When And How To Make A Lateral Move

By Ryan Morris
Aug. 7, 2022

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There will be times in your career where there’s nowhere to go but up. But there will also be times where the way up is blocked to you.

At times like these when you can’t move up and won’t move down, the only place left for you to go is to take a step to the side.

In the business world, this is what’s called a “lateral move.”

But what exactly does a lateral move consist of? And how do you know when you should make one?

We’ve put together some tips to help you figure it out.

Key Takeaways:

  • A lateral move is when an employee changes positions that are roughly equivalent in pay or responsibilities

  • Lateral moves are good when you want to learn new skills, secure your future, or boost your visibility.

  • Lateral moves are not good when you make too many of them or face a career setback.

  • To make a positive lateral move identify your needs, do your research, talk to your boss, apply to position, and then assess how the process makes you feel.

When And How To Make A Lateral Move

What Is a Lateral Move?

A lateral move is a change of job title into a similar or equivalent role within an organization. The new position usually has roughly the same job title and/or salary. While a promotion involves moving up the corporate ladder to greater responsibilities, a lateral move keeps the employee on roughly the same level while slightly changing their duties.

A lateral career move can give you the chance to access new opportunities and skills that your current job can’t offer you. Lateral moves can also be external, meaning that you’re changing companies as well as positions.

However, you’ll still enter into a new company at roughly the same level and with approximately the same job title as your current occupation.

Historically, the only way to progress in a business setting has been through either internal promotion or by taking a better job somewhere else. The act of taking on a similar position with similar pay, whether somewhere else or at the same company, is one that business folk have derided for years.

This is what’s known as a “lateral move,” so-called because you’re moving sideways (so to speak) rather than up or down.

It’s not hard to see why corporate types might take issue with a move like this. However, lateral moves have been gaining in popularity in recent years for a number of reasons.

Lowered job security and increasing unpredictability of the future have led to people being more willing to take on jobs with the same pay but at a more stable company.

Additionally, many have started looking at lateral moves as a way to gain additional skills that can be used to advance a career later on.

Either way, a lateral move is a long-term play — you’re not going to see the benefits of enacting it for months, maybe years. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Lateral Move vs. Promotion

It is easy for people to confuse a lateral move with a promotion, however, as already stated, there are important differences.

  • Promotion. A promotion implies some type of career advancement. This could be a role with more responsibilities, higher pay, or a combination of the two. When you are promoted, you take on a position that is considered a higher standing within the occupation.

  • Lateral move. A lateral move may come with more pay and different responsibilities, however it is not considered a higher position. Instead, a lateral move is seen as moving towards a similar job standing.

When You Should Make a Lateral Move

So now that you have more of a grasp of what a lateral move is, what are a few reasons you might have to make one? After all, taking on a new position of any kind is a risk, regardless of whether it’s at the same company or a new one entirely.

The following are a few excellent situations in which making a lateral move is a good idea:

  • When you need to learn new skills. If you truly feel as though you’ve learned everything there is to know about your current position, taking a position with similar pay but different responsibilities can help you develop new skill sets that might aid you in future job hunts.

  • When you need to secure your future. If the future of your current company — or even just your position itself — is looking bleak, it’s not a bad idea to take on a different job elsewhere, even if that job is pretty much the same as the one you had before.

  • When the situation at your current work becomes untenable. Maybe you and your boss have had one too many disagreements. Maybe your coworkers have grown to resent you. Perhaps the company’s culture has just become too toxic for you in general, or you’ve realized there’s no chance of you being promoted from within at this point.

    If you find yourself in any of these positions, it’s worth it to make a lateral move to another company or department.

  • When you want to boost your visibility. The more people and departments you interact with during your tenure with a company, the more likely you are to have individuals that are familiar with your skill set and adaptability. You’ll be seen as more valuable to more people, which could boost your chances at a promotion down the line.

  • When you like your job. There’s something called the Peter Principle, which asserts that people “rise to their level of incompetence.” That basically means that you’ll continue getting promotions until you’re not good enough at your job to earn any more. Some people don’t want to get involved in supervisory or management positions that take away a lot of the freedom and creativity of their jobs.

    If you’re happy with your responsibilities, a lateral career move can be a great way to get a change of pace without putting yourself into a position you’re not happy with or good at.

When You Shouldn’t Make a Lateral Move

While there are a lot of great reasons to make a lateral move with your career, it’s important to keep in mind that not all reasons are good ones.

That is to say that, depending on your individual circumstances, a lateral move might still be a bad move for you personally.

Here are just a few situations in which a lateral move might not be the best option for you:

  • When you’re actually just unhappy with your job. If you’re making a lateral move in order to break yourself out of the monotony of your particular position, that’s one thing — but if the problem is that you just don’t like being (say, for example) a programmer, then taking on another programming job somewhere else isn’t going to solve your problem.

  • When you move into a position that’s too far away from your goal. It’s possible to take on a similar position whose responsibilities are nonetheless so far away from what you were doing before that your lateral move can actually become a step backward.

    You want to be sure that you’re taking on a position that’s moving you closer to your ultimate career goal rather than further away from it — or, at the very least, you want one that’s equidistant.

  • When you’ve already made too many other lateral moves. If you keep moving from one similar position to another without ever moving up, then eventually, someone is going to start wondering why you aren’t getting promoted. Whether their fears are justified or not, it’s not a good look for you.

  • When you’ll take a pay cut. The best lateral moves involve either earning the same pay or getting a modest bump in your salary. This is especially true if you’re changing employers. If you’re in a particularly unhealthy work situation, however, then taking a small pay cut for better mental health may be worth it.

  • When you’ll face a career setback. If your lateral career move is into a position that’s still not your dream job, then be aware that you may be delaying that prospect for a couple of years. Too many lateral moves may take the place of upward ones and leave you in a dead-end position.

How to Make a Lateral Move

Here’s a step-by-step process to making a lateral career move:

  1. Identify your needs. Take time to reflect on what you hope to gain with a lateral move. Maybe it’s a change of scenery or a shift in your responsibilities towards more enjoyable tasks. Perhaps it’s growing your skill set and working with a fresh team.

    Whatever it is you want, identify it clearly in your mind so you know what to look for in a prospective job.

  2. Research. If you want to stay with your company, start looking into internal job postings (or even publically-listed ones). And if you’re looking for a new company, start looking at job postings to see what might make a good match.

  3. Talk to your boss. Once you have a clear idea of what you want and even a potential job opening lined up, speak to your supervisor. Talk them through your thought process and see what input they have.

    Be ready for offers to keep you around, and be open to hearing what they have to say. But if you truly need a change, be clear and state that emphatically.

  4. Start applying. Your company may be able to transfer you with no applications necessary, but be prepared to go through some type of hiring process.

    If you’re looking outside the company, it’s best to keep this job search to yourself. But if you’re trying to get an internal position, then lean on your resources and referrals, as they’ll make the process much smoother.

  5. Assess the change. Once you’ve gotten a new job after making a lateral move, take stock of how you feel about it. After a month or so, consider whether you’re happy with the new changes and excited by the new opportunities to upskill.

    If you were bored by your old tasks, look for ways to break out into new responsibilities that engage you.

Final Thoughts

That’s all for this one! Just keep in mind: Any time you make a lateral move, you want to keep your ultimate career goal in mind.

Then use this career goal as the measuring stick for deciding how well your lateral move is going.

As long as it gets you closer to this goal — or at least solves some of your problems while not taking you any further away from your goal — then your lateral move was most likely a big success.

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Ryan Morris

Ryan Morris was a writer for the Zippia Advice blog who tried to make the job process a little more entertaining for all those involved. He obtained his BA and Masters from Appalachian State University.

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