Home Careers Job-Hunting Tips: When Does a Lateral Move Make Sense?
Job-Hunting Tips: When Does a Lateral Move Make Sense?

Job-Hunting Tips: When Does a Lateral Move Make Sense?


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

Is making a lateral move beneficial to your career? My answer to that question is, “It depends.”

When you make a lateral career move, your focus should be on what you want to get from that experience. Where do you want to go and when do you want to get there?

I once made a lateral move because it made sense at the time. The move opened opportunities that I could never have experienced if I had stayed with my former organization. As a result, my newly acquired skills positioned me for opportunities beyond the career field I was in.

What Motivates Employees to Take Lateral Moves?

Kirsten Helvey is the COO of Cornerstone on Demand, based in Santa Monica, California. This company is a global provider of talent management software that helps organizations recruit, train and manage their employees.

In September 2015, Helvey’s company conducted an online survey of 2000 employees from various industries about the pros and cons of lateral career moves. Some of the findings included:

  • American employees are motivated by professional growth opportunities that promise purpose and fulfillment, but not necessarily a promotion or bigger paycheck.
  • People are willing to make lateral career moves into positions with similar titles and pay grades in different departments.
  • The most popular responses as to why a person would consider a lateral move include personal satisfaction (57%), a new career path (41%) and a professional challenge (40%).

A Lateral Move Is Often Motivated by Personal Goals and Happiness, Not Paychecks

Two additional key points came up in the study and both tie to decisions I have made in my career.

First, instead of racing up the corporate ladder to get the title of “Vice President” in a job they don’t find fulfilling, today’s workers are willing to sacrifice the time they’ve spent in their current position. They may completely start over to find a new job that they hope will make them happy.

I fell into this category at a key point in my career. It was my second career “crossroad.”

When I received my undergraduate degree, I had two goals. I wanted to become the director of a Human Resources group before the age of 30 and to perform HR functions in as many different industries as possible to counter the popular notion that you have to stay in one lane.

I became a director at 27 and assisted my organization in revamping the HR department in 30 months. Then I quit and went to graduate school full-time while I thought about what I wanted to do next because rising to the level of VP did not appeal to me.

After receiving my master’s degree, I held several positions that combined human resources with organizational design (OD). By the time I moved to the academic side of higher education, I had performed HR/OD functions in seven different industries.

Employees’ Lateral Moves Often Remain within the Same Company

Second, among those willing to make a lateral move, the study found that only 27% would consider doing so for a different company. In fact, 66% of employees said they would first look to see if there was an interesting open position at their current company before looking elsewhere.

What this practice suggests is that employees want to remain loyal to their employers, but only if they have the opportunity to grow. They seek to find work that makes them happier or they want the chance to tackle a new challenge.

I have mixed reviews about this finding, but I see how the statistics developed. I made a lateral move to another company because my employer at that time did not have any growth opportunities.

I would have been stuck if I stayed there. You can consider me a part of the 66%, because I did attempt to find something within the organization prior to seeking employment elsewhere.

The moral of the story is a vital lesson to the talent retention departments of organizations. If you want to keep your key employees, make sure there are opportunities for them to grow and be challenged, even if the new job isn’t a promotion.

When contemplating whether or not you should make a lateral move, ask yourself these questions:

  • What can I learn from the new job that I could not learn from my present job? Sometimes we have jobs that don’t allow us to grow. If you are presented with a new opportunity, ask yourself, “Can I learn new skills that I do not have access to in my current position?”
  • Is making a lateral move a short-term sacrifice for a long-term goal? Many people can attest to the fact that they had to take one step backward to move two steps forward. Although I do not consider a lateral job move as a step back, I acknowledge that some people might not consider it a step forward. You may be in a situation where you can spend time in a lateral position to increase your marketability for your next step. Think of the move as job enlargement.
  • Are there any negative effects if I make such a move? As with anything else in life, weigh the pros and cons. If your pro list has more entries, go for it.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.



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