Industrial/organizational psychologists offer their advice for helping job seekers determine whether a potential employer offers a good fit
The survey also found that work-life fit—or how well a job fits with the rest of an employee's life—plays an important role in employee retention, says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, who directs APA's Center for Organizational Excellence. "Americans spend a majority of their waking hours at work and, as such, they want to have harmony between their job demands and the other parts of their lives," Ballard says. That means that to remain competitive, employers need to create environments where employees feel connected to the organization and have a work experience that's part of a rich, fulfilling life.
How can psychologists determine whether a potential employer will give them that positive experience and work-life fit? Some industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists point to the importance of matching an employee's values with that of the organization. Others say previous work experiences—such as the factors they did and didn't like about a job or supervisor—are key indicators of what to look for in a new role. Overall, though, determining whether an organization is a good match has to start with a thorough understanding of your career priorities, I/O psychologists say. "It is as much about what your needs and preferences are as it is about the organization," Ballard says.
Look inward. Before the job search, psychologists should pinpoint what their work interests are, says I/O psychologist Edgar Schein, PhD, a professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Start by conducting a self-analysis of your career to date to help you determine your strengths, your values and what motivates you—or, as Schein calls it, your "career anchor." His research on career anchors has shown that most people place different amounts of emphasis on the importance of eight categories or preferences. They are technical/functional competence; general managerial competence; autonomy/independence; security/stability; entrepreneurial creativity; service/dedication to a cause; pure challenge; and lifestyle.
So, for example, among clinical psychologists, some want to work for an organization because they are more security/stability oriented, while others want to set up private practices because they want to be on their own.
He points out, however, that often one's anchor can't truly be discovered before spending several years in the workforce. "This really is a deeper level of knowledge about oneself that isn't usually something people know when they graduate," he explains. "They need 10 years of experience to really figure themselves out."
Network with experts. Early on in your career, Schein recommends reaching out to psychologists who are in jobs you can imagine moving into. "Find someone ahead of you in your career and get a sense of what work is like for them at that job," he says.
Determine personal priorities. Job seekers also have to think about their personal priorities and interests before they start their job searches, says Helena Cooper-Thomas, PhD, a professor of organizational behaviour at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. Her point is backed by new research: In a meta-analysis of 92 studies with nearly 35,000 participants, employees whose interest profiles matched their job profiles were more likely to perform better, help others in the organization and stay with the company longer. The study, led by Michigan State University I/O psychologist Christopher Nye, PhD, shows that it's not a person's overall interest in a particular kind of work, but how their interests across various types of work match with the skills and tasks involved in a particular job. The researchers surmise that this match—known as person-environment fit—is a much better predictor of job performance than the more general interest or personality measures often used by college career centers (Journal of Vocational Psychology, 2017).
One way job seekers can determine whether their interests match with those of other company employees is to search for the employer on LinkedIn, Ballard says. There, you can often find employees' public-facing profiles, which can offer insight into the skill sets and longevity of people who work there.
Consider a "misfit" job. Candidates should also consider where they can tolerate or even benefit from "misfit," Cooper-Thomas adds. "If you're the type of person who likes to have fun at work by playing pranks or telling jokes, you probably wouldn't do well in a secure facility, while those with a competitive streak may conflict with the compassionate and calm values found in some health-care settings," she says.
But having knowledge or skills that are different from one's colleagues can result in more innovative ideas and helpful solutions, which can help employees get noticed and accelerate their careers, she points out.
Do more research. Once psychologists determine the factors that matter most to them in a job, they should read up on any organization they are interested in, paying particular attention to its mission or values statement, says Ballard. "Something that's often telling about an organization's attention to employee well-being is whether or not it has something about creating a positive or healthy work environment and supporting staff built into its mission statement or values," he says. He also recommends doing an Internet search using both Google and Glassdoor to see how the organization is portrayed and whether, for example, they've been embroiled in any controversy. "Look not just at the things the organization itself posts, but also the kinds of comments, statements and reactions they get from other people," he says.
Get specific in your interview. Of course, it's always helpful to ask about an organization's culture during the interview process—the drawback is that there is no guarantee that the recruiter's espoused values are the values in use, warns Cooper-Thomas. What can be more helpful, she suggests, is asking your interviewers to be more specific by sharing an incident at work that reveals the organization's values in action. Interviewers could discuss a time they were particularly proud of their employer, for example.
Cooper-Thomas also notes that every organization has different layers of culture, so job seekers should try to ascertain whether they would fit with the people they would work with on a daily basis, such as supervisors and colleagues. She suggests paying particular attention to how employers treat people: Is the receptionist friendly and helpful? Did the interviewers show respect by arriving on time? Did they answer the job seeker's questions honestly?
Gauge your potential support system. Also ask interviewers about the amount of autonomy employees have within the organization, the organization's structure and the kinds of support available, Ballard says. For example, if you're looking for a job where you're providing clinical services, you'll want to know whether there is administrative, billing and collection support.
In addition, pay attention to how formal or informal the work environment appears to be, as well as how diverse and inclusive it is, Ballard says.
And if it's important to you, talk to the recruiter and your potential supervisors about flexibility and work-life fit to find out if you'd have the ability to modify when, where, and how much you work to accommodate your needs.
Think about the "fun factor." Early career psychologists have spent many years studying and planning their career paths, and are usually quite passionate about further developing them, says University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Ayelet Fishbach, PhD. But when it comes to sticking with a job, people thrive most when they're doing interesting work with people they like, according to research by Fishbach and behavioral science doctoral candidate Kaitlin Woolley (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015). So, in addition to looking for benefits such as career development opportunities, it's important to consider whether you can expect to enjoy, be challenged, fulfilled and experience social connections in a work setting, the authors say. "A workplace that offers immediate benefits in terms of engagement and enjoyment is a place where people stay," Fishbach says.
Find out what a typical day would really look like. Finally, Schein encourages job seekers to get personal with the people they're interviewing. That means spending time to get to know the one or two people you have met in the organization by asking them why they got into the field and how they like their jobs. This tactic works best toward the end of the interview process, he says, or even as a follow-up call once a job is offered.
"What you really need to find out is not about all the benefits and bonuses that might be available to you, but what you'd really be doing day by day and would the people around you be supportive of that," Schein says.
Trust your gut
Before you take a job, ask yourself the following questions:
- Will I be pursuing my true interests in this position?
- Will I have the work-life balance I want?
- Do my co-workers seem to mirror my values?
- Will I feel valued by this employer and in this position?
By Amy Novotney
- This article was originally published in the May 2017 Monitor on Psychology