I will review how they’re different, what they have in common and which one might be the best choice for your organizational needs.

The difference between career ladders and lattices.

You may have no idea what the difference between a career ladder and lattice is, because they pretty much sound like the same thing.

Or maybe you’re somewhat clued in thanks to the appropriate climbing object analogies they’ve earned. That’s right folks, ladders are simply a vertical rung of steps moving you upward, and lattices have rungs in horizontal and vertical directions! BINGO!

Let’s start with a basic definition of each:

Career Ladder: A formal plan which shows the specific sequence of job positions a person should progress through in order to reach a more senior position with more responsibility and higher pay.

Career Lattice: A flexible plan which supports employee development, upskilling and recognition in multiple directions and areas.

Alas, they do have some important things in common.

Career ladders and lattices both show that an organization is committed to the development needs of its employees. Making sure a healthy culture exists is also crucial. You can read more about that in our blog on corporate culture. Employees are more engaged when they believe that their employer is proactive about their growth and provides paths to reach individual career goals while also supporting the company's mission.

A career development path, whether ladder or lattice, provides employees with an ongoing mechanism to enhance their skills and knowledge that can lead to upskilling, promotions and transfers to other positions. Implementing career paths can also impact the organization as a whole by improving productivity, morale, and career satisfaction.

And now we’ve reached the point where the similarities end. Let me give some background…

Ladders are going away.

Around the beginning of the industrial revolution, the concept of career ladders was born. Businesses began believing that by focusing on increasing the knowledge and skillsets of employees, there was a higher chance of increased organizational success. Sadly, the ladders showed a strictly upward promotional path which focused solely on additional responsibility and higher pay for employees.

Needless to say, those old ladders supported a very hierarchical organizational structure. One which was based on the rigid idea that hard work was the only way to improve the bottom line. You start here, and you end up here; but only if you work extra hard and do exactly what we say. This also assumes that each employee’s goals and needs were the same and could be achieved with the same strict and structured path.

Traditional views often suggested that high-performance expectations could lead to employee burnout and a lack of work-life balance. However, more recent research and organizational practices are exploring ways to integrate high performance and work-life balance. Career lattices, which emphasize lateral movement and skill development, can contribute to a better work-life balance. They provide employees with the opportunity to explore different roles without the pressure of always moving upward on a traditional career ladder.

Career lattices are pretty cool. Here’s why.

They’re really part of the modernization of traditional career paths. And they follow the flattening of organizations that we see happening a lot today. That’s because they allow ideas, skill development, and recognition to flow in different directions. They allow information to flow where it needs to.

Career lattices are helping break outdated perceptions of what it takes to maintain a high performing organization. The point is that employees are encouraged to pursue interesting roles, projects and assignments that are a good fit for both the employee and the organization. Whether this involves a lateral, upward or even downward move.

The Career lattice method is proactive and gives employees a voice and choice about their future. Here are some other benefits:

  • customizes work structures
  • fosters participation
  • increases engagement
  • improves productivity
  • reduces turnover

The COMBO Method

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the question of guiding your people into a career that will make them happy and your organization perform. So, I advocate for the combo method. Take a look at how EDSI uses it, here.

For some organizations, well-defined career ladders can still work well. Using simple visuals to communicate a specific upward progression to a senior position just makes sense (think medical, research, technical and manufacturing based jobs).

Career Mapping: another useful tool (regardless of ladder or lattice)

Career mapping is a useful tool that managers and HR professionals can use during career planning discussions with employees. Career maps help employees think strategically about where they want to go in the company and how they can meet their career goals within the organization, instead of potentially seeking out another company to move ahead.

Here are the 3 steps of career mapping:

1) Self-assessment

Employee, together with their manager, explores his or her skills, knowledge and abilities, including past experience, accomplishments and interests.

2) Individualized career map

To identify other positions within the organization that meet the employee's interests, employees can create an individualized career map. The position may be a promotion or perhaps a lateral move. In both cases, the position should focus on the employee's past experiences, interests and motivation, while simultaneously planning for the employee to develop a certain degree of new knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to give him or her new goals and heightened engagement. Be sure to read our blog on Job Task Analysis (JTA) to help you navigate this part!

3) Exploring more opportunities.

The last step in career mapping is to look for other job opportunities within the organization, then gathering information and meeting with HR or other team member to learn more and assess potential fit.

For managers and employees to successfully practice career mapping, HR should be the driver helping to steer and facilitate the process so that an employee’s role can continue to evolve.

The important thing to remember is that these are just options. And here is the final word: What you should really aim for is career customization, which is achieved through continuous collaboration with your employees. You can do this by consistently communicating the options, support and commitment that you have for your employees’ professional interests and goals.

If you’re intrigued about the concept of customizing your employee’s careers and want to take your learning to the next level, check out our blog post Why Your Company Should Invest in Career Sculpting.

Contact us if you'd like to learn more. We love to help. :)