Long job tenure doesn’t mean better performance (Guest Commentary)

Research findings highlight importance of job design, performance management, rewards
By Claudine Kapel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/19/2013

Most organizations want to optimize employee performance and productivity. But does that mean you should encourage employees to stay in the same job longer — or have them change jobs more frequently?

Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, a recent academic study on the relationship between job tenure and job performance found no meaningful correlation between the two.

Co-authored by Thomas Ng at the University of Hong Kong and Daniel Feldman at the University of Georgia, the study examined dozens of previous studies and concluded the declines in motivation or increases in job boredom — which tend to accompany longer job tenure — may counteract the positive gains related to increased job knowledge and experience.

The authors — whose study was recently published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior — observed there are two competing perspectives on how job tenure may affect job performance.

“Human capital theory suggests as knowledge and skill increase with greater tenure, job performance will improve as well. In contrast, the literature on job design suggests that as job tenure increases, employees are likely to become more bored and less motivated at work. Consequently, the gains from human capital acquisition might be offset by losses of motivation,” found the study.

The authors examined potential relationships between job tenure and four categories of behaviour that contribute to — or detract from — employees’ overall job performance:

Core task performance: The execution of the basic required duties of a particular job.

Citizenship behaviour: Those extra behaviours engaged in by employees, over and above their core task requirements, that actively promote and strengthen an organization’s effectiveness.

Creativity and innovative behaviour: The generation of novel ideas and the dissemination and implementation of those ideas in a workplace.

Counterproductive work behaviour: Acts by employees, such as theft or industrial sabotage, that intentionally harm the well-being of an organization.

Job tenure was “largely unrelated” to core task performance and only “very weakly related” to citizenship behaviour, found the authors. Job tenure was also unrelated to creativity and counterproductive work behaviour.

Job tenure, however, was positively related to measures of idea generation, dissemination and implementation.

“Our results indicated that the weak relationship between job tenure and job performance did not vary, by and large, by respondents’ age or gender, the type of research design employed, the job type of samples, or the data collection methods utilized,” wrote the authors.

Further, the relationship between job tenure and job performance “did not strengthen or weaken at the high end of job tenure distribution.”

Important considerations

The study’s findings highlight important considerations regarding organizational practices around job design, performance management, career planning and rewards.

With respect to job design, organizations should explore what steps could be taken to maintain motivation and mitigate job boredom among employees who have held the same job for many years.

Organizations may want to explore opportunities to redesign or enrich jobs or facilitate job rotations or lateral moves to ensure employees remain challenged and continue to learn and grow on the job.

Since tenure doesn’t drive higher levels of employee performance, it is critical to have a performance management process to align employee efforts and contributions with the organization’s objectives and priorities.

Employers should also take a hard look at their performance management processes to ensure they are fostering the types of robust and authentic discussions needed to drive employee and corporate performance.

Given that job motivation can wane over time, organizations should also explore the benefits of establishing a well-defined career development process that dovetails with the performance management process. A proactive process that engages managers and employees as partners in career development can help ensure there is some rhyme and reason around how and when employees change jobs.

The study’s results also cast a shadow on seniority-based reward systems, suggesting performance-based rewards can help organizations optimize the return on compensation-related expenditures while also supporting the ability to retain and reward more recent hires.

There are no easy answers regarding how best to optimize time on job. Managing job tenure is about finding the right balance between the need to build job knowledge and experience and the need to keep employees motivated and engaged, suggested the study.

Ultimately, however, movement is necessary to build internal capabilities and create a pipeline of future managers and leaders. The key is to have a strategy or framework to support and encourage appropriate movement — so levels of job tenure don’t unfold by chance.

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates, a Toronto-based HR and communications consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of compensation and total rewards programs. For more information, visit www.kapelandassociates.com.

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