Definition of Career Plateaus

HR Glossary: What is the Complete Definition of Career Plateaus?

A career plateau defines a period when you or your employee’s career path feels blocked. In other words, there is little chance for career progression or climbing the career ladder. Career plateauing occurs when there are no professional development programs or promotions.

Also see: Quiet Quitting

Key symptoms of a career plateau include:

  • Feeling “stuck”
  • Lower levels of job satisfaction
  • Being unable to pinpoint your next career stage
  • Low engagement or productivity
  • Job burnout

It may be time for an engagement survey if you notice a high turnover rate in specific roles. This can help you pinpoint if you need a development training program.

Why is the career plateau important to a small business?

Employees leave when they feel they have little chance to advance within their company. Small business owners and HR professionals who effectively manage career plateaus can:

  • Reduce turnover intention
  • Boost the bottom line
  • Promote a healthier workforce

Workers want to be seen as partners in the workplace. At the same time, employers and human resource management teams are finding it more challenging to maintain a productive workforce. Due to the pandemic and its aftermath, 81% of the workforce is at risk of job burnout.

Workforce struggles

More than half of executives are struggling with:

  • Hiring the right talent
  • High employee absenteeism
  • Remote work fatigue
  • Loss of talent

Both employer and employee can meet these challenges through the professional plateau. Drafting a clear and concise path for career development builds employee loyalty. At the same time, using this approach in your organization can:

  • Decrease the likelihood of burnout
  • Keep top talent
  • Improve productivity

It’s a win-win.

What is the history of career plateauing?

The term “career plateau” was first coined in a 1977 paper, “Managing the Career Plateau,” by Thomas P. Ference, James A. Stoner, and E. Kirby Warren. This study found that while career plateaus were inevitable, they could be managed.

According to the original paper, there is nothing negative about this career stage—it’s perfectly natural. Since each step in the career ladder has fewer positions, it only makes sense that there would be fewer positions for career advancement as people go higher on the ladder.

The paper categorized workers into four categories:

  • Stars or an individual performing outstanding work and likely to be promoted
  • Learners are employees who are still integrating into the organization or need to undergo training
  • Solid citizens or people who perform well but have little chance for career advancement.
  • Deadwoods or workers who have regular low performance

Out of these four potential categories, the “solid citizens” are said to be the largest group and the most likely to hit a plateau.

  • Stars rapidly advance their careers.
  • Learners are challenged.
  • Deadwoods don’t care.

Definition variations

Furthermore, the paper stipulated that there were two types of plateaus:

  1. Career plateau, in which there are no positions for career advancement.
  2. Personal plateau happens when the organization does not recognize an individual’s ability or desire for a higher-level position.

However, this is far from the only study on career plateauing and organizational behavior. Some other theories define career plateaus as:

  • A state in which your current job doesn’t align with your age and experience
  • The time expected before your next promotion
  • A plateau can be a subjective experience. An organization can feel that an employee is stuck. But that employee may believe they are still growing.

Over time, the single career plateau has also split into two different types:

  • The hierarchical plateau. This term refers to the traditional definition of career plateauing—there aren’t enough roles for a promotion.
  • The content plateau. Here, the focus is more on the lack of new challenges or experiences within a given role. For example, you could be on the senior management team or the board of directors and still feel dissatisfied with your job. This is due to the feeling that you have nothing more to learn from the job, despite achieving career success.

So, what does this translate into practical management?

Managing the Career Plateau

HR professionals help employees with career progression through a professional development program. To successfully manage the career plateau, you need to:

  • Identify high-value employees – First, you want to acknowledge that some employees are just there for the paycheck. They don’t care about their role, and that’s okay. They are a small fraction of the workforce. Most people want to progress professionally and personally but feel limited. Usually, a high-value employee gives satisfactory to outstanding job performance. They also have a positive attitude about their work or organization. You want to ensure that these individuals are aware of the organization’s professional development training programs.
  • Tap into their career goals – Once you’ve located potential candidates for your training program, you need to sit down with them. At this point, you want to let them know about the purpose of the professional development program and ask about their career aspirations. This can happen during a performance review, or you can set another appointment time to introduce your program.
  • Design a custom professional development map – Next, you’ll want to help your employee to design a professional development plan. This can involve figuring out how to become eligible for a promotion and upskilling opportunities.
  • Follow-up regularly – Don’t forget to catch up monthly or quarterly with your employee. This can be a 5-15 minute chat to ask if they need anything or have any questions about their current development training.

Developing a partnership with your staff demonstrates that you value them and is another factor in employee retention.

There are a few other terms related to professional and career development:

  • Career pathing – This is the practice of identifying employee career goals, integrating their career stages with organizational needs, and assisting them in achieving their desired career.
  • Cross-training – As part of the content plateau, training employees in skills outside of their immediate position can be helpful. This is called cross-training.
  • Employee experience – This term defines the entire employee journey in your organization. A positive employee experience encourages engagement and improves brand reputation.
  • Job burnout – Burnout occurs when employees are too fatigued to be productive in their professional or personal commitments. Burnout can happen when employees are overworked or have little chance of promotion or growth in their position.
  • People Operations – A People Operations professional is focused on ensuring employees have a positive experience within an organization.
  • Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) – A PIP is a document to help employees improve their job performance.
  • Succession planning – This process involves identifying business-critical positions and ensuring top talent can fill these roles when needed.
  • Training and Development (T&D) – A professional development program. T&D initiatives are meant to help employees improve their skill set for their current job or desired role and increase productivity.
  • Turnover – This term is used to scribe the number of workers who leave an organization over a specific period and are replaced.

The professional plateau can also be an opportunity to retain top talent and strengthen your organization’s capabilities.

The career plateau in a nutshell

In short, the career plateau is one way to describe an employee’s stalled career goals. The consequences of a career plateau can be challenging for the individual, as well as for the organization. However, the professional plateau can also be an opportunity to retain top talent and strengthen your organization’s capabilities.

By providing career advancement and training opportunities, companies can save on turnover costs, capture a competitive edge with their skilled workforce, and inspire employee productivity.

To learn more about People Operations and how this role can support your human resource team in boosting productivity, check out our guide on creating a people-first culture.