Lateral Moves Enhance Career Advancement and Pay

A new study reveals that lateral job moves significantly enhance promotion prospects and salary growth.

In the competitive landscape of corporate careers, climbing the hierarchical ladder has long been seen as the primary route to success.

But a new study finds that lateral job moves — shifting to different roles within the organization at the same organizational level — can actually help to advance careers, significantly improving employees’ chances of future promotions and pay raises, and thereby challenging traditional views of career advancement.

The paper was published on April 2, 2024, in the journal Management Science.


The researchers, Matthew Bidwell of the University of Pennsylvania and J. R. Keller of Cornell University, used a dataset from a large healthcare organization, covering employee job histories, pay, and performance evaluations from 2009 to 2016.

The researchers used a matching technique to compare lateral movers with non-movers who had similar job titles and performance ratings.

This method allowed for a clear comparison of career outcomes between the two groups.

The participant pool included employees from various occupational classifications, such as managers, sales workers, technicians, and clerical workers.

Promotion Rates and Salary Growth

Employees who made lateral moves were significantly more likely to be promoted within three to four years, compared to those who remained in their original positions.

Specifically, lateral movers had a promotion rate increase of about 20%.

Lateral moves also positively impacted salary growth.

Employees who shifted laterally experienced an average salary increase of 16% over five years, compared to their non-moving peers.

This increase was not solely due to promotions but also reflected higher pay raises within the same pay grade.

Skill Development and Job Fit

Lateral moves were found to be particularly beneficial for employees who had been in their roles for an extended period, but who had lower performance ratings.

By moving laterally, these employees could develop and demonstrate new skills, making them more competitive for future promotions.

Interestingly, the study found no significant improvement in performance ratings post-move, suggesting that the career benefits of lateral mobility stem from skill diversification rather than immediate job performance enhancement.

Geographic Mobility

Approximately 28% of lateral moves involved relocating across state borders, highlighting the geographical flexibility required for such career strategies.

But the study found no significant difference in career outcomes between those who moved geographically and those who did not, indicating that the benefits of lateral moves are not location-dependent.

Broader Implications: Career Strategy

The findings challenge the conventional wisdom that vertical promotions are the primary path to career success.

Instead, they highlight the importance of strategic lateral moves in developing a versatile skill set and positioning oneself for future advancement.

This perspective encourages employees to consider lateral opportunities as a viable option for career growth, particularly when traditional promotions are not immediately available.

For organizations, the study underscores the value of facilitating lateral moves within the workforce.

By promoting internal mobility and skill development, companies can enhance employee satisfaction and retention while building a more versatile and capable team.

Encouraging lateral moves can also mitigate the stagnation that often accompanies long tenures in the same role.

Study Details