Rolf David Dixon Jr. and Jeff Bednar, Organizational Leadership and Strategy
The retention of employees is a major financial and cultural concern for almost all organizations. As a result, the study of voluntary turnover has a rich history in the domain of organizational behavior. We believe that this research has at least two blind spots that create an opportunity for new inquiry and insight. First, the nature of the employment contract between employees and organizations has changed over time. Employment in previous decades was largely founded on expectations of a long-term employment in one organization, however, in more recent years, this view of careers has been replaced with the notion that careers are now “boundaryless.” Second, Gen X and Millennial employees are often entering the workforce in various types of professional service firms which differ from more traditional business organizations in many respects. Most employees in professional service firms find themselves in a liminal career state, with some perhaps wanting to stay, but most wanting or knowing they will leave their firm at some point in the relatively near future.
Thus, we felt compelled to examine the career plans of young professionals to better understand what motivates them to stay and leave. The guiding question we hoped to answer was, “How do Gen X and Millennials working in professional service firms evaluate their current roles in service of making decisions about when to stay and when to leave?” Therefore, the goal of this study is to build and extend theory about career planning and turnover intentions among young professionals in professional service firms.
To gain a deeper understanding of these unexplored dynamics, we used a grounded theory approach. We chose to collect data from a sample of certified professional accountants (CPA’s) working for the “Big Four” public accounting firms (Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG, and PriceWaterhouse Coopers) who were classified as Gen X or Millenials born in the 80’s and 90’s. We developed a semi-structured interview protocol and interviewed 32 public accountants. We selected individuals based on a number of categories deemed important from pre-test interviews including firm, gender, specialty, position, and location. All interviews were conducted over the phone and ranged from 35 to 60 minutes. The interview protocol contained responses about a variety of topic areas concerning the accountants’ career paths and intentions. The analysis of the data was a dynamic process that required frequent iterations between the data and the emerging model. In stage one of the data analysis, we read through each interview to generate codes, which are a method of meaning condensation. After this open coding process was completed, we returned to the data to create more abstract theoretical categories from the first order codes within the preliminary categories. Throughout the process, we created data definitions and stored codes and definitions in various data dictionaries.
Central to the question of career evaluations is the standard by which careers are judged. While often referred to as the “ideal job”, we found that these accountants rarely spoke so precisely. We developed a concept of “the dream” to describe this standard. The dream is not limited to one stable ‘ideal job’ but is continually being refined and redefined, and can in fact hold a number of possible ‘ideal jobs’ within it. The accountants spoke of the dream in possibilities, almost always in the plural. The dream is very dynamic and is constantly undergoing a process of experimentation and refinement. The dream is vital in providing a framework for evaluating our current place in the process.
Most theories speak about job evaluation in terms of relative position and discrepancy from some ideal position or job. Our evidence suggests that people not only consider their objective distance from such an ideal, but that we are also highly attuned to movement. In particular, we find that a large and vital aspect of job evaluations is the evaluation of movement as positive or negative, positive movement being defined as movement closer towards the dream, and negative movement defined as movement away from the dream, or stagnation. Because the dream includes a sense of who I desire to be, what I desire to do, and where I desire to be situated, individuals evaluate what they are becoming, what they are contributing, and where they are going in reference to the related aspects of the dream. The evaluation of movement towards “who I desire to be” we term “developmental” movement. “Situational” movement is movement of the self towards a better situation, as defined by a situation closer to the dream situation. We term the third category of movement evaluation “contributory” movement. It is not an evaluation of the actual movement of the individual themselves, rather it is an evaluation of the movement of someone or something else which is caused, or contributed to, by the individual. It is movement towards the aspects of the dream concerning “what I desire to do.” We were able to further break each of these categories into sub-categories as well. These evaluations are all temporal in nature, and so the distinction between movement actualized in the past and movement anticipated in the future is important.
These different types of progress are considered both separately and in combination. If one part of the evaluation process is determining the positive and negative velocity of their movement, another aspect is weighing them against each other by importance. This process of evaluating movement towards the dream and then weighing the value of the different types of perceived movement against each other has a strong impact on satisfaction and commitment. Positive movement has a powerful and positive effect on the employee’s relationship with their job, despite apparent discrepancies between the dream and the work they do. In the process of movement evaluation, employees must determine not only if their job is their ideal, a conclusion virtually impossible by the ever moving goal of the dream, but also if their job is helping them make movement towards their dream in a number of different areas, and then which categories of movement they care about most. This is the last step before determining what actions to take. Interestingly, even with negative evaluations of one’s work, perceiving positive movement is able to modify or even overcome those negative evaluations and lead to satisfied employees with low turnover intentions.
Though much literature has focused on concrete external indicators of success, such as pay and job title, the central finding emerging from our study is that progress, or perceived positive movement towards one’s dream, has important implications in career planning and job satisfaction. Specifically, our findings add to the current understanding in a number of ways: (1) providing a fuller and more robust description of the dream, along with how movement is evaluated in relation to the dream (2) showing that contemporary professional employees in large part measure success by movement towards the dream, despite other undesirable aspects of their job, and (3) identifying how perceptions of movement affect job attitudes, specifically job satisfaction and turnover intentions. We believe these findings are vital in gaining an accurate understanding of job evaluation and career planning within the “new career.”