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Adopt a “Whole Career” Strategic Hiring Model

by Nov 26, 2012, 5:44 am ET

If you are a recruiting leader, I would like to introduce you to a concept that many are not familiar with, which is “whole career employment.” The premise of this hiring and workforce planning model is that instead of the traditional expectation that employees will work at a firm continuously from their hire date until they retire, leaders need to plan for the eventuality when top employees may come and go from your firm several times throughout their whole career.

This new model is necessary because it fits both the changing loyalty levels and expectations of workers and the evolving way that work is done. The average tenure of the American worker at a single firm is just over four years and Americans may hold between 5 and 10 jobs throughout their career. This process of hiring, losing and bringing back employees requires a hiring model that is more flexible and sophisticated than most firms currently have.

A whole career model is a hiring and workforce planning strategy that focuses on the reduced loyalty and retention levels among top performing employees. Instead of focusing on hiring a top person only one single time, it plans on targeting them for rehire at several different points throughout their entire career. Smart firms will plan to recruit and hire the very best back into regular or contingent jobs at points in their career when we need them and when they are willing and able to work for us in some capacity. The goal is to get as much high-quality work from top performers whenever they are available throughout their career.

Lifelong Employment Is Coming to an End

This new approach obviously runs counter to the traditional expectation of “lifelong employment,” which is a concept that goes back decades. Under lifelong employment, the goal is to retain new hires until they retire. In contrast, under the “whole career” approach, lifelong retention is not expected, and smart firms plan to take advantage of this reduced loyalty and interest in staying at a firm more than a few years at a time. The goal of this new employment strategy is not to “own employees” but instead to get as much as they are willing to give during the many different phases of their career. It’s a powerful model and it’s well worth exploring.

Top Drivers Making a Shift to the “Whole Career” Model Necessary

There are eight factors that are forcing firms to shift away from a lifelong employee model.

Group #1 — factors that will reduce a firm’s need for long-term employees at a single location

  • Labor output levels and labor-cost flexibility will be needed — even in well-managed firms, the labor, work, and staffing needs will continue to shift rapidly (both up and down) as a result of the volatile VUCA business environment. That means that there will be a continuous change in the needed skills and the number and type of workers that firms will need. In fact, firms will begin to challenge the very desirability of having a large percentage of long-term employees in a world where skills rapidly become obsolete and where entire job families are eliminated on a regular basis as products and components become obsolete due to new technologies. Instead, firms will need an agile and nimble workforce that can grow, shrink, and change skills rapidly. And that nimbleness can only be obtained if workers are more frequently released when entering business periods where their skills or output are not needed.
  • Shifting global work will reduce long-term work options — in a global business environment, offshoring will accelerate as firms continually move “work” closer to its customers, into new low-wage areas and away from increasing wage areas. Routinely shifting work between countries to take advantage of wage arbitrage means that firms will often not be able to retain workers long term in their current location. However, some of these released workers may eventually be able to return to work at their original firm when remote work options become more widely available.
  • The shifting economics of outsourcing impacts employee levels – over time, outsourcing will periodically shift between being economically feasible and later becoming too expensive. When outsourcing is reduced, more former employees will be brought back and when it increases, more employees will be released.
  • Established businesses will periodically shrink – the volatility in the industry positions of firms that is caused by continuous innovation and global competition will likely continue. When firms like Kodak, Xerox, and Sears move from top to bottom industry positions, their workforce needs will also shift. And as a result, many established firms in the top industry positions will go through cycles of large-scale shrinkage, only years later to expand their workforce again after reorganization.
  • Technology replaces employees – as technology options increase (hardware and software) many jobs will simply go away as they are replaced with technology. If former employees reskill themselves in the technology area, some may be able to return to manage the new installed technologies.

Group #2 – factors that will reduce an employee’s interest in long-term employment at a single firm

  • Diminished employee loyalty is becoming the norm — many individuals have lost their loyalty to corporations because of the way they and coworkers have been treated lately. Others, especially those from the new generation, simply have no desire to stay at any large firm for more than a few years, because they desire change, diversity, and they want to be able to explore multiple career opportunities and options.
  • Life disruptions impact careers and force job changes – not only is the business world highly volatile, but private and family lives are also increasingly volatile. There are currently an increasing number of “disruptive events” in an employee’s private and family lives that will disrupt their careers. These disruptive events include a high divorce and remarry rate, an increasing interest in entrepreneurship and working for not-for-profits, as well as individuals taking off work to start a family (as well as individuals returning to work after their family matures). In addition, the loss of houses to foreclosure, finishing online degrees, moving kids to better school districts, and the loss of a spouse’s job will add even more disruptive events. Combined these disruptions create a family and life situation that is continually in flux, and many of these disruptions that will force them to change jobs. As more employees quit because of these disruptions that are outside of your control, it will simply not be possible to continue operating under the “lifelong employment” model.
  • Applying and finding jobs become easier – because of the Internet, social media, and the growth of employee referral programs, it is now increasingly easy for employees to find and apply for a new job. Essentially this means that a single trigger including a “better opportunity offer,” a mistake by their manager, or a suddenly damaged employer brand could result in the loss of an employee in a time frame of as short of a month.

Implementing the “Whole Career” Employment Planning Model

If you are going to consider adopting this model, there are 11 key components of the “whole career” employment planning model to consider.

  1. A focus on top performers — it may not be economically feasible to manage and plan for every individual under the “whole career” model. As a result, a superior approach is to focus whole career planning on top performers, individuals with important contacts, and individuals with key skills.
  2. Plan for employees not intending to stay — if you survey people entering the job market, you find that many declare that they don’t expect to stay at their first job for more than a few years. This lack of intention to stay long-term is partly a result of a change in values from a new generation of workers. Part of the reduction in loyalty is a result of a loss of trust in all corporations as a result of many years of frustrating layoffs and budget-cutting. As unemployment rates fall and the economy improves, the desire for security and the interest in new opportunities will negatively impact retention rates. As a result of all these factors, corporate leaders need to plan for significantly higher turnover rates among all workers but especially among top performers and leaders. They should also not be surprised when they find that traditional retention efforts are not as effective among individuals who desire a variety of diverse opportunities throughout their career. Obviously the “whole career” model provides a firm with increased opportunities to rehire known performers.
  3. Have a plan to keep employees as long as you can– rather than operating under the normal retention goal of keeping everyone, the goal must shift toward keeping the best for as long as you can. That means that you need an early warning system (Google has one) for upcoming turnover, and an approach to encourage high-value individuals to stay as long as possible (consider employment contracts and significant project completion bonuses).
  4. You must have an effective employee succession plan – with so many more employees planning on leaving, the “whole career” model requires you to have effective recruiting and succession plans for all levels of jobs. That means you need a “backfill” immediate replacement if someone leaves suddenly, a viable pre-qualified candidate recruiting pool and a succession plan to fill openings in key positions at all job levels with internal candidates.
  5. As they are leaving, conduct offboarding interviews – because you want to continue a relationship with these targeted exiting employees, conduct “offboarding interviews.” One goal of the onboarding process is to let them know whether you would be interested in having them return someday (in some capacity) and to identify any potential roadblocks that might need to be removed before they would consider returning. A second goal is to get them to agree to maintain a professional relationship with the firm after they leave through the corporate alumni group.
  6. After they leave, keep in touch using an alumni program — if your firm doesn’t have one already, it needs to form a corporate alumni group (usually hosted on Facebook) to keep in touch with those that voluntarily left. The corporate alumni program allows you to maintain a relationship that may yield candidate referrals as well as business leads and business introductions. Targeted individuals should also be contacted on an ad-hoc basis when the firm needs advice or answers in the areas where they worked.
  7. A boomerang rehire program is needed — boomerang rehires are top employees who later return to the firm in a full-time position. Under this model, you need a formal boomerang rehire program that, with the individual’s approval, periodically “pushes” relevant job openings to these targeted alumni. Firms have reached as high as 16% of all hires coming from their boomerang program. The retention rate of boomerangs is much higher than for normal employees; however, it would be a mistake to assume that boomerangs will stay this time until retirement.
  8. Plan for some returning for contingent work — some targeted individuals will leave full-time employment in order to return to school, to start a business, or to spend time with their family. Even though these individuals might not want to work full time, you should have a component of the “whole career” program that targets these individuals and sends them contingent work opportunities (i.e. part-time, peak time, seasonal, or project work). In addition to targeting former regular workers, you should also have a component in your standard contingent worker process to get your very best temps and contractors to eventually return sometime in the future as return contingent workers.
  9. Plan for post-retirement work — even if the individual retires from your firm (or another firm) you should keep them in your alumni program. Then these retirees should be considered for and proactively sent part-time, seasonal, or remote project work opportunities. Many will voluntarily offer their help and to answer questions without remuneration.
  10. Higher turnover rates require a different approach to development — because many of your targeted employees simply won’t stay as long as in the past, you need to rethink your long-term development approach. This is because individuals may not stay long enough to make your investment in leadership development cost effective (they may even leave before they are made leaders). Even long-term learning and training plans may need to be revisited to minimize the chances that you end up training employees for their next job … at another firm.
  11. Be patient and use a “next-time” hiring approach for initial hires — most firms target and work hard to land a new prospect; however, if they fail, most essentially give up. But smart recruiting leaders instead use a “next-time” hiring approach because sometimes you can’t provide the “ideal offer” that fits a target’s unique needs at the time you are initially recruiting them. The whole career model suggests that you should “continuously recruit” and build a relationship with these high-value prospects that you fail to recruit the first time with the goal of hiring them the “next time” they enter the job market. This “next-time” approach is especially important at startups and small firms because many times individuals entering the job market simply prefer larger firms, only to change their perspective after their first job at a large firm. This longer-term view of recruiting gives you multiple chances of succeeding at recruiting top prospects.

Final Thoughts

Research shows that many HR and talent management functions don’t execute workforce and employment planning very well. And even fewer have workforce plans that examine and develop a sub-plan to take advantage of changes in the workforce, retention rates, and how workers view work. If you want to get ahead of the curve, consider at least examining the “whole career” model that will allow you to take advantage of the upcoming world of work changes that I have outlined here.

If you don’t like my approach, develop your own. But the time to act is now. Incidentally, as an employee, you must realize that even if you want to stay at a firm throughout your entire career, unless you are continuously ranked as a key employee, the odds of staying will continue to get smaller over time.

revolving door photo from Bigstock

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Jacob Madsen

    A poignant reminder and checklist for the future and things to come.
    Indeed 20 yrs (sorry 10, no again wrong more likely 5 or is it 4 or 2?) in same job long gone and now many more frequent changes taking place why this a trend that simply will gather strength. Not Dutch myself, but understanding that The Netherlands having and for a long time had a much more flexible and contract set up workforce, many roles simply do not exist on a permanent basis why necessary to adopt the model described. This is as much about acknowledgement that in an ever increasing competition, change and and adaptability, that only through applying a much more flexible attitude will there be a chance of survival and sustainability of companies/organisations.
    Better get used to it and start embracing it as it will be one thing that will happen.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. ISTM that the basic assumption operating here is that the readers and potential implements will be around long enough to implement something like this.
    Here are some more realistic assumptions, in our “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, let’s do the deal World”, IMHO:
    1) Loyalty equals cash-flow.
    2) If you want to keep someone, you give them a multi-year, guaranteed-raise, no-layoff-with-out-cause employment contract.
    3) Those who DON’T have one of these (and how many people we know do?), should keep one eye on your back (to avoid knife stickings from coworkers, supervisors, etc.) and one eye on the way out, with a clear plan on how to obtain as much as you can for yourself as quickly as you can (just like the CXOs).

    Folks, some of you out there may think that this is a very cynical and negative perspective, and you’re right. However, there are millions of people in this country who did everything right for years or decades- got up everyday, went to work on time, gave it 110%, and thought if they did they’d be rewarded and treated decently. Well they WEREN’T and they were tossed away like used food wrappers. Maybe you think: “That would NEVER happen to me. I’m BETTER than those folks, I’m SPECIAL.” A lot of those folks thought the same thing, but they weren’t “better” or “special” enough. Welcome to high un/deremployment, weak labor-union 21st Century America.



  • Jacob Madsen

    Somewhat (if not quite) bitter remarks, – unfortunately all too true, for many millions (counting in the Greeks, the Spanish, Portuguese and Irish) this is the reality they face.

  • Ty Chartwell

    Nice to see a relevant, new, good article by you.
    Agree w your thoughts.
    Challenge is 99% of HR and Staffing Leaders won’t implement this due to their laziness or incompetence.

  • Ken Schmitt

    Dr Sullivan, thank you for a wonderfully refreshing and forward looking article. As the owner of a firm that blends executive recruiting with career coaching, I preach this same “wholistic” approach to both my clients and candidates. Unfortunately, the HR community – as well as the recruiting world – tends to be a lagging indicator, rather than taking the lead when it comes to changing with the times. Employers, recruiters and business leaders will need to adjust their expectations when it comes to building, mentoring, training and maintaining their workforce as the world’s talent pool fundamentally changes over the next decade. It all comes down to one key ingredient: communication.
    Ken Schmitt
    President/Founder, TurningPoint Executive Search

  • Alexander Crepin

    Well this is a very familiar model. I call it the shift from a life time employment model to a life time talent relationship model.
    In this deck I explain what this is about:
    3 elements of Talent Relationship Management (TRM)
    • Talent Intelligence (TI)
    • Talent Engagement (TE)
    • Talent Pool Resourcing
    I experience that this long term focus requires quite a mindshift from both recruiters and line management AND like Ken mentions: the candidates!
    Especially the engagement part is quite new. It is about community management at a very personal level.
    Mindshifts require time so step by step we will get there.
    Best regards,
    Alexander Crépin
    The Netherlands.

  • A D

    You start the article by encouraging companies to be mercenary in the way they treat employees – offshoring, large contractions in workforce etc.
    Then you spend the second half of the article trying to offset the damage that is done to employees by this mindset. In a world of companies that are zigging jobs overseas to save money, top performing employees will enjoy working for and will be more loyal to companies that zag towards developing a relationship with them – investing in them, encouraging change and growth, respecting work-life balance. These are traits of companies where people want to stay.

    I fully agree that most companies need to put more emphasis on jobs well done rather than done quickly: properly documented, procedures written, bugs fixed etc. This will make transitions to new employees easier.

  • A D

    You start the article by describing (?encouraging) companies to be mercenary in the way they treat employees – offshoring, large contractions in workforce etc.

    Then you spend the second half of the article trying to offset the damage that is done to employees morale by this mindset. In a world of companies that are zigging jobs overseas to save money, top performing employees will enjoy working for and will be more loyal to companies that zag towards developing a relationship with them – investing in them, encouraging change and growth, respecting work-life balance. These are traits of companies where people want to stay AND where they’ll be more productive and happier. I don’t believe Google offers cool benefits primarily to keep people at their desks. Instead, they want people to be happy, engaged and enmeshed with co-workers of different departments. This fosters more productive work hours, dedication to projects and cross-pollination of ideas.

    Not every company has Google’s money to throw around (btw, I don’t hear much about them outsourcing), but so many companies SAY that employees are their best resource but do nothing to enhance the quality of the workplace or brighten job prospects within the company. Most people know they have to leave their current company for their future career prospects – to get more money and grow their skillsets.