Why people stay in a job they dislike, according to Oscar Holmes, a professor at Rutgers School of Business–Camden.
When Oscar Holmes IV’s colleagues heard about his research on job embeddedness—the ties that bind workers even to unsatisfactory jobs—some of them recognized themselves. “ ‘I’ve been here for so long, I have so much invested, and even though I may want other opportunities, I just stay here,’” Holmes, an assistant professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden, recalls hearing. “They’re thanking me: ‘This is me! Now I know! I’m embedded!’”
To many workers, it will come as no surprise that hefty mortgages, pleasant officemates, and a convenient commute sometimes keep even frustrated employees from handing in their resignations. But it was only 15 years ago, Holmes says, that management scholars systematically defined the concept of job embeddedness and began using it to predict which workers were most likely to leave.
Because the phenomenon was identified in a Western context, Holmes and a collaborator—Ian Williamson, a scholar at Australia’s University of Melbourne—wondered if it would apply equally well in a non-Western setting: among professionals at a large multinational company based in South Africa. Unlike individualistic Americans, South Africans are seen as far more dedicated to group goals—in scholarly terminology, they are more “collectivist.”
In an article published last year in the Africa Journal of Management, Holmes and Williamson concluded that, although job embeddedness did apply in the South African context, collectivism didn’t have quite the impact they’d predicted: among the 74 workers surveyed, those who scored lower on measures of collectivism turned out to be more, not less, likely to stay in their jobs. “It is something that we didn’t expect,” Holmes says. Although he and Williamson have moved on to new topics, Holmes hopes other researchers will seek an explanation for the surprising results.
Holmes grew up in a working-class home in Virginia and, as a psychology major at Virginia Commonwealth University, became interested in psychology’s applications to business. Eventually, he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in management from the University of Alabama before arriving at Rutgers in 2013.
Much of Holmes’s research examines workplace diversity and its impact on employees’ behavior and experiences. “I try to focus on how leaders can make situations better for people: to improve their productivity and to improve their well-being,” he says.
The phenomenon of job embeddedness has implications for employers, Holmes says: by providing on-site child care, for example, or delaying the vesting of stock options, they can forge connections that make it harder for highly skilled employees to leave. But using such strategies to manipulate unhappy workers into staying—rather than improving the job conditions that made them unhappy in the first place—won’t pay off in the long run, Holmes argues.
“We know that emotions are contagious,” he says. “So if you have people who are habitually unhappy with their jobs, then they can contaminate other people, and it could make the climate more negative.” And workers who feel unfairly treated may retaliate in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, he says—by showing up late, say, or badmouthing the company on social media.
Rather than deploying low-cost perks as a short-term strategy for creating job embeddedness, Holmes says, employers are better advised to address the longer term by creating a company culture that encourages close relationships among colleagues, promotes equity, and embraces diversity. “If an organization fosters more work-life integration, so that people can feel whole at work, that can be beneficial to the organization,” he says.
Simultaneously, however, employees should avoid becoming too dependent on the kinds of perks that might tie them closely to jobs they could someday want to leave, Holmes says. Use the company day care center, but make sure to research other options, just in case. “The thing that is really important for job embeddedness is your opportunities,” he notes. “The economy is a big factor, and when the economy is really, really good, the power that embeddedness has is lower.”
Holmes is proud of the generational continuity represented by the “IV” in his name. But he’s not yet ready to contemplate an Oscar V. “I don’t know at this point,” he jokes. “A kid embeds you.” •