Spotlight on: lateral transfers

Every good card shop stocks a range of ‘Congratulations on your promotion’ cards, but have you ever seen a ‘Lateral transfer’ section? No, I thought not.

That’s because we don’t really see a lateral transfer as a cause for celebration. It’s still seen as something to be not quite proud of, something you probably wouldn’t bother telling your more ambitious friends about.

But why? Surely something agreed on by both employee and employer can’t be all bad.

The good

For the employer, there are clear benefits to lateral transfers.

It could be a means of addressing an ongoing personality clash: if you don’t want to lose any of those involved, move one of them to another team, without having to manufacture a promotion for them.

It’s also a great opportunity to capitalise on your existing skills base. Rather than going to the expense and inconvenience of hiring someone new, use existing members of staff to plug knowledge gaps.

Employees can benefit from lateral transfers too, however negative an image this particular job move might have. A lateral transfer can be a relatively risk-free way to gain new experience and work in a different environment.

Jenny Ungless, director of City Life Coaching, points out that: “Lateral transfers are a good way of keeping employees fresh and motivated. For instance, someone who is hoping for promotion, but not quite ready yet, might make a lateral move to give them a wider perspective on the business.”

A lateral transfer can be a good way to pick up new skills without taking on any extra responsibility – and there are plenty of people who would jump at the chance to do just that.

“Making a lateral transfer can allow people to stay at their chosen level, but refresh their interest in the organisation through a different type of work,” says Ungless. “They are especially common in large, relatively flat structures (such as the civil service), where employees tend to move jobs every few years.”

The bad

So, we know lateral transfers can be a good thing. But there’s a reason we don’t crack open the bubbly when one’s announced. Let’s be honest, ‘I’ve been laterally transferred’ isn’t quite the same as ‘I’ve been promoted’.

The HR and internal communications teams will need to word this announcement carefully. Your more negative colleagues will interpret a lateral transfer as lazy management – ramming a square peg into a round hole to avoid the recruitment process.

The ugly

There can, of course, be a downright unsavoury side to the lateral transfer. It could be seen as the first step in pushing an awkward employee towards the door. Or a chance for an unscrupulous boss to offload a poor worker on to another team.

But most people probably dislike the lateral transfer simply for being the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ – a way of retaining good staff without having to pay them more.

In the wrong hands, the lateral transfer can do a lot of damage.

But it can be a fast, easy and cheap way to effectively resolve all sorts of HR problems. Perhaps it’s time for the card companies to rethink their range.

How to… transfer someone laterally

  • Make sure everyone knows it’s a good thing
  • Tell the new team what skills they’ll gain
  • Provide any necessary training
  • Demonstrate a clear career path for the person being transferred
  • Brief everyone properly before the move.

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