Developing World Class Job Rotation Programs to Improve Retention!

Guide for assessing and improving job rotation programs.

by John Sullivan and Sandra Au

The business impacts of job rotation programs:

Developing new products and cutting time to market require a stable and productive work force. The stability and productivity of the work force can be dramatically increased by ensuring that every employee is challenged and excited about their job. Employee turnover (or the loss of our “Human Assets”) disrupts team effectiveness and also slows product development. Post – Exit interviews data shows that individuals who feel “stalled” in their personal growth are less likely to be motivated to produce and will be more inclined to quit.

An effective way of reducing turnover is a well thought out job rotation program. Job Rotation Programs (JRP) can not only reduce turnover but they also increase learning, and provide added bench strength. Rotation programs are more common in the development of top executives but there are also many reasons to use them for technical and new hire positions.

A tight job market makes finding experienced talent to replace employees that quit more difficult. It also means there is often a shortage of employees that understand the “big picture”. This “shortage” of talent increases our need to try alternatives to recruitment. It forces us to develop “our own” and JRP’S are excellent mechanisms for growing in-house talent. Other advantages of job rotations is that it allows us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors in the recruiting process. JRP’S also have the added advantage of speeding up the development of our employees and it allows them to see the big picture sooner.

Many successful companies encourage rapid job rotation. Some have informal programs while some have it as an essential part in their companies employee development strategy.

The definition of a job rotation program:

A job rotation is the systematic movement of employees from job to job or project to project within an organization, as a way to achieve many different human resources objectives such as:

  • simply staffing jobs
  • an attraction or retention tool
  • orienting new employees
  • preventing job boredom or burnout
  • training employees
  • involving managers in the training process
  • rewarding employees
  • enhancing career development
  • exposing employees to diverse/ international environments

The theory of “why” job rotation programs work:

  • By being in the actual work environment, as opposed to the classroom, JRP’S increase the employees interest in learning.
  • A side by side comparison of normal classroom/”book” learning with on the job learning will show that job rotations learning last longer and have a bigger impact on productivity then if we give you a book or put you in a classroom.
  • Because “rotations” see the immediately results of their learning they are more likely to develop a passion for learning more.
  • If managers are involved in the training process (as they are in JRP’S) they will be “forced” to come up with multiple approaches for teaching a diverse group of employees. It will also teach them more about how people learn and help managers understand and communicate to others the “why” of what they do. “Rotations”, as outsiders, are more likely to ask managers why you do things a certain way, where often insiders are often reluctant to challenge the status quo.
  • Having to explain work processes to others (rotations) often forces managers to analyze their own processes and this can make these processes more effective.
  • By developing rotations, managers will themselves develop a passion for learning and teaching others. The increased quality be of our managers could help us to improve faster and make the company more successful.
  • In addition, rotations (and their managers) have worked with so many diverse people during their rotation program they may become more flexible and agile. This would increase their ability to be redeployed or to backfill to other areas.

Possible program variations:

Many of the traditional rotational programs fail because they are inflexible and do not allow for variation to meet the increasing speed of change in the world of work.

  1. Project Rotation –

    Although most traditional job rotations are “whole job position” there are no reasons that people can’t maintain their day job. There can be virtual rotations where the employees maintain their regular job while rotating through various special projects. During a virtual rotation, an employee might rotate between projects without having to leave their work station or needing to have their position job title or supervisor to change.
  2. Half Time Or One Day A Week Rotation –

    Rotations can also be based on an allocation of time where an employee works at their regular job for a specific period (like mornings) and during the rest of the day they rotate to another department or project. A related variation is a spilled week rotation where, for example, an employee spends four days on their regular job and Fridays in their rotation department.
  3. Cross-Functional Rotation –

    Most traditional job rotations move people between tasks in a single department. A functional rotation moves people between distinct business units in order to explore a wider range of experiences. A common one would be the moving of a technician engineer into a business position like sales to increase their awareness of customer needs. A related approach moves people between geographic regions or countries. This approach helps to increase their understanding of different cultures and business strategies.
  4. Internship Prior To A Rotation –

    For rotational programs that are designed for recent college hires you can dramatically improve your success rate for rotations if you require them to complete an internship at the company prior to their college graduation. By adding this step to the rotational program you get an initial on the job prescreen which will help you identify the candidate with the most potential to succeed in the rotational program.
  5. Faculty Involvement In The Rotation –

    For college hires you can improve your success rate by getting faculty input into both who to select and what the development needs of the candidates are. After the rotation is completed, feedback can be given back to the university on a candidate’s strengths and areas where they can improve. Faculty can use this information to better prepare their students for the job market.
  6. Bid For Rotation –

    Often rotations end up in a department where there are no plans for their development. If the HR department establishes a competitive bidding process where manager must submit a proposal for the development of a candidate the competitive process will increase the pressure on managers to own their candidate development process.
  7. Related HR Programs –

    There are several HR programs that have related goals and that use tools that are similar to those that are used in rotation programs. It often helps to consider these types of program in lieu of a rotation program or it is beneficial to study them in order to learn how to improve rotation programs. Some of these related programs include:
    • Mentorships
    • Retention Programs
    • Fast Track Programs
    • Orientation Programs
    • Educational/ Advanced Degree Support
    • Off-Site/ Extended Training Programs
    • Overseas Assignments
    • Executive Coaching and Development

Possible benefits of rotation programs:

Excellent Rotation Programs can:


  • Help attract new hires and increase the retention rate of current employees when they see the opportunities for rotation/ growth.
  • Increase excitement- ability to meet with different people, not to be bored, and to learn different areas.
  • Raise public relations values because of our uniqueness.
  • Attract higher quality applicants.


  • Excite current employees through meeting different people, increased challenge, opportunity to learn different areas.
  • Motivate employees to work harder.
  • Increase growth opportunities.
  • Increase the frequency of new job openings.
  • Be an effective method for rewarding high performing employees.
  • Enhance employee commitment to stay with the company.
  • Make managers likely to stay to work with the energetic new hires. (new ideas / fresh eyes.
  • Help identify/ dump low performing employees.

Team building/cooperation

  • Increase the speed of the functional “Silo” breakdown.
  • Increase Inter-team communications.
  • Include rotations into the business functions which can help technical people develop a broader understanding of the business, our strategy, the needs of our customers and where the company is headed.
  • Expose employees to more diversity.
  • Rotate people to other cities/ countries so they can experience different cultures and diverse methods of operation.
  • Reduce the Us vs. Them mentality between departments and functions through the exchange of personnel.
  • Increase the speed that key employees develop.
  • Train managers in developing employees.

Developing managers

  • Provide feedback from the rotations about their managers which could help us identify the best / worst managers.
  • Force managers to develop procedures manuals/templates so that new candidates can get up to speed rapidly.
  • Where there is 360 assessment managers also receive feedback from the rotation about their management style and their ability.
  • Expand managers ability to deal with diverse workers and new ideas.


  • Decrease our training costs while also increasing the impact of the training.
  • Help us evaluate the quality of our talent by acting as a Mini assessment program /center which solicits multiple opinions on the skills of the rotations.
  • Decrease training costs while increasing it’s impact because job rotation is a hands on experience.
  • Be used as a proactive means of enhancing job competencies/ experience and as an alternative to the more tradition or common training and development classes.
  • Increase the speed that our workers develop.
  • Teach employees to benchmark within the firm to find the best practices. This could result in the speeding up of the companies speed of learning.
  • Develop agility, multi-tasking individual who can easily mover between function.

Individual employee benefit

  • Test and prepare employees for faster promotions.
  • Increase/maintain an individuals employability.
  • Aid in building contacts, networks and getting a Mentor
  • Make individuals more self-motivated, flexible, adaptable, innovative, eager to learn and able to communicate effectively.
  • Increase in career satisfaction, involvement and motivation in one’s career.
  • Help employees attain better understanding of strategic issues.
  • Result in personnel awareness-related benefits, which means greater insight into their strengths, personal values and management styles, sense of pride and self-worth.
  • Help an employee build relationships between functions.
  • Increase variety and challenges that come from new jobs.
  • Increase morale. (excitement, energetic) Confidence commit/understanding of the firm.
  • Teaches employees teaming skills.
  • Be advantageous as rotations are not always considered as head count


  • Get people with “fresh eyes” to visit different departments and ask why & why not?
  • Increase productivity by non-rotations because of their freshness and energy.
  • Reduce the cost of filling a job (because it’s an internal placement).
  • Speed up the hiring process because more data is available on the rotational candidates.
  • Increase the knowledge base and learning capability of an organization, which usually translates directly into a more competitive company.
  • Have some side benefits which include increasing the sharing/passing of ideas between departments, the breaking down of functional silos and barriers as well as getting the manager more involved in the training and development of hi-pros’.
  • Serve as a pilot in a single function and can then be successfully transferred to other departments in the company such as Engineering and Marketing, etc.
  • Serve as a “model” program from which other intra-placement and on the job training programs can learn from.

Possible problems with rotation programs


  • Cost associated with the initial the learning curve on new jobs, including time spent learning, training costs and errors that employees often make while learning a new job.
  • Costs in term of the satisfaction and motivation of other employees who aren’t rotating. (non-participant jealousy).
  • Increase department costs to pay rotations.
  • Increase amount of management time spent on lower level employees.
  • Result in significant administrative costs for operating the JRP.
  • “Star” rotations may leave if they don’t get promoted or get enough money at the end of the rotation.
  • Some rotations get the training and then leave.

Lack of input / control

  • No assessment or poor assessment of rotations.
  • Employees rotated too fast/ slow and the individual can not slow down the rate.
  • Fixed duration of rotations without an option to shorten, lengthen or make permanent can frustrate advanced rotations.
  • Decrease retention rate and negative morale if the rotation is not managed correctly.
  • Job rotation may increase the work load and decrease the productivity for the rotating employees manager and for other employees.
  • Rotation can be less effective because newly rotated employees can often be too busy learning the job to see the big picture or to be productive.
  • Candidates don’t want to stay in a low image or dull department.
  • Rotations are often given low level work because “they will soon be gone” or they “won’t come back”.
  • Geographic & global assignments may be too difficult.

Nor rewarding

  • Expectation of promotion / salary increase at the end.
  • No incentive for manager to support this program.
  • No measurement or reward for managers that develop their employees.

Difficult to select

  • Don’t have the right set of criteria for selection.
  • Different criteria are needed for rotations then for normal jobs.
  • People that select are not part of the rotation.
  • No metrics to measure validity of the selection process.

Image of favoritism

  • Managers are accused of favoritism in picking the candidates.
  • Rotations are sometimes shunned as spoiled or learn to act like prima donnas.
  • Non-participating managers may feel left out.

Individual and self development

  • By setting up an elaborate development program you can weaken the candidates self-reliance and self-development skills. This often runs counter to a company culture which might emphasize individual responsibility for maintaining ones employability.

Departments where rotation programs are usually based –

Programs can be based in specific functional departments (Engineering, marketing etc.) or centrally located in HR (usually employment or training). Some programs are managed by cross-functional teams.

Critical success factors / characteristics of a
World Class program

  • It has a direct, measurable impact on productivity and shareholder value.
  • Integrated with other systems.
  • Owned by Employees and management.
  • It costs are billed to the managers using it.
  • Tailored to company needs and flexible for changing needs.
  • Focuses on core competencies and key business needs.
  • Managers and evaluators are trained in how to act.
  • Focuses on improvement and the future rather than blame and the past.
  • It is tied to metrics/ rewards.
  • Has a set of targeted goals.
  • Has JIT and worldwide capabilities.
  • It can be adapted to the team environment.
  • Has a satisfaction measurement system.
  • Weak departments are dropped and new ones are continually added.
  • Flexible rotations to fit both candidate and program needs.
  • ROI and program successes are periodically monitored.
  • Rotations stay and are more productive than other employees at the end of their rotation.
  • It continually monitors progress and continually improves

Examples of firms that have tried
some aspect of job rotation programs

  • National Semiconductor
  • Ingersoll-Rand
  • PG&E
  • Charles Schwab
  • Applied Materials
  • Franklin Templeton
  • Eli Lily
  • GAP
  • GTE
  • Sears
  • Pratt & Whitney
  • Sprint
  • Ford
  • LSI Logic
  • Qantas
  • Lehman Brothers
  • Cisco Systems

Before starting a job rotation program there
are some preliminary steps you should think about:

  • Determine what are your goals for a job rotation program.
  • If there evidence of the need to have a JRP?
  • Get a line manager to “own” the process.
  • Conduct Executive Interviews to gain program sponsorship and see what should must be developed/problem solved.
  • A survey study of the costs and benefits of rotation program.
  • Know and benchmark who is also doing such program.
  • An analysis of employee work histories / goals proposals/management recommendation to see who might be quality.
  • Set the criteria for who to select both employees and managers.
  • Identify administrative requirements before setting up the rotation program. (They can be very difficult to administer).
  • The administration of the job rotation program operation must be worked out, including the roles of employees, managers and staff-planning personnel.
  • Job rotation must be integrated into the organization’s HR and Business strategies.
  • An organization must understand that job rotation generally creates more generalists rather than specialists.
  • The organization must make sure its skill needs correspond to those likely to be learned by job rotation.

Some points you need to consider about job rotations

Here are some practical recommendations you should think about when considering a job rotation program at your organization.

  1. Proactively manage job rotation as a component of your training and career-development system. Job rotation may be especially valuable for organizations that require firm-specific skills because it provides an incentive to organizations to promote from within because that is when they are most likely to find the needed skill sets.
  2. Have a clear understanding of exactly which skills will be enhanced by placing an employee into the job-rotation process. Address skills that aren’t enhanced by job rotation through specific training programs and management coaching.
  3. Consider the use of job rotation for employees in nonexempt jobs, as well as for those in professional and managerial jobs. Job rotation may be of great value for developing retaining employees in all types of jobs.
  4. Consider the use of job rotation with later-career and plateaued employees, as well as with early-career employees. Some organizations may have the tendency to rotate employees too fast in early-career stages and too slow in later-career stages. Job rotation can be a good way to reduce the effects of the plateauing process by adding stimulation to employees’ work. Consider project or ½ day or ½ partial rotations that don’t require as much of a formal shift in location and managers.
  5. You can use job rotation as a means of career development without necessarily granting promotions- so it may be especially useful for downsized organizations because it provides opportunities to develop and motivate employees.
  6. Link rotation with the career development planning process so that the employee knows the developmental needs addressed by each job assignment. Both job-related and development -related objectives should be defined jointly by the employee and the manager whenever the employee assumes a new position. The rate or rotation should be managed according to the time required to accomplish the goals of the job and the time required in order to achieve the developmental benefits of the job. The advantage of this approach is that both the employee and the managers will have a clear understanding of the expectations and the required tenure on the job will be related to predetermined outcomes. Job rotations should be perceived as voluntary from the employee’s point of view if it’s going to have the intended developmental effects. Decide if the job rotation assignments are up for bid, assigned or must be sought out by the individual Employee.
  7. Implement specific methods for maximizing benefits and minimizing costs the of rotation program. Examples include increasing the benefits of organizational integration and stimulating work by carefully selecting jobs, increasing career and awareness benefits by ensure that they’re relented in the development plans. Decrease work load costs by managing the timing of rotations, decreasing learning-curve costs by having good operating procedures. Increase the satisfaction of coworkers by helping them understand the role of job rotation in their own development plans.

© June 1998

As seen on Gately Consulting

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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