Taking your career to the next level doesn’t have to be just an expression. Job levels give employees a clear sense of their career path at a company. But like a compass, levels only point you in a direction — saying little about the obstacles, twists, and turns you’ll need to traverse to get there.
The data backs that up: According to one industry study, three out of four employees feel “alone” or unclear about the next steps in their career journey. That’s where job leveling matrices come into play. By combining job levels with competencies in one view, HR teams and managers give their people clarity on the road ahead.
Job Levels and Competencies
Before building a matrix, you need to set up job levels and competencies. Job leveling, sometimes called job classification, is a system used by HR professionals to define roles, develop career pathways, and set hierarchies within an organization. For example, job leveling within an HR team might look like:
- Level 1: HR Assistant
- Level 2: HR Generalist
- Level 3: HR Manager
- Level 4: Senior HR Manager
- Level 5: HR Director
Experts warn that without job levels, promotions and job titles can seem haphazard or ambiguous. If you’re expecting your company to grow in the coming year, now is the time to implement levels. “If you don’t have job titles buttoned up or your job leveling is not systematic, it creates a situation where employees feel less than engaged. If you have no standardization around your job leveling it feels arbitrary,” said Sehr Charania, a startup advisor and HR leader.
Job competencies, on the other hand, are skills or qualities that employees need to embody to succeed in their roles. Competencies are particularly valuable for managers, as they can be referred back to when giving feedback, writing performance reviews, or delegating tasks.
“Competencies serve as a framework to help focus employees' behavior on things that matter most to an organization and drive success. They also serve a purpose when selecting and developing talent, and, when done well, they provide clarity for employees and managers,” said Julie Jensen, Principal at Moxie HR Strategies.
Each role’s list of competencies should be succinct while reflecting on what matters most to that specific job. “Let's say you're an architectural firm that employs structural engineers. What competencies are required to successfully fill this role? Employees will need to be skilled in the design, planning, and oversight of construction, for example. Pick the top three to five competencies that are required to be an accomplished structural engineer and define them in a rubric,” Jensen said.
Job Leveling Matrices
Using competencies and job levels in career conversations is a start — but when you combine them in a matrix, managers and their reports get more out of both. The easiest way to visualize this is to list competencies as rows and job levels as columns. The intersecting cells include a description of what someone in that role needs to do to fulfill that competency.
Still with us? Sharing an example might help. Here’s a snippet from a job leveling matrix that an engineering team might use. We’ll hone in on one competency, ownership, to keep things simple.
The above just represents one row of the matrix. Separate rows for competencies like communication, technical ability, and analytical thinking would follow, each with their own set of requirements. Visualizing job tracks this way helps give employees a better understanding of what the next step in their career journey actually looks like.
That said, career growth is almost never completely linear — and there are plenty of gray areas that can’t be neatly accounted for without adding nuance to the matrix. For example, a “level 1” employee might be going above and beyond with respect to one or two specific competencies. In other words, they might already be halfway to their next promotion. While that disparity might seem like it would complicate matters, it’s actually a blessing in disguise when it comes to having development conversations.
In the below example, a software engineer has been identified by their manager as a future candidate for a promotion. They check all the boxes for their current role and two of them (communication and analytical thinking) for the next level. Recognizing this will give both the engineer and their manager greater clarity when setting a development plan.
With regard to analytical thinking and communication, this engineer just needs to stay the course — no improvements necessary to merit their next promotion. But to prove themselves with respect to ownership and technical ability, their manager might ask them to take on a new project or successfully complete a third-party training program. That’s where goal setting comes into play.
“This way, we end up with a bespoke plan in place to boost our teams’ competencies and ensure that everyone develops their skillsets fully in a way that can actually be measured rather than something we just decide on a gut feeling,” said Mark Webster, co-founder of Authority Hacker.
Milestones like these aren’t just goals, they make up a growth plan. On the flip side, asking a direct report to simply “do everything better” leaves employees overwhelmed or worse: Looking for development opportunities at other companies. Moving forward, managers should purposely look for overlaps in their reports’ matrices to steer career conversations in a clear and actionable direction.
For managers and employees alike, talking about “what’s next” seldom comes naturally. Lattice’s performance management software doesn’t just make those conversations easier, it makes them more effective. Next steps are never in doubt and employees always know what milestones they need to reach next.
Over 1,850+ organizations use our people management platform to drive performance and engagement. To see how we can help your organization grow, schedule a product tour today.