Speeding Up Rotations and Internal Movement for Development, Retention, and Profit (Part III)

(Editor’s note: This is Part III in Dr. Sullivan’s series. Here are Part 1 and Part II; next week in the conclusion to the series, look for best practices and program metrics.)

When corporate revenues are down or stagnant, talent managers typically shift their focus away from volume hiring to developing and improving existing employees.

Executives are always challenged to make the correct “buy or build” decision, but when hiring is frozen, organizations must place an increased emphasis on internal movement and job rotations to close critical gaps in talent supply and demand.

Unfortunately, many rotation programs are doomed from the start to produce mediocre results, because they employ a “one-size-fits-all” model that guarantees lower program participation rates.

As with most products and services, offering different program variations makes it more likely that your target employees will find a job rotation that fits their needs as well as the organization’s. Since the war for talent began more than a decade ago, the type of job rotation formats have expanded dramatically. It’s important to be aware of the various development opportunities available and the benefits and risks associated with each.

Here is a list of 26 different types of internal movements to consider.

Obviously, not every firm can offer employees all of these options, but it is not uncommon to develop programs that incorporate a handful.


The different program variations presented here are categorized into four groups including 1) “whole job” rotations; 2) location-based rotations; 3) time-based rotations; and 4) less-common rotations.

“Whole Job” Rotations

This category includes rotations where the individuals in the rotation literally change their job title (these are often semi-permanent placements):

  • Skill-based job rotations. A planned process where regular employees are moved through jobs in the same job family and business unit in order to build skills, knowledge, and capabilities of individuals.
  • Leadership-development based job rotations. A planned process where high-potential individuals are rotated through jobs in different functions, business units, or regions in order to build their decision-making and leadership skills. The process is also used as part of succession planning to assess the capabilities of developing leaders.
  • Redeployment. A formal process for internally moving entire teams or large numbers of employees from areas of low return to areas of higher return.
  • Job-posting systems. A formal, organization-wide process designed to objectively select internal employees for transfers or promotions to vacant jobs. Sometimes also called “job bid” processes.
  • Team leader rotations. A planned process for rotating different employees in a team for a fixed duration into the leader or manager role. The goals can include leadership development, understanding the complexities of management, or simply “sharing the load” in situations where the management role is not a desirable career move.
  • Two in a box. An assessment and development process where a potential leader is rotated into an existing management job where they jointly share responsibilities on a medium-term basis with the current position holder.
  • “Gear down” rotations. Where an employee decides to rotate down to a lower-level job in order to have more free time or less stress.

Location-Based Rotations

This category of job rotations focuses on situations where the employee physically moves to a new location:

  • Strategic partner job rotation. Rotations where employees are assigned to work on a medium-term basis at one of the firm’s strategic partners, joint ventures, newly acquired organization, or major customers in order to benchmark, learn, develop new products, and build relationships. Rotating individuals through university teaching and research assignments are another variation under this model.
  • Geographic job rotations. Rotations between different geographic regions or countries in order to build relationships and to develop understanding between diverse regions.
  • Virtual rotations. Rotations where the individual is moved into a virtual job where they work remotely. These rotations can be for motivation/retentionpurposes or to develop remote communications and management skills.

Time-Based Rotations

This category covers the types of rotations that have a short- or medium-term duration:

  • Project rotations. A series of temporary assignments or projects where an individual maintains their current job while taking on additional stretch assignments to build their capabilities. The rotation can be full- or part-time, and it generally lasts until the project is completed. Both stretch goals and stretch assignments generally fall under this category. In matrix or project-based organizations, these rotations are continuous.
  • Stretch assignments. Short-term development assignments that are part of a long-term development plan; stretch means they significantly increase current skills, add new skills, or increase the goals/ results by between 10% and 25%.
  • Part-time job rotations. Also known as partial job rotations, under this plan individuals work for a fixed period during the week (i.e., half a day) in another position while maintaining their current job title, location, and pay level.
  • Cross-functional rotations. Planned short- to medium-term rotations where employees move between related or interdependent functions. A typical variation is an “overhead to line” rotation where an individual moves from non-mission-critical or overhead functions like HR, finance, and supply chain into a critical business unit (i.e., product development). Similar rotations can also occur between research and production. Although less common, the rotations can go in reverse order.
  • “Understanding the customer” rotations. Planned short-term rotations that occur between any function into sales and/or customer-service roles in order to increase an employee’s understanding of the customer and their needs.
  • Multi-stop job rotations. As part of summer, six month, or one-year tours, where multiple short-term “stops” in different functions are planned in advance. This process is commonly used for interns and new college hires in order to increase their exposure, excitement, and skill levels. A multi-stop rotation requires a plan that specifies what will be learned at each stop and how the “handoff” between stops will be handled.
  • Variable duration. Under most job-rotation programs, the duration of the rotation is predetermined. Under this process, the length of the “stop” is determined based on the performance and the interest of the rotating employee as well as the needs of the manager.
  • Overload assignments. Short-term placements for short-term business “overload” needs. These overloads may be seasonal or “sudden” problems that require a quick infusion of talent. Often they involve call center, sales, or customer service overloads.
  • Intern and college hire rotations. Formal rotation programs with defined periods designed specifically for college interns and recent college grads.

Less-Common Rotations

  • Temp to permanent. Rotations where a temporary or contract employee is purposely placed in a position for a fixed period in order to assess their capabilities. After completion of the assignment, they are either released or made into a regular employee.
  • “Fill in” rotation. Temporarily rotating an individual into a job to “fill in” as a result of a temporary position vacancy due to vacation, illness, or other short-term need.
  • Fatigue-related job rotations. Job rotations that occur during a single day in order to relieve the physical fatigue or stress that can occur in life-threatening or dangerous jobs. Employees rotate to related jobs throughout the day in order to reduce errors and accidents.
  • Fraud rotation. Requiring an individual in a position where fraud or theft is a possibility to rotate out for a short period. The individual is replaced with someone who has the capability of identifying irregularities. Most commonly used in accounting, investments, or finance.
  • Up-out-and-up rotations. An assessment and development approach where individuals are actively encouraged at a certain position to actually leave the firm as part of a planned assessment and development process. After succeeding at another firm in the industry, they are invited back to the firm.
  • Informal job rotations. Rather than being formally planned as a corporate initiative, these are rotations developed informally on an ad-hoc basis by individual managers.
  • Job enrichment. Technically not an actual job rotation but instead a formal process for expanding job functions to make a job more stimulating.

As you can see, there is a wide array of rotations to consider. Before settling on which one is the most appropriate for which employee, determine your goals and pick the variation that best fits the needs of the individual and what you are trying to accomplish.

Common Problems Associated With Internal Movement Programs

When you are assessing the effectiveness of existing internal movement processes, periodically conduct an audit in order to identify typical system-wide problems.

Survey managers and employees, benchmark other firms, and use existing metricsto identify current problems:

  • Performance improvement. Heavy users of the program do not improve their performance or have higher bonus, promotion, or retention rates when their performance is compared to non-participants. Departments that are heavy users of the program do not improve their business performance beyond the rates achieved by departments that do not heavily use rotations.
  • Participation rates. Individual employees frequently abandon the process after one failure due to its lack of transparency or the political/subjective nature of the process. Less than 30% of your workforce ever formally participates in it. A significant percentage of managers, when given the opportunity, avoid or circumvent the process.
  • Speed. The time-to-fill for internal movements and placements exceeds 50% of the average time-to-fill days for external hires because of bureaucratic processes and a lack of interest among hiring managers.
  • Satisfaction. Manager and employee user and non-user satisfaction rates are not periodically assessed.
  • Favoritism. There is the perception among employees that the process is subjective and that management favorites get the choice rotations and projects.
  • Time away from their job. The program does not monitor the negative impact that the rotation or internal movement has on the performance of the employee’s base or original job.

Problems Related To Eligibility and Who Is Targeted

  • “Non-obvious” choices. The process does not proactively seek out “non-obvious” choices (meaning they were not a direct report on the organizational chart to the supervising manager).
  • Eligibility. Eligibility for movement is limited to permanent full-time employees and excludes part-timers, contractors, temps, and retirees. Poor-performing employees and those on performance-management plans are still allowed to participate. Managers that violate the program’s rules or “hoard” talent are not restricted from future participation.
  • Selection criteria. The selection of which individual should be “moved” is based primarily on non-performance criteria including seniority, current job title, or subjective management preferences. Managers get top priority for selecting candidates not on business need and how they handled previous placements, but instead based on their title, business size, or political pull.
  • Fit criterion. The individual and the hiring manager make their movement decisions based primarily on their own individual self-interests, rather than overall corporate needs.

Problems Related to Program Policies

  • Voluntary. The process depends on the individual volunteering for movement.
  • Start-up trigger. The process does not begin until a full-time permanent job opening occurs.
  • Education. The process does not provide employees or managers with information on past growth and critical areas.
  • Approvals. There are policies that allow managers, unions, or administrators to block or impede internal movements between business units.
  • Decisions. Placement and process decisions are based on emotion or tradition rather than facts, statistics, and metrics.
  • Employee involvement. Employees cannot contribute to the process by offering internal referrals or nominations of employees who should be rotated.

Internal Program Administration

  • Technology. The system is not 100% paperless and managers do not have laptop or mobile phone access.
  • Global. In large organizations, the process does not move people between countries.
  • Rewards. Managers and employees are not measured, recognized, or rewarded for successful participation in the process.
  • Policies restricting movement. There are policies that limit the timing or the number of movements that individual can make. Managers are prohibited from proactively seeking out internal talent.
  • Program manager. The internal movement processes do not have an overall manager or coordinator that is accountable for program results.
  • Budget. The budget is not independent, nor does it change when quality and volume goals are increased and program performance improves.
  • Appeal process. There is no formal process for identifying why you are not selected for a job rotation or an appeal process if you feel that you were unjustly treated.
  • Continuous improvement. The program does not utilize metrics to identify potential problems and opportunities in order to continually improve participation rates and overall workforce productivity.

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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