Career Ladders vs. Career Lattices - Tools for Employee Development

Wednesday November 22nd, 2017 at 10:00am
Written by Jennifer Giannosa - Senior Consultant

How are career ladders and lattices different? How are they the same? And which one is best for your organization’s talent needs?

Although they’re both tools that organizations use to guide employees on a path of career progression, they differ in many ways! In this article, I will review how they’re different, what they have in common and which one might be the best choice for your organizational needs.

The difference between career ladders and lattices.

You may have no idea what the difference between a career ladder and lattice is, because they pretty much sound like the same thing.

Or maybe you’re somewhat clued in thanks to the appropriate climbing object analogies they’ve earned. That’s right folks, ladders are simply a vertical rung of steps moving you upward, and lattices have rungs in horizonal and vertical directions! BINGO!

Let’s start with a basic definition of each:

Career Ladder: A formal plan which shows the specific sequence of job positions a person should progress through in order to reach a more senior position with more responsibility and higher pay.

Career Lattice: A flexible plan which supports employee development, upskilling and recognition in multiple directions and areas.

Alas, they do have some important things in common.

Career ladders and lattices both show that an organization is committed to the development needs of its employees. Oftentimes, this is done with simple graphics showing job progression. The graphs can also include supplemental training outlines and development plans to facilitate the movement. Most importantly, the materials show employees the paths to follow and training they will need to build their skills and accomplish their career objectives.

And now we’ve reached the point where the similarities end. Let me give some background…

Ladders are going away.

Around the beginning of the industrial revolution, the concept of career ladders was born. Businesses began believing that by focusing on increasing the knowledge and skillsets of employees, there was a higher chance of increased organizational success. Sadly, the ladders showed a strictly upward promotional path which focused solely on additional responsibility and higher pay for employees.

Needless to say, those old ladders supported a very hierarchical organizational structure. One which was based on the rigid idea that hard work was the only way to improve the bottom line. You start here, and you end up here; but only if you work hard and do exactly what we say. This also assumes that each employees’ goals and needs were the same and could be achieved with the same strict and structured path.

But new knowledge and data are proving the old thinking that high performance organizations and work life balance are inherently in conflict, is wrong (Benko, 2010). Cue the career lattice.

Career lattices are pretty cool. Here’s why.

They’re really part of the modernization of traditional career paths. And they follow the flattening of organizations that we see happening a lot today. That’s because they allow ideas, skill development, and recognition to flow in different directions. They allow information to flow where it needs to.

Career lattices are helping break outdated perceptions of what it takes to maintain a high performing organization. The point is that employees are encouraged to pursue interesting roles, projects and assignments that are a good fit for both the employee and the organization. Whether this involves a lateral, upward or even downward move.

By giving employees options such as customized work structures, career lattices foster participation, increase engagement, improve productivity and reduce turnover. Oh snap!

The COMBO Method

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the question of guiding your people into a career that will make them happy and your organization perform. So, I advocate for the combo method.

For some organizations, well-defined career ladders can still work well. Using simple visuals to communicate a specific upward progression to a senior position just makes sense (think medical, research, technical and manufacturing based jobs). And that’s ok.

The important thing to remember is that these are just options. And here is the final word: What you should really go for is career customization, which is achieved through continuous collaboration with your employees. You can do this by consistently communicating the options, support and commitment that you have for your employees’ professional interests and goals.

If you’re intrigued about the concept of customizing your employee’s careers and want to take your learning to the next level, check out our blog post Why Your Company Should Invest in Career Sculpting.


Benko, Cathleen (2010). The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work. Harvard Business Review Press.

Founded in 1979, EDSI is a national leader in workforce development, customized training and consulting.

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