Table of contents
  1. Vertical and Horizontal Career Paths
  2. Helping Employees Plan Their Careers
  3. How to Support Employees’ Career Paths
  4. Conclusion

A career path is made up of the major milestones in a person’s working life.

There is no right or wrong career path and everyone will have unique journeys. A person’s career path will also often depend on the opportunities available to them and their personal and family commitments.

In previous generations, many employees remained within the same organization for most of their working lives. However, this is no longer true. Figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that men hold an average 12.6 jobs between the ages of 18 and 54, while the average for women is 12.3.

For purposes of achieving goals and success, career paths can also be used as tools for people to map out their projected career growth and create strategies that could benefit them in achieving their goals.

Remember, it is never too late to draw up a career plan. Whatever stage a person has reached, mapping out a potential career path could be a helpful way to identify their goals.

It is also important to remember that a person’s career plan may change throughout their life. For many people, the position that was a dream job at the age of 16 probably doesn’t reflect their goals at the age of 50.

Vertical and Horizontal Career Paths

Although the term “career path” suggests that an employee’s professional life will follow a logical progression through an industry, this is frequently not the case. Many people work in several different fields before finding the right vocation for them.

Broadly speaking, however, career paths can be grouped into two patterns.

Vertical career moves

Vertical career moves typically involve an employee gaining greater levels of responsibility with every step in their career. Each job tends to provide the employee with the skills and experience they need to move up the ladder.

However, a vertical career move can take the opposite direction if a person steps down to a position of decreased responsibility. An employee may decide to make this move to meet family or personal commitments.

Take the example of an employee in a restaurant. A vertical career path may involve the following moves.

Host → Server → Supervisor → Assistant manager → Manager → Area Manager

Horizontal career moves

Horizontal career moves typically involve an employee making lateral, or sideways, steps in their careers to positions with about the same amount of responsibility. They may, for example, take a role with a different company or in another industry. A person may make a horizontal move to broaden their skills or gain greater variety in their working life.

Let’s again take the example of an employee in a restaurant. A horizontal career path may involve working as a server and developing an interest in nutrition. This individual may then follow a horizontal career path, mostly involving moves to positions of similar responsibility, but in a variety of fields. Consider the following examples.

Server → Student of nutrition → Dietician → Owner of a wellness business

Server → Assistant in a health food store → Manager of a health food store → Part-time server in retirement

Server → Assistant manager in a restaurant→ Student teacher → Cooking teacher→ Full-time parent

A combination of horizontal and vertical moves

Most people encounter a range of challenges and opportunities in their careers and personal lives. As a result, many employees’ careers will include both vertical and horizontal moves. 

Whether a person is focusing on progressing their career vertically or gaining more varied experience with horizontal moves could depend on the stage they have reached in their personal lives. For instance, a person may be more likely to make a vertical career move if they are caring for an elderly parent.

Helping Employees Plan Their Careers

As a business leader or HR professional, there are many ways in which you can help your employees progress in their career paths. 

In a smaller organization, you could be responsible for having one-to-one personal development conversations with your employees. In a larger company, however, you may need to delegate this responsibility to individual line managers. In the latter case, it is important that you offer training to managers who are helping their reportees develop a career development plan.

Depending on your organization’s size and budget, you could also consider running workshops and training sessions on professional development. These can focus on the wider challenges and opportunities people face when plotting their careers.

Why help employees plan their careers?

Guiding employees on their career paths will, of course, lead to increased financial rewards and higher career satisfaction for your staff. However, it can also bring numerous rewards for your business as well.

For instance, an employee who believes that management and company leaders are invested in their future is less likely to look for a role with another business. High levels of job retention will ultimately lead to lower recruitment and training costs for your organization.

Likewise, an employee who sees themselves as progressing within your business may experience an increase in productivity and engagement. In this scenario, your employee may believe that they also stand to benefit as a result of your organization’s success.

In the section below, we’ll discuss tips on how you can help your employees draw up a plan for their professional development.

How to Support Employees’ Career Paths

Set goals.

Setting realistic targets is key to career planning. Once you have discussed career progression with your employees, identify the practical steps needed to achieve their career goals. You might, for instance, suggest training courses or qualifications that could be valuable when applying for a promotion. 

Alternatively, you might want to examine softer skills and small day-to-day goals that could help an employee move forward. For instance, you could suggest a normally shy employee make a contribution in the next team meeting. This individual can then progress to the ultimate goal of giving a presentation in front of their employees.

Consider their personality and values.

Many people focus on their past experience and education when planning a career path. However, there are other factors that you, and your employees, should consider.

Most importantly, you should look at an employee’s soft skills. If, for instance, they are a “people person,” they may be suited to a customer-facing role. Alternatively, a person who regularly volunteers for good causes could be a candidate for a role within a charitable organization.

Communicate opportunities in your business.

If you would like your employees to progress within your company, it is important that they understand the opportunities to do so. Having clear opportunities for advancement can boost employee satisfaction and may help you retain top talent. 

One way of making sure employees know about the opportunities at hand is by having regular one-to-one meetings with your employees. During these meetings, you should discuss their progress and identify actions they need to take to move forward. 

To help your employees feel motivated, it is a good idea to remind them that you would like them to succeed and hope they remain within your business.

Making sure that all new internal job vacancies are clearly advertised is also key to helping employees take the next steps in your business. 

Make use of career path ratios.

A career path ratio is a way of calculating your employees’ progress on their projected career path. It involves looking at the number of internal promotions they’ve received in your company versus the number of lateral moves.

It is based on this simple formula: 

Total promotions / sum of all role changes + total transfers

The number you arrive at should be one or less. Most HR experts consider a figure above 0.7 to indicate a high level of opportunity and frequent promotions. If, however, the number is lower than 0.2, this suggests there has been little opportunity for employee advancement.

Career path ratios can be useful to have a clear measurement of employees’ progress. They can help you check to see whether your employees have the degree of opportunity in your company that you’d like to see. This information can also then help identify any employees who may need additional encouragement to progress.

Encourage networking within your business.

By encouraging communication between different departments in your organization, you can help your employees grow their internal networks. As a result, your employees may discover new professional interests, which could lead to fruitful sideways moves in their careers.

Having rich internal networks can also introduce employees to colleagues who could become allies or mentors in the future.

Create mentoring programs.

Any employees who have slowed in their career development could benefit from taking part in a mentoring program. This normally involves arranging regular one-to-one meetings between a mentor and an employee. Often, although not always, a mentor will be a more senior person who has already achieved many of the employee’s professional goals.

To get the most value out of this type of program, make sure that you provide your mentors with enough time and resources to fulfill their role. This way, both parties can get the most out of the relationship.

Encourage upskilling.

Upskilling involves providing your employees with the opportunity to learn new skills or develop existing ones.

In-house training is one of the most effective ways of allowing employees to upskill. However, you could also consider providing funding for your employees to take other forms of training outside of your business. Before you commit any training initiatives, you should, of course, ensure that your business can afford to do so, and that what employees are learning will actually benefit your business.

Upskilling can also help ensure that your employees have the necessary skills to help your business keep up with your competitors.


Despite what the term may suggest, a career path is not necessarily straightforward. It can involve both successes and failures as people progress towards their goals. However, there are many ways that you can help your employees move forward in their careers. Remember, your employees’ professional success is both good for themselves and your business.