Should You Make A Lateral Career Change?

By Chris Kolmar and Experts - Jan. 20, 2021

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As strange as it may sound, your career does not have to be a series of upward promotions. You may think you should view your career as a vertical progression because it is for many.

However, the business playing field is more beneficial when moving across, particularly if it meets important professional and personal goals.

You may feel that opportunity awaits somewhere else. You may feel stuck or in need of a change. You may even be offered a job that you didn’t quite expect.

In these cases, you may face a lateral career change.

What Is a Lateral Career Change?

A lateral career change is when you take on a new position that is similar in pay or responsibility to your current role. In other words, you change jobs without seeing a promotion. There are two types of lateral career changes:

  • Internal. This is a lateral change that occurs within your current employer. Instead of shifting up, you move across to a new department or team.

    You most likely will receive new tasks with similar expectations since you are already familiar with the company culture.

  • External. An external lateral change is when you apply for a position similar to your current position’s roles and responsibilities.

    As is the case any time you start at a new company, you will have to adjust to your new setting, but you should be able to use your skills and previous experience to help you settle in more effectively.

Essentially, a lateral career change is similar to your current one. It may be exactly the same position for a new department or company. However, it could also be a job that is of a similar pay grade but with different responsibilities.

Obviously, when you make a lateral career change, you forgo upward promotions. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many people consider lateral career changes because they provide better routes to achieving their goals.

Why Should You Make a Lateral Career Change?

If you imagine your professional career as a football match, you can see that sometimes going across the field can be more helpful than going downfield. Metaphorical blocks may lie directly ahead, and it may help you to move to the side.

There are many reasons for and benefits to a lateral career move. Some may have to do with your current situation, while others come from what the new position has to offer.

Either way, your values, and goals determine the reasons. So as you read, consider what are your current needs, both professionally and personally, and your long-term goals. From this, you can extrapolate how a lateral career change may be right for you.

  • You want a change. Sometimes, even if you have done all you can, your current situation may just not be for you.

    After carefully considering your options, making sure you have done the best you can with the situation at hand, and applying some of the following reasons, you may find you simply just need to change things up.

  • Work in a place that matches your values. You may make a lateral career change because your current workplace does not match your values. You may not like how your boss treats you.

    You may constantly come into conflict with the company’s mission statement. Conversely, a new job opportunity may provide you the environment you need to succeed.

  • Build up your skill set. It can be very beneficial to take on a new role even if you don’t get a pay raise. A new set of responsibilities will force you to adapt to current skills and learn new ones.

    For example, if you were to change from a sales role to marketing within a company, you could use your sales knowledge while developing new marketing skills.

  • Relocate. Sometimes we just need a change of scenery. Both internal and external lateral changes offer the opportunity to move.

    If your current company is big enough, you can look for jobs in locations that interest you. Or, if you have a location in mind, you can look for new jobs similar to your current role.

  • Revamp. A lateral change can shake you out of complacency and throw you outside your comfort zone, and this new environment can recalibrate and recharge your energy.

    Such a benefit is particularly important if you have learned all there is to learn and feel uninterested in your position.

  • Increase visibility. Internal lateral changes are good ways to be noticed by more managers and executives in your company.

    A new role in a new department will place you under new supervision. If your long term goal is to move up in the company, this can help you because more higher-ups will recognize you.

  • Expand your network. On a similar note, lateral changes bring you into contact with more people. More people means a bigger network.

    In today’s diversified and dynamic economy, networking plays a key role in long term success. It can help you land new jobs, gain new clients, and create mutually beneficial partnerships.

  • Better opportunities for advancement. Your current position may be a dead-end, or else higher positions are limited. If this is the case, then a lateral change can make a lot of sense if you can find a position that offers more opportunities for advancement.

  • Job security. Some jobs are more vulnerable to changes in the economy than others. If you feel your current position would be expendable in times of economic hardships, then a lateral change can help you find a job that provides more stability.

  • Find personal growth. Taking on a different job with all its challenges will force you to grow as a person. You may learn a lot about yourself when you are placed in a new environment.

    A lateral change can help because it does not require to wait for a promotion to take that growing step.

  • Demonstrate your agility and resilience. This is a big one if you want to stand out on your resume and to your superiors. A lateral change shows that you are willing to break outside your routine and stick to something new.

    Such a skill is very much sought after, especially for higher positions down the line.

Why Should You NOT Make a Lateral Career Change?

Of course, a lateral career change is not always a good idea. Much like the reasons for lateral change, you must consider if your values, goals, and needs are all met.

If they are not, then a lateral change can have a negative impact on your career trajectory. Some reasons to consider this are:

  • Same or less pay. If money is an issue, then understand that a lateral change implies you will not see a big pay increase. You may be lucky to negotiate a somewhat higher salary.

    However, you must be prepared for the alternative. A lateral change may have the benefits listed above, but without a wage that suits your needs, the rest can be irrelevant.

  • Perception. Though occasional lateral change can help – frequent and short term lateral changes will give people the impression you are not a stable investment. Companies may be hesitant to hire you if they doubt your commitment to the role.

    Plus, a lateral change that is mishandled might burn bridges and negatively impact your professional network.

  • Dead end job. Be careful what type of job your lateral change lands on. If you don’t do your research ahead of time, you might find the new job to have fewer prospects for growth, and you will be back to square one.

  • Side steps. Lateral changes mean you have to put your current prospects aside. Since you are changing positions, you no longer can rely on the upward trajectory you may have had in place.

  • Always a risk. Any change comes with a risk. You may leave one job, and when you get to the next one, it is entirely different from what you imagine.

    There are many risks that go into play with a lateral career change, so make sure to weigh them before you proceed.

How to Make a Lateral Career Change

A lateral career change is a process. You need to take each step one at a time if you are to succeed. It should look something like this:

  • Evaluate yourself and your current job. Take some time and be honest with yourself and your surroundings.

    See where you are at present emotionally and professionally. Ask yourself questions like, “am I happy here?” and “would I be O.K. with holding off a promotion for a few years?”

  • Define current needs, values, and long-term goals. As you start to evaluate yourself and your job, hone in on what is important to you. Consider your finances and career trajectory.

    More importantly, consider where you want to be in several years, not only as a professional but also as a mature person.

  • Compare options. Do some research, look up your options, Know if there are internal lateral change opportunities, and decide which course to take. Once you find job postings to your liking, then you have tangible information to work with.

  • Talk to others. Don’t go at this alone. Use your personal and professional support network to get outside feedback. Remember, their feedback will not be objective, so always consider the context of their advice.

    Still, it is very helpful to talk to friends and family, as well as people in HR and your supervisor. Your company, in particular, may try to counter offer your decision, so be prepared.

  • Weigh the pros and cons. Finally, with all the information you have about yourself and the potential jobs, combined with the feedback of others, begin to make a pros and cons list. This type of organization will make it easier to see where your decision should lie.

Job Search for Your Lateral Career Change

If you have decided to make a lateral career change, then it is time to find the next position if you have not found one already.

  • Internal job search. If you are open to a lateral change within your company, then network with your peers and, if you are comfortable, talk to your supervisor to see what options are out there.

    If your company is big enough, they will likely have an internal job posting site through HR that you can use to find suitable matches.

  • External job search. An external job search will be like any regular job search. Use online resources and recruiters to help you land a new position. Search your professional network and ask around.

Final Thoughts

In the end, what is important is you do the right thing for yourself. Remember, if your professional career and development is like a football game, as you try to go downfield, in the long run, remember you have options to move to the side.

Sometimes you need to go sideways before you can go forward. As long as you understand yourself and the reasons behind your change, you will be fine no matter where you end up.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.


Matt Warzel, CPRW, CIR

Matt Warzel a President of a resume writing firm (MJW Careers, LLC) with 15+ years of recruitment, outplacement, career coaching and resume writing experience. Matt is also a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Internet Recruiter (CIR) with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (Marketing Focus) from John Carroll University.

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