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SHRM Foundation Research


Predicting Ten Years of Worker Career Success from Employee Development Behavior

Funded: 2010     Completed: September 2012

Todd J. Maurer, Ph.D., J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University

Executive Summary

This study investigated predictors of career success over a ten year period in a diverse sample of 289 full-time workers drawn from across many jobs and industries in the U.S. workforce.  A rich set of predictors from literature on employee development behavior was used to predict several career outcomes.  Human resource practitioners sometimes consider outcome variables such as the number of promotions workers attain, the salary level they achieve, their job satisfaction and career satisfaction to be critical concerns with potentially significant value to human resource management.  In that vein, a greater understanding of the predictors of these outcomes is potentially valuable to the HR literature. We discuss the findings of this study that relate to these outcomes below. 

Support for employee development: Unique and accumulating effects Support for development in the situation surrounding the employee includes support for development by other people including supervisors, coworkers, and even clients, along with the availability of development and learning resources at work.  In this study, early support for development by one's employer ten years prior contributed to current pay level and job and career satisfaction, and a longitudinal trend of increasing or accumulating support over the ten year period further contributed to job and career satisfaction beyond that early support.  This contextual/situational variable had consistent effects not accounted for by a variety of human capital and socio-demographic variables, suggesting the unique importance of this construct to success. 

This finding adds to prior research suggesting such organizational support correlates with employee attitudes and behavior in the short-term—here uniquely linking it to long-term career success over ten years. This finding reinforces the value of efforts in this area by organizations to provide support for development and by employees who place importance on working in such organizations.  That is, although there is a notion in the literature that supporting employee development can be effective in enhancing immediately-resulting employee attitudes and can affect recruiting and retention in a positive way, there has not been research linking such organizational support to employee career success in the long-term as done in the present study. The present results add new and valuable data to the conversation about the effects of supporting employee and career development in organizations. 

There was also an effect for an increasing trend in employee development activity involvement over the ten year period in relation to job promotions over that period.  There could be worthwhile and important outcomes from developing oneself via employee development activities.  Thus, while early support relates to the extrinsic outcome of salary achieved and satisfaction, an ongoing trend of development involvement related to promotions.  The development support seems to provide a foundation and momentum toward pay and satisfaction achieved, while the ongoing development involvement provides a contribution to ascension/promotion.       
Proactive personality: A prominent dispositional influence.  People high in proactive personality identify opportunities and act on them, demonstrate initiative, persevere to bring about change, find and solve problems, and take it on themselves to have an impact on the world around them. A second contribution of the present study is that proactive personality had unique effects not accounted for by a variety of other personality, achievement orientation, and socio-demographic and human capital control variables examined.  The present study contributes by showing the effects of proactive personality as being a significant predictor of job and career satisfaction in the presence of these other variables.  This strengthens conclusions and available data for proactive personality and adds to the job and career satisfaction literatures. 

For practice, it also suggests that attracting and retaining employees with higher proactive personality might result in employees with higher satisfaction.  It may be that the characteristics involved with proactive behavior, in comparison to the other individual differences measured, provide the greatest value for career success.  In agreement with prior research, this individual difference construct seems relevant to subjective success (satisfaction) rather than objective success (pay, promotions), possibly because such personality variables are more proximal determinants to one’s sense of well-being and affective satisfaction.  Nonetheless, these findings strengthen or reinforce prior findings suggesting that proactive personality is a key predictor in intrinsic career success.  

Goal orientation profile effects.Goal orientation has become one of the most frequently studied motivational variables and is the dominant approach to the study of achievement motivation. Those who have a ‘learning goal orientation’ strive to understand new things and to increase their competence and skills through pursuing challenging, developmental activities. Individuals with a ‘performance goal orientation’ strive to demonstrate their competence via task performance and to prove their effectiveness compared to others (i.e. performance prove goal) or to avoid negative judgments of their performance (i.e. performance avoid goal).  Another contribution of the present study was to suggest that it is not one dimension or another but two of them in combination that may lead to success.  The idea that mastery or learning orientation is of primary importance for success may be too simplistic when it comes to long-term career success. 

For example, proving one’s value via ongoing performance achievements can contribute to success, but this may be more likely to occur to the extent that one is concurrently avoiding observable mistakes or instances of inadequate performance.  Likewise, a long-term focus on learning and mastery could contribute to success as might be suggested by the literature, but this might occur more so if accompanied by a performance focus in which one strives to establish one's competence and prove performance accomplishments to others.  While this notion may make good logical sense, it departs from a theme in the goal orientation research literature that seems somewhat slanted toward learning and mastery orientation being good and performance orientation (prove, avoid) being undesirable.  From a practical point of view, the present perspective suggests that employees might achieve most success by being oriented toward multiple achievement goals rather than one only (e.g. learning/mastery). 

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