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When a Lateral Move Makes Sense, And When It Doesn’t

lateral move career

Sometimes it can be more beneficial to your career to go in a lateral direction while at other times, it is not. It is imperative to understand what is a lateral move in your career and when to strongly consider it.

That’s because in many situations what’s best for your career development isn’t necessarily a move to a higher position, but a different one.

There are many reasons people move laterally. It could be they want more of a challenge but not necessarily more responsibility, or they want to learn a different skill set before moving up the organizational chart. Perhaps they love their company, but the next position to move them forward simply isn’t available yet.

Not all lateral moves, however, make sense, and some can actually hurt your career. That’s why it’s important to do it for the right reasons. Vicki Salemi, a career expert, coach and author of “Big Career in the Big City” says lateral moves are a good idea if:

  • The next step on the career ladder is your boss’ job and he or she is staying put and your department isn’t expanding. “Have a frank conversation with your boss about the next step for you at the company,” says Salemi. You don’t want to open a can of worms however, so keep the conversation casual and make it less about your goal than about your future at the company. “Ask about other career-related options like additional training your boss thinks you need and skills you should develop,” she says. “You should have a pretty clear idea by the end of the conversation if your current situation there is dead-end.”
  • Your company is going through a restructuring and your department is being disbanded but you want to stay at the organization. “A lateral move is definitely a good move if your position is being eliminated and you’re likely to be laid off,” says Salemi.
  • You’re a stellar performer and want to stay with the company, but it is going to be a few years before there will be an opportunity to move up. “Take advantage of an opening in another group or department that you feel will give you an opportunity to expand your knowledge and learn a new skill set,” she says.

Salemi made a lateral move herself, early in her career, to avoid being pigeonholed. “I was offered a promotion and I didn’t take it,” she recalls. “I made a lateral move first to a global role that expanded my skill set and better positioned myself for the longer-term. I was promoted to manager two years later.”

A lateral move is not a great idea if:

  • You’ve done it more than once in five years. A lateral move, says Salemi, needs to give you a great skill set and position you for the long term or get you a better position in the near term. “It’s not a good idea to make too many lateral moves,” she says. “It will actually stunt your growth. People will ask why you didn’t get promoted.  And if you keep making lateral moves, at some point you won’t move up.”
  • You are unhappy in your position and what you really need is to start looking externally for another job. “Ask yourself why you are unhappy at your job? Why are you still at this company? Is it because it’s an easy commute? Are you postponing an inevitable job search? Is it because you’re comfortable? Is it to get out of a toxic situation? If that’s the case, why aren’t you looking externally too?”

Salemi says one of the worst things you can do is make a lateral move to another dead-end position. “If it’s not a stepping stone, it’s a dead-end street,” she says. “But if it is a stepping stone to something bigger, a position where you can gain skills, knowledge, and new responsibilities, then go for it.”

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.