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Empowering Employees In Their Professional Development Wed 07 Mar 07

Power One of the great thing about writing a blog is the comments you receive.  Sometimes within those comments you find some insight that turns out to be of greater significance and import than the original posting.  Such is the case of with one of the comments I recently received on my posting What Color Are Your Employees?.  That posting was about being attuned to employee attitudes and morale and acting to prevent excessive employee turnover.    In that post I made a comment in passing about being open to such things as giving sabbaticals, providing training etc. as a way to develop employees and keep them within your company.  A friend of mine, Ernie Perez left a comment and a followup talking about his experiences with employee professional development.  Ernie is the Executive Director of the Greater Houston Career Alliance a non-profit organization that provides an informal network of Houston area community and faith based job transition support ministries.  Ernie is the unofficial coordinator of over 30 non-profit job support groups in the greater Houston area.  He tirelessly works toward finding people work and has a wealth of knowledge about career development.

Ernie commented on a way to provide employee professional development that also empowered the employees and improved morale.  What he said in his comments was:

Provide training program for employees. Give them an annual budget they can spend attending seminars, conventions, participating in professional societies, buying books, etc. Engage them to come back after a training experience and share with work group.

In one of my job assignments, I had a staff that included technical experts. We budgeted to give them an allowance to do this based on their level and longevity. Not only did the empowerment angle work to boost morale and enthusiasm but they brought back application ideas that when implemented gave us a measurable return on investment. Additionally they became more popular and effective as mentors.

What beautifully simple and effective way to do it.  Give each of your employees a budget and let them decide for themselves how to handle their own professional development.  This gets them engaged in the process and they take on the some of the ownership of the process.  Empowerment, having some sense of control and ownership can be a tremendous morale boost.

Oh I know what you are thinking - we can't let them make those kinds of decisions.  Well why not?  They are adults, treat them that way.  Besides they are routinely doing things everyday that have a greater potential immediate impact on company's bottom than the amount of money we are talking about here.  And you are probably not aware of most of them.  Besides who has a more vested stake in their future development than the employee themselves?

Giving this some thought here are some suggestions on how to set this up.

  1. Determine your budget.  Ernie indicated the allocated the amount based on level in the organization and length of service which is I think an excellent idea.
  2. Talk to your employees and explain the program and its intent.  Give only very broad general guidelines of how they can spend the money.  I'd suggest that it is better to be a little too loose than too tight.  Limiting their choices to a handful of carefully screened and approved options isn't empowerment.  Tell them the intent and then trust them to do the right thing.  You'll be pleasantly surprised with the result much more often than you'll be disappointed with their choices.
  3. You can consider asking all participants to come back and report in a departmental meeting about what they did, how it helped and if they would suggest it for others.  This can help self-police their choices but you don't want to make it so onerous that they don't explore all the opportunities.  Business courses or foreign language course may not have been what you would have picked for a programmer but they can be very beneficial.  Remember empowering people means you are willing to live with their decisions. Willing accept what they done as important to them.  Don't make them feel that they have to make the "right" choice based upon your standards.
  4. If your budget is limited and you want to make sure that your employees take certain specific training make this an every other year occurrence.  One year they get the training that you decide on, the next year they select their own professional development.  Be flexible, be creative.

Okay, so what about that person that wants to use the money to sit on the beach and "meditate". A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • First, the couple of hundred dollars, $500 or $1,000 or whatever you allocate isn't going to bankrupt the company if the employee doesn't spend it wisely.  The benefit to company from those that do use their budget wisely will far exceed the few the abuse the process.
  • Second, handle abuses on an exception basis.  Don't restrict the majority because of the sins of a few.

The one area that you can probably expect to find pushback is with your boss and the Human Resources department.  As Ernie stated,

It was, however, a hard sell to the managers both initially and at each budget cycle.

Don't wait until budget time to propose this.  Start well in advance to get the support  of your boss and the Human Resources department.  This is new and different.  New and different always are looked at skeptically.  Do your homework,  sell the concept and ask for your boss's and HR's suggestions.  Asking for their input might not only make if better but will help get their buy-in.  If necessary, you may want to ask for volunteers within your department and implement this in a limited-scale trial.

What do you think of this?

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