Gone are the days of rigid, predictable job ladders. Today’s career paths tend to be more fluid and meandering and might even contain what was once considered a career killer: one or more lateral moves involving different positions with the same level of responsibility.

Before a lateral move

Look for these qualities in the new position and company:

  • You’ll have room to stretch and advance once you’re there.
  • You’ll be surrounded by people you can learn from.
  • Your projects will present new growth opportunities.
  • You’ll have the chance to learn new skills and apply them in new ways (through educational opportunities or volunteering for new projects.)
  • The company is strong, well-respected and offers longer-term opportunities that will feed your career.

(Source: Kathy Caprino)

But these lateral moves, whether within single or multiple organisations, can have their drawbacks: some hiring managers still see them as red flags, interpreting them as career setbacks. Questions surrounding a candidate’s ambition and abilities can surface. So, then, when is it okay to make a lateral move — and when would it be better to hold steady and wait for a promotion or for a more senior or more challenging position?

When in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do

In Switzerland, the job role is considered much more important than the title, and promotion is only a priority for top management, according to executive career coach Regina Reinhardt who divides her time between Switzerland and Greece. So, a lateral move is almost always perceived as a good sign there, she wrote in an email. “Mostly [it] is a great opportunity to learn about the engaged company, [its] organisational culture and to expand your network — especially when you are an expert in a field.”

Even if the move turns out not to be the best one for your career, it’s still better than “sitting back home speculating, analysing, fantasising or imagining,” wrote Reinhardt.

Open up doors

There is nothing wrong with making a lateral move if the job is aligned with your career goals and there is a beneficial work culture, according to Connecticut-based career coach, author and speaker Kathy Caprino.

“How you feel about your job and work isn’t just about the tasks you perform,” she said. “It’s also about the people you’re interacting with, how aligned you feel with the company’s mission, the outcomes the company is dedicated to, the role the organisation serves in the community, the impact you can make and the growth you can eventually achieve.”

70 percent is better

But don’t jump so quickly at a position you already know inside and out, said Kelly Studer, a San Francisco-based career coach. Studer sees hiring managers time and time again trying to find people for their teams who are 90% to 100% qualified for the job. “They don’t have time to train someone and get them up to speed. So, of course, they want someone they can rely on from day one.”

But, in the long run, this isn’t a good move for anyone, manager or candidate. “When you’re already qualified for the job, the newness and excitement will most likely wear off within three to six months, and you’ll be back where you started, plus a bit bored and not very engaged,” said Studer. 

If managers were to choose candidates who are only 70% qualified, they would end up with much stronger ones — and ones who might stick around, according to Studer.

“When given a challenge, people tend to be more engaged and focused. Plus [they] step up their game,” she said. “Hiring managers would massively benefit from employees who are excited by challenging work and invested in their own growth. They stick around longer and are happier employees.”

Bigger picture

And don’t forget the bigger picture, according to Greg Menzone, an executive manager at Boston-based Professional Staffing Group.

“It's important to consider whether the role will afford exposure to [a] new working environment, new challenges and more complex job functions — and how the role will affect your career overall."

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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