Managing Career Plateauing in the Quebec Public Sector

By Lemire, Louise; Saba, Tania et al. | Public Personnel Management, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Managing Career Plateauing in the Quebec Public Sector


Lemire, Louise, Saba, Tania, Gagnon, Yves-Chantal, Public Personnel Management


Many events in recent decades have made promotion opportunities increasingly scarce, thus significantly changing the career prospects of a large number of individuals. Feelings of career failure can have negative consequences for both individuals and organizations. Based on a survey of 192 managers and professionals in the Quebec public sector, our results indicate that the absence or inadequacy of practices linked to career planning, development, and support, as well as the lack of opportunities to play new roles and participate in work groups, accentuates the perception of career plateauing. In order for working conditions to be conducive to individual development, Quebec's public sector organizations will need to modify management practices related to the career plateau phenomenon.

Many events in recent decades have changed the career prospects for a large number of individuals. For example, structural changes, technological progress, reduction of levels of supervision, changes in organizational demographics, the growing use of temporary employees, reduction of the size of administration in the public sector, and the withdrawal of the state from numerous sectors of the economy have combined to exercise strong pressure on anticipated career paths.1

Even though they are better educated and more career-oriented than their predecessors,2 managers and professionals of the public sector must now deal with manpower reduction, combined with a decrease of promotion opportunities due to a growing number of individuals whose leveled-off career prospects are blocking those of individuals following them in the organizational structure. For instance, from 1986 to 1996, the proportion of senior managers in the Quebec civil service went from 4.7% to 3.8% of regular employment and the proportion of middle managers went from 4.5% to 3.8%. While there was a significant decrease for these two employment categories over the last decade, the proportion of professionals increased from 22.9% to 28.5% for the same period.3 Furthermore, some analysts believe that 70% of employees are presently in a situation of career plateauing,4 and still others predict that this rate could reach 90% in the coming years.5 As a result, career promotions and/or salary increases are increasingly scarce. Thus, the traditional career of our dreams is becoming less and less achievable.

The term career plateau refers to the feeling of failure or frustration that individuals may experience following a temporary or permanent halt in the progression of their career.6 Such feelings can have negative consequences for both employees and employers. Individuals may develop counter-productive attitudes and behaviors, and their physical and psychological well-being may suffer. Repercussions for the organization may include a reduction in organizational commitment, an increase in external mobility and a decrease in work performance.

However, few companies appear to be seriously concerned about employees' development and mobility.7 They tend to abdicate their responsibilities vis- a-vis career plateauing because they believe that this is an unavoidable phenomenon and, as such, one that cannot be managed.8

Nevertheless, many authors do not share such views and have stated that many situations and cases of career plateauing could be prevented by implementing more adequate human resource management practices. If the traditional career does not meet present and future needs and challenges, an in-depth review of career strategies could help find the cure for the feelings of failure experienced by many public sector managers and professionals as a result of career plateauing.

The main focus of this article is to point to the negative effects of career plateauing and to suggest new ways in managing professionals in the Quebec civil service by highlighting some of the benefits of implementing adequate human resource practices that can help avoid career plateauing. …

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