Mid-career employees can sometimes feel directionless and ignored. How can HR reignite their passion before it’s too late?
In August last year, Nikki Paton, sustainability manager at Salta Properties, opened an email that resonated with exactly how she was feeling about her career.
It recommended a course for employees who felt they had ‘hit a career roadblock and feel almost invisible when it comes to job hires, promotions and skills recognition.’
“I was at a point where I felt like I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’. It wasn’t necessarily that I wasn’t being offered an opportunity, it was more of a roadblock for me in that I didn’t know what opportunities I wanted to go for,” says Paton.
The email was about a course run by Karen Eck, directed at mid-career employees – those who’ve been in the workforce for a long period of time, but perhaps haven’t gone into senior/management positions.
“At first, I started the course to cater for those in the screen industry, teaching them branding fundamentals so they can create more opportunities for themselves, but when I looked at the course, I realised these were skills that could benefit all industries,” says Eck.
Why ‘mid-career’ employees?
When organisations think of development there are two main groups that pull the focus – graduates and senior level employees. However, by ignoring those who sit between these segments, employers could find themselves with a large group of disengaged employees.
“Mid-career professionals are skilled and experienced at what they do. They know their job back to front, inside and out. But something happens around mid-career that I believe is a bit of a crisis point,” says Eck.
Mid-career doesn’t necessarily mean middle-management or middle-aged, it’s people who’ve been in their career for a certain amount of time. In some circumstances, these people might feel a little directionless, or crave more challenging work.
“They kind of think they’re doing fine, but they do need help. They need new pathways to use their expertise, to feel listened to and really valued.”
Because these employees have been in their positions for so long, their employer has likely invested a lot of time and money into them – from onboarding to training and development. Also, they’re often the keepers of a large portion of institutional knowledge. So by not giving these workers the attention they deserve, an employer could be opening itself up to unnecessary risks, such as increased turnover rates.
“Sometimes people leave a job before they’re ready to. They’re leaving because they fear that there’s nothing there for them,” says Eck.
On the flip side, there are employees who stay but are disengaged. Disengaged employees cost the Australian economy more than $2 billion a year. These employees might feel comfortable in their role, says Eck, but they can also feel invisible, and they often aren’t incentivised to apply themselves.
Paton took Eck’s course in October last year and says it led to a revelation about her own abilities.
“’I’m not ready to move on from what I’m doing yet. It kind of opened my eyes to see that, I’ve actually got a lot more to offer.”
“Something happens around mid-career that I believe is a bit of a crisis point” Karen Eck, Eck Factor
What can HR do to support mid-career employees?
Eck focuses on teaching employees to brand themselves and find confidence in their own talents.
“I try to get them to think differently about self-promotion. At first, people often feel awkward and uncomfortable, like they’re bragging. But it’s really about talking through their expertise and what they have to offer,” says Eck.
“They get energised and realise that by reframing their thinking they can help to improve how they feel about their own position within an organisation, and find ways to start putting themselves forward for new opportunities.”
If you’re looking for ways to re-engage your mid-career employees, Eck offers these tips:
1. Center their experience – By this point in their career, most employees begin to consider whether they intend to move up the leadership ladder or specialise in their field. Employees in the latter camp are particularly at risk of being overlooked, says Eck, because they might not put themselves forward for promotions or new roles – preferring instead to continue honing their skills rather than learning how to manage others.
Eck suggests giving these employees a voice to showcase their skills to colleagues and possibly to those outside the organisation. This could be done by connecting them with your PR or marketing teams, who can help to shape their experiences into a success story. You could also consider putting them forward for panels or roundtables where they can share their expertise with others in their industry, or as media spokespeople for your organisation.
“It doesn’t even have to be external communication [though]. Even allowing them to contribute to an internal newsletter or podcast can really show them that they’re valued.”
Placing a spotlight on the employee in this way allows them to feel seen within the organisation and could have the additional benefit of demonstrating to clients or stakeholders the kinds of expertise your organisation can provide.
2. Allow them to run training sessions on their areas of expertise – Often employers turn to external training organisations to educate employees and miss the abundance of knowledge already within their organisation.
Taking advantage of the skills mid-career employees have reminds them of what they have to offer. It’s also a cost-effective way to upskill those in your organisation. Plus, it’s much easier to set up short training sessions now with the use of video conferencing.
“I think these Zoom events are a good stepping stone and your employees might actually find they enjoy public speaking,” says Eck.
Not every employee is going to be enamoured at the idea being in the spotlight, however, Eck says you could be surprised by the employees who are interested in putting themselves out there.
“I worked with a film director who was quite literally always behind the camera and I really wanted to get her in front of it.
“This opportunity came up for her to participate in a virtual panel with others from her industry and for the first time she took it up and she loved it! She realised that it wasn’t really about her, it was about how she could use her talents to help others and she found that really fulfilling.”
3. Offer targeted training – Survey mid-career employees and create targeted training plans that will energise their career pathways and renew competence. Eck recommends thinking outside the box and offering training in skills that might be beyond the employee’s usual role parameters, such as public speaking.
“I think it’s also beneficial to have training targeted specifically at women,” says Eck. “I know anecdotally, that a lot of women, particularly mid-career, lack confidence in their abilities and they don’t feel good about actually putting themselves forward for things.
Eck believes that female targeted programs allow women to hear from others who likely experienced the same lack of confidence but they also create a safe space for them to share their knowledge and build their support networks.
Paton says the exercise that helped her the most was simply writing down all her skills.
“I haven’t had to write a proper CV for years, so it was really eye opening to actually think about all the skills I have,” she says.
Being asked to narrow down her top skills made Paton rethink what she felt most confident in and what she liked doing. This has helped her shape where she wants to take her career next.
“I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I do feel more confident in my abilities now and more open to new opportunities. It has been reinvigorating.”
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