SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Making a lateral move in the company used to signify one thing about a career: It was over.
One minute Sherwood is the hot shot VP of sales. An off-year later, he finds himself "promoted" to the windowless office at the end of the hall as vice president of administration and company potlucks. Sure he's at the same level, but the entire organization knows he's finished.
Now there is evidence to suggest this is changing. As companies peel away management layers to become more efficient and competitive, opportunities to move up are becoming scarcer than ever. At the same time, employees constrained by a recession that has limited their mobility want to remain challenged and advance in their careers.
The result is that managers who hope to keep good employees are touting the value of "cross-training." And employees who want to remain marketable are rethinking the benefits of gaining experience in different departments.
"It's much more precipitated by bottom-line considerations than by companies wanting to keep employees enthused," said John Hermann, an Irvine. Calif.-based consultant. "But more companies are doing this, and if handled properly, lateral moves are no longer viewed as negative."
A number of organizations, including FHP International Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. are redrawing traditional advancement paths to include several lateral job stints.
At FHP International Corp. in Fountain Valley, Calif., for example, executives who want to manage clinics staffed by FHP physicians as well as clinics staffed by physicians under contract must put in time working at both. Previously, employees promoted to management generally came from one or the other.
"It will mean that our employees will be better trained and work better as team players," said Wanda Lee, vice president of human resources at the health maintenance organization.
FHP used to have layers and layers of management, and it was easy to promote people because each step up the ladder didn't require a lot of new skills, Ms. Lee said.
"People could take what we called baby steps. Now, with fewer layers, each step can be a giant step," Ms. Lee said. "There's also a longer wait for promotions. So how do you hold onto your good people and how do you prepare them for a giant step? The way to do this is move laterally."
This refrain is echoed by others.
Paul Fox is a consultant in West Granby, Conn., whose soon-to-be-published book, "Thriving in Tough Times" (Career Press), addresses the necessity of sometimes moving sideways to get ahead.
"Unless it's going to move you to another city, you turn down a lateral move these days at your peril," Mr. Fox said. "In a way, today it's more like the '50s and '60s, where you said 'yes sir' when you were asked.
"In the '80s, we didn't think so much that way because we had full employment. You could turn down a move and be fine. Now the game has changed."
Mr. Fox counsels many executives and managers who were let go because they refused a sideways move that might have advanced their career.
At McDonnell Douglas Space Systems in Huntington Beach, Calif., management has been reduced to five layers from eight in the past three years.
Still, Chuck Straub, vice president of human resources, senses a reluctance among workers to accept a lateral move. "It still has a certain degree of stigma attached to it. . . . Before the cultural mind-set changes, I think it's going to be another three to five years," he said.
Sally McGorgary, a vice president of employee relations at Wells Fargo Bank in Irvine, has sensed a similar reluctance at her organization but notes this is changing.
"It's helped that some very strong performers and very highly thought-of employees have made these lateral moves here," she said. "Then other people think, 'If they made them, then I can, too.' "
Bankers who once thought they could advance only by staying in one area, such as commercial banking, are moving around more, she added.
"When we stopped doing leveraged buyouts, a number of employees moved to other business units," she said. "I don't think we saw that so much five years ago."
Employees who feel bored or unchallenged, or who are working in a division that isn't performing well, are among the best candidates to consider lateral moves, experts say.
Harriet Adams believes that she recharged her career at Juice Tree Inc. in Westminster, Calif., by making the switch from administration to marketing two years ago.
Ultimately, the move led to a promotion. She is now vice president of marketing. Later this year, she'll be off to Paris to deal with some of the company's international customers.
"I've always loved my company and liked what I was doing, but I knew I needed more of a challenge," said Ms. Adams, 57.
A lateral move isn't always the right one, however. Mr. Fox cautions those who would move just to get away from a current position.
"I would be careful that you know the condition of the pond before you step into it," he said. "It may be you're heading into a place that is in deep trouble."