Imagine a fantastic software engineer who's been working for the same team on the same system for a few years. Before long, she gets promoted. Her colleagues and direct reports love her, but despite getting more responsibilities, she's growing tired of the same set of technical challenges.
A team is being put together elsewhere in the company in order to build a new system, and she has her eye on that. So she decides to approach her manager about it.
At many companies, this type of request isn't greeted too enthusiastically. Plenty of organizations have official policies on internal transfers, but they're seldom utilized as much as they could be. I once had a manager who would say that a team member of theirs "quit" when they transferred, and actually tried to prevent that from happening. A colleague of mine says he once got scolded by a manager who found out he was using the internal jobs site, and was then "forgiven." In these situations, company culture undermines company policy.
Explicitly or implicitly, when the opportunity to apply your skills in a different part of the company is discouraged, you're more likely to jump ship altogether.
For managers, though, it comes down to weighing the costs and benefits. If you discourage or outright reject the transfer request and keep that team member on board, you will:
- Have a demotivated and unhappy employee on your hands.
- Deliver a clear message to the rest of your team that there's no leaving this group; there's only leaving the company.
- Eventually—usually within six months—be handed a resignation letter.
If you say yes, you’ll no longer have the great employee on your team, but will:
- Have the opportunity to negotiate when they can transfer (e.g. one or two months, which is far better than two weeks' notice), so you’ll have enough time to recruit the right replacement and bring them fully up to speed.
- Deliver a clear message to the rest of your team that you can have a career here and not just a job.
- Retain a talented and happy employee who keeps using their expertise on behalf of the company.
Some companies actually excel at letting their top employees move around within the organization in order to develop their skills. GE, for instance, has been known to approach top performers who've been in their roles for around one-and-a-half to two years and ask about their next position in the company. The point is to get the best people to stick with GE for the long haul and develop a career there.
For employees, the question is when, whether, and how to ask managers about the possibility of transferring to another team. Some companies don’t require you to do that, but some do. Regardless, those conversations should happen, and managers should encourage them. The ideal manager should be a partner to employees, not someone to hide from. Interest in working elsewhere within the company should never be a dirty secret or interpreted as a critique of a manager's leadership style.
Personally, I’ve had two people approach me about transferring to other groups during the past six months. One person wanted to increase the breadth of their experience, and the other wanted to be in the group focused on services (back end is their passion). Both of those employees brought a lot to my team. But after talking it out with them individually, I said yes to both. I knew they'd be able to grow and follow their passions, and it was my job to encourage that.
Sometimes managers are in a tough spot. What should you do if you'd like to help your employees grow in a different part of the company, but the organization frowns on that? Some managers' judgment will be questioned if they let top performers leave. That risk is real, but it's better to err on the side of doing right by your employees.
If you do, you'll ultimately be doing right by your company, too—even if it isn't exactly seen that way. The reality is that people now change their employers more often than ever, so minimizing that churn can be a good thing. What's more, employees whose careers you've helped advance will remember that. You may be losing someone great now, but they might come back into your professional life sooner than you'd expect.