The Role of Circumstances, Individual Differences and Social Support in Determining the Difficulty of a Job Change or Career Transition

Master's Thesis, 2007

157 Pages, Grade: 80% - A - 1



Preliminary Material
Copyright Statement
About the Author

The Dissertation
Dissertation Overview

1. Introduction
1.1. Background
1.2. Statement of the Problem
1.2.1. Career transition and its effect on the individual
1.2.2. Popular models of career transition
1.3. Significance of the Study
1.3.1. Significance of the study to the individual
1.3.2. Significance of the study to employers
1.3.3. Significance of the study to career professionals

2. Factors Contributing to Career Transition Difficulty
2.1. The Role of the Transition Situation and the Individual in the Transition Process
2.1.1. The transition situation
2.1.2. The individual
2.1.3. Person-environment interactions
2.1.4. The person-situation debate
2.1.5. Selection of individual and situational variables
2.2. The Role of Social Support in the Experience of Transition Difficulty
2.2.1. Interactions of the situation and social support
2.2.2. Interactions of the person and social support
2.2.3. Social support as a multi-dimensional construct
2.3. Summary of Research Aims

3. Research Hypotheses
3.1. The Role of Individual and Situational Difficulty in Determining Overall
Transition Difficulty
3.1.1. Hypothesis 1: Individual and situational difficulty as predictors of overall transition difficulty
3.1.2. Hypothesis 2: The relative importance of the person and situation in predicting overall transition difficulty
3.1.3. Hypothesis 3: The person-situation interaction
3.2. The Role of Social Support in Job/Career Transitions and Its Relationship to Individual and Situational Variables
3.2.1. Hypothesis 4: Social support as a predictor of transition difficulty
3.2.2. Hypothesis 5: Social support as a multidimensional construct
3.2.3. Hypothesis 6: Social support and its relationship to the transition situation
3.2.4. Hypothesis 7: Social support and its relationship to the individual

4. Methodology
4.1. Research Design
4.1.1. Thurstone Scaling Method of Equal Appearing Intervals
4.1.2. Measuring the role of social support during transitions
4.1.3. Internet-mediated research
4.1.4. The sample
4.2. Preliminary Study: Selection of Social Support Items to be Included in the Main Study
4.2.1. Materials: questionnaire design
4.2.2. Participants
4.2.3. Procedure
4.2.4. Pilot study
4.2.5. Selection of items to be included in the main questionnaire
4.3. Main Study: The Role of Individual Differences, Situational Factors and Social Support in Career Transitions
4.3.1. Materials: questionnaire design
4.3.2. Participants
4.3.3. Procedure
4.3.4. Pilot study

5. Data Analysis and Results
5.1. Data Entry and Screening
5.2. The Role of Individual and Situational Difficulty in Determining Overall Transition Difficulty
5.2.1. Design considerations
5.2.2. Descriptive statistics
5.2.3. The regression model
5.2.4. Generalisation and cross-validity check of the regression model
5.3. The Role of Social Support in Determining Overall Transition Difficulty
5.3.1. Design considerations
5.3.2. Descriptive statistics
5.3.3. Main effect analyses
5.3.4. Interaction analyses

6. Discussion
6.1. Discussion of Results:
6.1.1. Hypothesis 1.
6.1.2. Hypothesis 2
6.1.3. Hypothesis 3
6.1.4. Hypothesis 4
6.1.5. Hypothesis 5
6.1.6. Hypothesis 6
6.1.7. Hypothesis 7
6.2. Limitations
6.2.1. Design limitations
6.2.2. Sample limitations:
6.2.3. Other considerations:
6.3. Implications for the Study of Career Transitions
6.4. Practical Implications
6.4.1. Implications for the individual
6.4.2. Implications for employers:
6.4.3. Implications for career professionals:
6.5. Further Suggestions for Future Research:
6.6. Summary and Conclusion:

7. References

Word Count : 24,546

List of Figures

Figure 1. The Transition Cycle

Figure 2. The Schlossberg Model of Transition Process

Figure 3. The transition process

Figure 4. The relationship between situational, individual and social variables in the career transition process

List of Tables

Table 1. Summary of situational variables included in this study and their relevance to the career transition process

Table 2. Summary of individual difference variables included in this study and their relevance to the career transition process

Table 3. Means and standard deviations of difficulty ratings of selected social support items of the Social Support in Transition Survey

Table 4. Summary of stepwise regression analysis for individual and situational difficulty predicting overall transition difficulty

Table 5. Summary of hierarchical regression analysis investigating an interaction effect of individual and situational difficulty on overall transition difficulty ratings

Table 6. Means and standard deviations for items of section two of the Job Change Questionnaire

Table 7. Effects and effect sizes for simple contrasts comparing mean transition difficulty ratings in each of the five social support conditions to the baseline condition

Table 8. Effects and effect sizes for contrasts comparing mean transition difficulty ratings in each of the five social support conditions to the baseline condition for high and low individual difficulty

List of Graphs

Graph 1. Sample breakdown by age group

Graph 2. Sample breakdown by length of work experience in the area of job/career change

Graph 3. Sample breakdown by occupational group

Graph 4. Mean transition difficulty ratings in each of the social support


Graph 6. Transition difficulty ratings for each social support condition compared to the baseline measurement in the high and low situational difficulty groups

Graph 7. Main effect of individual difficulty on transition difficulty ratings

Graph 8. Transition difficulty ratings for each social support condition compared to the baseline measurement in the high and low individual difficulty groups

Graph 9. Transition difficulty ratings in the social support conditions for the high and low individual difficulty groups within the low situational difficulty group

Graph 10. Transition difficulty ratings in the social support conditions for the high and low individual difficulty groups within the high situational difficulty group

Graph 11. I nteraction of individual and situational difficulty on social difficulty ratings

List of Equations

Equation 1. General Regression Equation

Equation 2. Final Regression Model Equation

List of Appendices

Appendix 1. Design Layout

Appendix 2. Social Support in Transition Questionnaire Items

Appendix 3. Email of Invitation to Preliminary Study

Appendix 4. Index of job transition difficulty as measured by the Social Support in Transition Scale

Appendix 5. Job Change Questionnaire Items

Appendix 6. Speculative Letter

Appendix 7. Online Advertisement

Appendix 8. Test of Parametric Assumptions

Appendix 9. Test of Generalisation and Cross-validity of the Regression Model.

Preliminary Material


Traditional career patterns have changed as employees are increasingly forced to jump between jobs and careers in order to obtain advancement (Smith, 2007). While research suggests that a job change can have a positive outcome for the mental well-being of the employee, studies investigating the transition process indicate the period of transition can be a difficult time for individuals. Previous research by Delargy (2004) and Tonks (2006) suggests that transition difficulty varies depending on the combination of individual differences and situational factors involved. Furthermore, research indicates that social variables, in particular social support, may influence difficulty of job transition (e.g. Moyles and Parkes, 1999). Although various conceptualisations of transitions exist (e.g. Nicholson and West, 1988; Kübler-Ross, 1969; Schlossberg, 1984), they do not adequately explain individual differences in the experience of job transitions. The present study aimed to address this gap in the career literature by investigating the role of individual, situational and social variables within an interpretative framework of transition-stress. In a questionnaire-based study, subject matter experts (N=64) rated the likely difficulty of various fictitious transition scenarios, in which the difficulty of individual and situational variable combinations was systematically manipulated. The role of social support was also assessed through scenario ratings. The results showed an additive, rather than interactive, influence of situational and individual difficulty on overall transition difficulty. Social support was also found to be a significant influence on transition difficulty. Results also indicated that social support interacts with the individual, but not the situation, in determining transition difficulty. The results are discussed in relation to current career and stress literature. The present research emphasises the importance of interactive approaches to the investigation of factors involved in the career transition process. Finally, practical implications for individuals, career professionals and organisations are discussed and suggestions for future research are made.

No portion of the work referred to in this dissertation has been submitted in support of an application for another degree or qualification of this or any other university or other institute of learning.

Copyright Statement

a) Copyright in text of this dissertation rests with the author. Copies (by any process) either in full, or of extracts, may be made only in accordance with instructions given by the author. Details may be obtained from your programme administrator. This page must form part of any such copies made. Further copies (by any process) of copies made in accordance with such instructions may not be made without the permission (in writing) of the author.
b) The ownership of any intellectual property rights which may be described in this dissertation is vested with the University of Manchester, subject to any prior agreement to the contrary, and may not be made available for use by third parties without the written permission of the University, which will prescribe the terms and conditions of any such agreement.
c) Further information on the conditions under which disclosures and exploitation may take place is available from the Academic Dean of Manchester Business School.

About the Author

Verena Nitsch studied a BSc. in Applied Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, where she achieved a first class honours. From there, she went straight into her MSc. in Organisational Psychology at Manchester Business School.

At the age of 25, Verena can look back to nearly ten years of transition experience. Born and raised in Germany, she experienced her first major transition at the age of 16 when she decided to move to the United States. Since then, she has studied, lived, and worked in countries all over the world, including the US, Germany, France, Spain, Australia, and the UK. After qualifying as a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, she hopes to pursue an international career in occupational psychology.


I wish to offer my thanks and appreciation to the following people:

To my supervisors, Mike Smith and Mark Batey, whom I could always depend on for advice and support.

To all the individuals who took part in the research. Thank you for allowing this research to take place. Your interest in this subject and my study kept me motivated.

To my family and friends. Thank you for your never-ending support. Your ability to pick me up when I feel down never ceases to amaze me.

The Dissertation

Dissertation Overview

On-going economic, political, technological, and cultural changes have a profound impact on the world of work in the 21st century. Globalisation has led to an increasingly competitive market place. In order to survive and thrive in the corporate world, organisations are subjected to continuous restructuring. Organisational structures tend to be flatter and more decentralised than they were in the past. As a result, employees are increasingly forced to jump between jobs and career to obtain advancement. In the future, this trend is likely to continue with organisations employing a small number of core employees and a large number of temporary or contingent workers (Greenhaus, Callanan, and Godshalk, 2000). This instability in modern careers means that people can expect as many as ten job and career changes during their working lives (Smith, 2007).

Although job transitions are quickly becoming the norm, little is known about their underlying psychological processes and their effects on individuals. Research suggests that a job change can be more beneficial to the individual’s well-being than are non-changes (e.g. Nicholson and West, 1988). On the other hand, research on involuntary terminations, relocations, and other aspects involved in transitions, indicates that the transition period can be a difficult time for individuals. Research by Delargy (2004) and Tonks (2006) found that the difficulty of a transition can vary depending on individual differences and the transition situation. Social variables, in particular social support, have also been implicated in the transition process (e.g. Moyles and Parkes, 1999).

Most models of career transitions fail to adequately explain and conceptualise processes underlying individual differences in the experience of job transitions. The purpose of this study is to address this gap. In this context, the role of individual differences, circumstances and social support in the career transition process and their relationship to one another will be investigates. This study features a review of research literature in the areas of career management, stress processes, person-environment interactions, and the psychological experience of individuals in career transition to provide a theoretical framework for analyzing and interpreting the data.

Although the responsibility of career management is increasingly laid on the individual, identifying the factors involved in the transition process and their relationship to one another is not only of interest to individuals undergoing this process. A greater understanding of the transition process could help career professionals to advise their clients more appropriately. This would not only improve their ability to meet clients’ needs but also allow them to employ their resources better. Organisations can equally benefit from this research as it has practical implications for the productivity of employees and retention of talent.

1. Introduction

1.1. Background

The career concept has changed dramatically over the past few decades. In the 1970s, a worker would have been likely to be employed with the same company for virtually his entire working life. Today, an organisation’s commitment to its workers is only temporary (Zheng and Kleiner, 2001). In the age of globalisation and information technology, the need for continuous organisational change has substantially increased, forcing organisations to rely on measures such as reinvention, transformation, downsizing and restructuring (Burnes, 2000). The effect on employees is that life-long employment with the same organisation can no longer be expected. This effect is not restricted to shop-level employees but equally affects upper and top-level management, with the average CEO likely holding a job for less than four years (The Economist, 2006). Career paths today increasingly involve sequences of job opportunities that go beyond the boundaries of single employment settings. This led to the coining of the term ‘boundaryless career’ (Defillipi and Arthur, 1994).

Definitions of the career concept vary widely, as virtually every career research stream proposes its own definition of careers (Driver, 1988). In fact, Arthur, Hall and Lawrence (1989) identified 11 separate descriptions of what constitutes a career. For a better overview, some common career definitions are listed below.

1. A series of related job experiences that fit into some meaningful pattern (DuBrin, 1983).
2. Occupations that are characterised by interrelated training and work experiences, in which a person moves upward through a series of positions that require greater mastery and responsibility, and that provide increasing financial return (Perlmutter and Hall, 1992).
3. A pattern of work-related experiences that span the course of a person’s life (Greenhaus, Callanan and Godshalk, 2000).
4. The evolving sequence of employment-related positions, roles, activities and experiences encountered by a person as their working life develops (Smith, 2007).

A common feature of all of these career definitions is that they refer to more than one role or event (Arnold, 1997). However, there is some debate over whether a career is confined to upward and/or predictable movement within one area of work as it is suggested in definitions 1 and 2. Most academics familiar with the career literature would argue that such definitions are too restrictive and no longer applicable to modern working standards (Arnold, 1997). For the current research, a career will simply be defined as ‘a sequence of work experiences that advance the development of work-relevant knowledge and skills’. The breadth of this career definition is an advantage for the study of career transitions as it encompasses all types of job transitions. Some career scholars make a distinction between the terms job transition and career transition. Within the context of this study, however, the two terms are synonymous and will be used interchangeably from hereon.

1.2. Statement of the Problem

1.2.1. Career transition and its effect on the individual

Although job changes are becoming increasingly common, the transition process and its effects on the individual directly involved in them are rarely investigated. A definition of career transition should aim to encompass inter- as well as intra-organisational mobility, and also apply to circumstances in which the job itself changes, for example, through job redesign or redefinition. Career transition could therefore broadly be described as “any major change in work role requirements or work context” (Nicholson and West, 1989, p. 183). This definition exemplifies a paradigm shift which occurred in the career transition literature and research over the past few decades. Previously a career transition was seen as an event, now it is regarded as a process (Miles, 2002).

Most of the studies which investigated the effects of career transition focused on outcomes of job changes. Typically, these studies compared the effects of changes versus non-changes. Overall, these studies found little evidence of negative effects on job changers. For example, Brett (1982) reported few differences in well-being between recently relocated managers and those who did not have to go through a transition. Similarly, Schlossberg and Leibowitz (1980) found in a qualitative study that, in some cases, terminated employees seemed to adapt to new jobs with little effort and even reported a greater sense of control over their lives. Others (e.g. Burke, 1974; Keller and Holland, 1982) also reported positive outcomes of job changes, including a reduction in stress symptoms (Kirjonen and Hanninen, 1986). Those studies that found significant negative effects of job changes on individuals have shown that failures to cope afflict only a minority of job changers, and that negative consequences are often short lived (e.g. Nicholson, 1987; Nicholson and West, 1988; Brett, 1982; Burke, 1974; Latack, 1984).

This research suggests that changing one’s job is oftentimes more beneficial for an individual’s well-being than it is to remain in the previous job. Latack (1984) suggested this effect may occur as job changes present relief from a variety of stressors. For one, a job change can offer employees relief from environmental or social stressors present at their previous workplace. A job change may also reduce stress caused by a lack of advancement opportunities in the previous job. Pressures of job insecurity which may have been experienced at the previous job can also be temporarily relieved through job change.

The majority of studies on job transitions fail to consider differences between various types of changes or individual differences of those involved. As a result, they provide little information about the experience of the transition process itself. Yet, there is reason to believe that the transition period can be difficult for individuals. A number of studies on the impact of various critical life events on personal well-being (e.g., Dohrenwend, Krasnoff, Askenasy, and Dohrenwend, 1978; Holmes and Rahe, 1967) have found that people generally perceive a job transfer and the events often accompanying such a transfer (e.g. change in financial state) as requiring a substantial amount of readjustment which may tax or exceed an individual’s adaptive capacities. Similarly, research on relocations indicates that transitions to unfamiliar settings tend to be demanding for the individual, as previously acquired routines are disturbed and the individual is placed into an environment in which they may not be allowed to function comfortably and automatically (Brett, Stroh, and Reilly, 1992). In addition, when changing one’s job, traditional sources of support derived from previous colleagues and other interpersonal relationships at work are usually no longer available until they are replaced (Brett, Stroh, and Reilly, 1992). Research also found consistent links between job loss and a number of adverse outcomes such as depression, insomnia and low self-esteem, indicating that individuals whose job transition is precipitated by involuntary job loss may suffer similar effects (Greenhaus, Callanan, and Godshalk, 2000).

As the situational circumstances of the transition are likely to vary for each transition, this would suggest that transitions also vary in their demands on the individual. Furthermore, stress research indicates that individuals differ in their susceptibility to stress, indicating individual differences in the experience of transition difficulty (Greenhaus, Callanan, and Godshalk, 2000). This was supported in studies by Delargy (2004) and Tonks (2006), which found that job transitions are considered to vary in difficulty, depending on the transition situation, as well as personal characteristics of the transitioner.

1.2.2. Popular models of career transition

Although most researchers would acknowledge that job transitions vary in their difficulty, little is known about the processes leading to individual differences in the experience of transition difficulty. In an effort to increase our understanding of the processes involved in career transitions, a number of different frameworks have been proposed. Some have seen career transition as a natural, reoccurring phenomenon with little negative impact on the individual (e.g. Nicholson and West, 1988). At the other end of the spectrum, others have compared the career transition process to the extraordinary event of bereavement (e.g. Kübler-Ross, 1969). The following section will provide a short overview over three of the most widely applied career transition models.

Nicholson and West’ s (1988) Transition Cycle:

Nicholson and West’s (1988) Transition Cycle is perhaps one of the best known models of career transition. According to this model, the transition process encompasses five stages, whereby, due to the recursive nature of this cyclical model, the fifth stage is the same as the first and has been termed preparation. It refers to the individual’s psychological readiness to undergo a career transition. Stage two, ‘encounter’, deals with the degree of ‘reality shock’ experienced during the first few days and weeks in the new job. The third stage is termed adjustment, in which the individual attempts to fit in the new environment in order to become a fully functioning member of the organisation. In the fourth and penultimate stage, termed stabilisation, the individual strives to maintain the basic elements of the role. This stage is believed to be short-lived and quickly leads to the fifth stage, preparation for the next transition, and thereby closes the cycle. Although the stages are believed to be discontinuous in so far as each stage has qualitatively distinct tasks, experiences, problems and solutions, they are also interdependent. That is, each stage has an effect on the following stage. See Figure 1.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1. The Transition Cycle (adapted from Nicholson and West, 1988, p.9).

The strength of Nicholson and West’s model is that it is able to delineate processes which are believed to affect all transitioners, whilst still taking some individual differences into consideration. However, it does not specify the nature of the differential effects experienced by transitioners or explicate the processes underlying individual differences in the experience of job transitions.

Kübler-Ross’ (1969) Paradigm of Grieving:

Another popular conceptualisation of the career transition process originates from the field of counselling and is analogous to Kübler-Ross’ (1969) paradigm of grieving. In contrast to Nicholson and West’s (1988) conceptualisation of career transition, Kübler-Ross believed that transitions are inherently disturbing and traumatic for individuals. The paradigm of grieving is comprised of five distinct sequential phases that an individual experiences as a result of a tragic loss. As they grieve, the individual is believed to display denial, then rage and anger, followed by bargaining, which leads to depression and finally acceptance of the situation (Miles, 2002).

Literature in the field confirmed the applicability of Kübler-Ross’ model to most individuals who are confronted by an unplanned career transition (Ziegler, 1984). Although valued for highlighting the role of affective responses on part of the individual, the model was criticised for its weak empirical base and many have questioned whether the trauma experienced from the loss of a loved one can or should be generalised to the much more varied meanings of career changes (Nicholson and West, 1989). Furthermore, this model fails to explain individual differences in the experienced difficulty of career transitions.

Schlossberg’s (1984) Adult Transition Model:

Arguably the most explicative model with regard to individual differences in the experience of career transitions was proposed by Nancy Schlossberg (1984). This model was specifically formulated for adult career transitions as opposed to those faced by entrants to the job market). In contrast to Nicholson and West (1988) and Kübler-Ross (1969), her model does not place the individual at the centre of the transition process. Schlossberg divided the career transition experience into three key areas: the transition itself, the environment (including social support), and the individual. She observed that the interaction of these three salient areas determines whether the transition is highly successful or troubled and out-of-balance. Contextual factors that affect the outcome of the transition include the relationship of the person to the transition, the setting in which the transition occurred, and its impact on relationships, routines, assumptions and roles. On the other hand, individual factors include demographics, socio-economic status, personality and psychological health (Miles, 2002). See Figure 2.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2. The Schlossberg model of transition process (adapted from Schlossberg, 1981, p. 5).

In her model, Schlossberg (1984) successfully integrates a wide range of disparate variables which are likely to determine an individual’s response to the transition process. However, her model is predominantly based on observations made in a counselling context and therefore lacks a thorough empirical base as well as rigorous evaluation. Furthermore, the model does not specify the nature of the relationship between the different factors involved. Nevertheless, it provides a useful conceptual framework for further research on adjustment to job transfers and how individual, environmental, and organizational factors, both individually and in interaction, facilitate or inhibit adjustment (e.g. Black, Mendenhall, and Oddou, 1991).

The three very different models of career transition described above have at least two things in common. First, they do not deal very well with specific processes underlying individual differences in the transition experience. Second, although these career transition models implicitly deal with the concept of stress they fail to consequently pursue this route. Nicholson and West (1988) questioned the appropriateness of stress-based models in the context of career transitions, as many work-role transitions are experienced quite positively. However, it should be pointed out that, conceptually, stress is not considered to be inherently negative (Latack, 1989). As most models of stress deal very well with processes underlying individual differences in the experience of strain, it is believed that stress models may be useful in investigating the process of career transition. For the current study, it was therefore decided to look at the career transition process within a stress framework.

In sum, job changes are increasingly common. Whilst research suggests that job changes may be preferable to non-changes, it also suggests that the transition process itself can be difficult for individuals. As the factors involved in the transition process vary, one may speculate that the experienced difficulty of a transition varies accordingly (Greenhaus, Callanan and Godshalk, 2000). Mainstream conceptualisations of the career transition process fail to specify processes underlying individual differences in the experienced difficulty of transitions. The present study aims to address this gap in the literature. It aims to identify aspects of transition that are primarily contributing to differences in transition difficulty and to construct a theoretical basis for them using the stress literature as an interpretative framework in order to advance our understanding of the transition process.

1.3. Significance of the Study

Research into the effects and mechanisms of factors involved in the transition process is of direct concern to individuals, organisations as well as career professionals as they are all directly involved in the transition process (see Figure 3).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3. The transition process.

1.3.1. Significance of the study to the individual

A greater understanding of the transition process would have significant implications for individuals. Recent surveys (e.g. Delargy, 2004) suggest that the majority of job changes are induced by the employee. It is likely that the perceived difficulty of a transition may become a deciding factor in forming the decision to leave as well as in planning the next move. For terminated employees, knowledge of the factors involved in the transition process and their likely effects could help individuals to prepare for the impending job change and thereby reduce its negative impact. Employees will further profit from research on job transitions as other parties involved in the transition process would be in a better position to facilitate the transition process. These include the former and prospective employer as well as career professionals.

1.3.2. Significance of the study to employers

The state of flux present in most modern organisations led to a noticeable shift in the responsibility of career development and management from the organisation to the employee (Arnold, 1997). Recent surveys suggest that this perception is shared by organisations and employees (Delargy, 2004). As a result, individuals often receive little support from their previous and prospective employers during job transitions (Thomas, 2003). Yet, a strong case can be made that it is in an organisation’s best interest to provide a context for employees where their chances of a smooth career transition and successful adjustment to the new career are maximised (Greenhaus, Callanan and Godshalk, 2000).

This is particularly true for organisations that perceive their competitive advantage in their human resources. The success of these organisations largely depends on the productivity and creativity of their employees, and the recruitment and retention of talent is often vital to their survival (Greenhaus, Callanan and Godshalk, 2000). Therefore, employees who fail to adjust to their new jobs can ultimately turn into liabilities, either through poor performance or voluntary termination. Furthermore, news that terminated employees are not supported in their transition to a new work environment can have a negative effect on the morale motivation and commitment among the remaining employees (Smith, 2007). Although most organisations offer some form of induction training for new employees, these tend to focus on technical aspects of their new jobs rather than individual aspects of employees’ transitions (Thomas, 2003). A greater understanding of the transition process could thus lead to the development of organisational measures that facilitate the adjustment and integration of new employees.

1.3.3. Significance of the study to career professionals

An increasing number of organisations (as well as individuals) turn to the services of outplacement consultancies for support in the transition process. In response to the increasingly unstable employment conditions found in many Western countries, outplacement providers and other types of career consultancies have flourished and are internationally well established today (Fischer, 2001). Definitions regarding the content and use of outplacement services vary widely. Some see it as a cost-efficient strategic human resources (HR) instrument designed to primarily support the employer in implementing key personnel decisions (Fischer, 2001). Others regard it as a tool to enable individuals to reflect over their career goals and support them in their attempt to realise them (Fischer, 2001). As a result, practices and the extent of the services they offer vary widely among the different outplacement providers.

According to Fischer (2001), the outplacement process typically starts with the employer who would like to dismiss an employee. In most cases, the time at which the employment contract is to end is already decided at that point. The consulting service usually takes place in the outplacement consultancy. Here, the typical outplaced candidate receives several hours of counselling per week and is given access to a range of services and facilities which may include the use of a PC with internet access, libraries, newspapers and secretary services. Oftentimes, the opportunity to network and receive emotional support from other outplaced candidates is also provided. The outplacement service usually ends when the client found a new position and passes the probationary period.

Over the years, outplacement has been subjected to heavy criticism. Among others, Miller and Robinson (2004) accused outplacement consultants to exploit contradictory impressions regarding their services. They point to an inherent conflict of interest in some outplacement practices, arguing that whilst pretending to promote the welfare of those being separated from work, the consultants’ true interest lies with those paying their fees, i.e. the terminating employer. Proponents of outplacement point to a body of evidence that finds its effects to be beneficial for both client groups (i.e. the organisation as well as the outplaced employee). This evidence often takes the form of anecdotal reports, featuring success stories of executives who availed themselves of these services (Parkhouse, 1988; Perkins, 1990).

Some of the publicised benefits to the individual, such as maintenance of self-esteem and self-confidence were supported by empirical research (Boynton & Thomas, 1991; Doherty & Tyson, 1993). Most research into the effectiveness of outplacement services, however, tends to focus on re-employment rates as a measure of success (e.g. Westaby, 2004; Joseph and Greenberg, 2001). These often quote disappointing re-employment figures as clients’ expectations to find quickly re-employment were in many cases not met (e.g. Doherty & Tyson, 1993; Doherty, 1997).

Although outplacement consultancies tend to market themselves by quoting re-employment figures, it is questionable whether the time it takes to find re-employment is an appropriate measure of outplacement effectiveness as it gives little information regarding the quality of the service and its ability to manage the negative effects of the transition process on the individual (Fischer, 2001). Career professionals are therefore likely to profit from research into the transition process in two ways. For one, an increased understanding of the factors involved in determining the likely difficulty of a particular transition will support consultancies in their aim to provide focused, individualised care for their clients. This would not only enhance consultants’ ability to meet clients’ needs but also allow them to employ their resources more efficiently. Secondly, research into the transition process can provide a basis for the development of empirical measures of qualitative care provided by outplacement services and thereby provide an alternative measurement of outplacement effectiveness.

2. Factors Contributing to Career Transition Difficulty

From the career and stress literature, three different aspects of the career transition process have been selected as focus of the present study based on their hypothesised contribution to the experienced difficulty of a career transition. These are the transition situation, the individual and the social environment.

2.1. The Role of the Transition Situation and the Individual in the Transition Process

2.1.1. The transition situation

Although most transitions have several characteristics in common, no two transitions are identical (Louis, 1982). Differences in the characteristics of the transition situation are likely to contribute to within-person differences in experienced transition difficulty (Fleeson, 2004). That is, a person may experience one particular transition as easy and another as difficult, depending on the circumstances under which the transition takes place.

In the stress literature, situational characteristics tend to take the role of stressors. The greater the magnitude of the stressor, the more strain it is likely to produce. Similarly, the experienced strain is likely to increase the more stressors are present (Cooper, Dewe, and O’Driscoll, 2001). Previous research found these principles also apply to the experience of transition difficulty. Delargy (2004) investigated the effect of six transition characteristics on transition difficulty (see pages 34 to 37 for a detailed overview of this study). These included environmental changes (i.e. change of employer, change of status, relocation) as well as situational pressures (i.e. choice in change, change of skills, speed of change). She found that the influence of these situational variables on transition difficulty is scaleable, i.e. that some situational characteristics had a greater effect on transition difficulty than others. She also reported that transition difficulty tended to increase, the more situational changes and pressures were present.

2.1.2. The individual

Just as no two transitions are identical, no two individuals experience transitions in precisely the same way (Louis, 1982). Schlossberg (1981, 1984) repeatedly stated that, in her work as a counsellor, she observed that individuals vary widely in their experience of transition difficulty. Individual differences, including personality and demographic characteristics, are therefore likely to account for between-person differences in experienced transition difficulty (Fleeson, 2004). That is, whereas one person may experience little difficulty during a particular transition, another person may find a very similar transition situation considerably more difficult to deal with.

2.1.3. Person-environment interactions

Within the stress literature, it is proposed that individual characteristics do not directly lead to strain, but rather that they interact with environmental stressors in generating strain. Several mechanisms have been proposed for this interaction. According to the differential exposure perspective suggested by Bolger and Zuckerman (1995), individual differences may determine the extent to which individuals are exposed to certain kinds of stressful circumstances. This finds some support in the transition literature. For example, Brett, Stroh, and Reilly (1992) found in a survey that male respondents were more willing to relocate for career advancement than were female respondents and are therefore also more likely to experience transition-induced stress compared to their female counterparts.

An alternative, and more commonly held, view is the differential reactivity perspective (e.g. Bolger and Zuckerman, 1995). This perspective suggests that the impact of the stressor on the individual is moderated by certain individual traits. That is, the effect of a stressor varies depending on whether an individual is high or low on a specific personality attribute. This perspective also found some support in the transition literature. For example, Tonks (2006) investigated the effect of six individual difference variables on transition difficulty and found significant differences in experienced transition difficulty depending on whether they were high or low on a particular personality characteristic (see pages 38 to 42 for a detailed overview of this study).

A detailed discussion of the mechanisms through which individual differences moderate stress responses is beyond the scope of this study. However, two main distinctions may be made. For one, individual differences may affect the appraisal of a situation and thereby influence the outcome. For example, individuals who are highly neurotic are more likely to appraise a situation as threatening and distressing, than are emotionally stable individuals (Cooper, Dewe, and O’Driscoll, 2001). Second, individual differences may affect the coping response to the stressor. For example, people high in intelligence may be more likely to use adaptive coping mechanisms than those low in intelligence (Ruiselova and Prokopcakova, 2005). The emphasis of the stress approach to person-environment interactions is therefore on the individual’s appraisal of and reaction to the situation rather than the objective demand of the situation.

Considerations regarding the study of person-environment interactions

Most studies investigating the interaction of person and environment have focused on one or more specific stressors and their relationship to a single moderator variable. Very rarely are combinations of moderator variables tested. Yet, in reality individuals possess many personality characteristics and are confronted by situations that present many, often conflicting, demands. There is no logical reason to assume that moderator variables are stable in their effects regardless of the presence of other variables. Therefore, most of the studies focusing on only single moderator variables have only limited ecological validity which reduces their practical value to professionals and transitioners alike. Although it is as yet impossible to approximate reality in psychological studies, studying the combined effects of groups of variables rather than specific effects of individual variables is likely to increase face validity. In order to assess how situational and individual difference variables are likely to interact in real-life situations, it is therefore important that person-environment interactions are not only studied for individual variables but also for groups of variables.

2.1.4. The person-situation debate

Within the field of psychology, a heated debate has developed over whether the person or the situation has a greater effect on determining a person’s behaviour and attitudes (Pervin, 1989).

Proponents of the situational approach argue that, at least in an organisational context, any individual characteristic would be unlikely to account for a meaningful portion of variance in job beliefs and behaviour as organisations are exceptionally strong situations (e.g. Davis-Blake and Pfeffer, 1989). In fact, over decades, researchers like Skinner, Milgram, Asch and Festinger demonstrated the power of situations over a person’s behaviour and even beliefs. Critics of dispositional research, such as Davis-Blake and Pfeffer (1989) further argued that much of the dispositional research was without merit and even morally questionable. For one, they argued that dispositional research is flawed as it fails to hold situational variables constant. Furthermore, they pointed out that selection of employees based on personality characteristics would be morally objectionable.

Proponents of the individual approach Staw and Cohen-Charash (2005) pointed out that not all organisations exert strong and uniform pressures, instead organisations can be considered a collection of settings that vary in situational strength. Furthermore, they noted that whilst organisational practices and environments can have a strong influence on a person’s behaviour, research on conformity (e.g. Asch, 1951) has shown that people are not equally susceptible to outside influences. In fact, over the last decade, dispositional variables were consistently found to account for a significant amount of variance in a person’s behaviour and attitudes (e.g. Connolly and Viswesvaran, 2000; Judge and Bono, 2004).

Systematic research on the relative predictive power of the person and situation is rare. Several researchers (e.g. Staw and Cohen-Charash, 2005; Weiss and Adler, 1984) demonstrated that most of the studies who investigated this effect, had designed them in a way which tended to emphasise one perspective over the other. Many of these studies also showed other methodological problems. For example, Edwards and Cooper (1990) pointed out that many studies did not use commensurate measures for the person and environment components. That is, the components were not measured along the same theoretical dimension which rendered comparisons inconclusive. Secondly, the preferred method of analysis in these studies focused on difference scores which require a logical zero point in measurements that is rarely found in psychological measures.

Within the career literature, no known research exists that directly and systematically investigates the relative importance of the person and environment in determining transition difficulty. The present study aims to address this gap in the literature.


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The Role of Circumstances, Individual Differences and Social Support in Determining the Difficulty of a Job Change or Career Transition
University of Manchester
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Role, Circumstances, Individual, Differences, Social, Support, Determining, Difficulty, Change, Career, Transition
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Verena Nitsch (Author), 2007, The Role of Circumstances, Individual Differences and Social Support in Determining the Difficulty of a Job Change or Career Transition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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