Job Choice

The topic of job choice subsumes all the activities involved in the process of deciding where to work. The concept underlying job choice research is that individuals are motivated to find work consistent with their preferences and goals. Job seekers engage in a goal-directed search process and compare each potential job relative to alternatives. The job choice literature has been heavily informed by the literature on recruiting and person-environment fit. The unique contribution of research on job choice is the focus on the individual job seeker and his or her information acquisition and decision-making strategy.

Expectancy and Job Choice

Most job-choice models start from some variant of expectancy theory. Job seekers begin from a set of alternative jobs and then evaluate the attractiveness of each alternative based on key attributes. Examples of relevant attributes include instrumental attributes such as compensation and working conditions, affective or interpersonal attributes such as relationships with coworkers, and cognitive attributes such as intrinsic interest in job tasks and achievement on the job. Each job’s attractiveness is based on valence, instrumentality, and expectancy:

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

  • Valence: the personal importance weights (e.g., valences) each job seeker attaches to each attribute that a job might possess. Job seekers vary in the emphasis they put on each attribute, so some job seekers will be most interested in getting a well-paying job, whereas others will be comparatively more interested in a job with a good social environment, and others will be more interested in work that provides a sense of accomplishment.
  • Instrumentality: the probability of acquiring each of the attributes for each job. Attributes are represented as probabilities, because although job seekers have beliefs about the likely attributes of each job, these attributes are not known with certainty. A job seeker who actually knows someone who works at a company will have more confidence in his or her estimates of the job’s attributes than a job seeker who knows about a company only through a recruiter. The job seeker with the inside connection will therefore place a higher instrumentality on the job attributes than will the job seeker who has only recruiter information.
  • Expectancy: job seekers’ evaluations of their ability to obtain a job and perform well if hired. Self-efficacy or self-esteem increase the expectancy related to each job’s positive attributes, whereas the perceived difficulty of obtaining a job during the selection phase and difficulty performing well once on the job decrease expectancy.

The final decision process is represented by the underlying triple product term of expectancy x instrumentality x valence. The higher the value of this product term, the more likely it is that a job seeker will pursue a given job.

The expectancy model of job choice has fared well as a predictive device, although its accuracy is far from perfect. Expectancy’s strictly rational perspective on job choice and individual outcomes is misleading if taken in isolation, given research demonstrating the importance of heuristics, moods, and emotions in decision making. Prospect theory suggests that individuals are risk averse when it comes to positive events and risk seeking when it comes to negative events. For example, prospect theory suggests that decision makers will prefer a job with high probability of a few positive elements and a low chance of several negative elements relative to a job with low probability of several positive elements and a high chance of a few negative elements, even if a strictly linear model such as expectancy would anticipate that the jobs are otherwise equivalent. Moreover, other decision-making research suggests that the weighting of job attributes is not a mathematical combination of all relevant attributes but rather is a more affect-driven process centered on a small number of salient attributes.

Expectancy models raise a number of informative questions about job attributes and individual valences but do not provide a system for understanding the processes underlying the assessment of jobs. Factors such as the intensity of job search, contextual limitations on job choice activities, and even the social connections at work must be addressed from other theoretical perspectives. In addition, expectancy theory formulations leave unanswered questions about how job seekers develop beliefs about the attributes of each job option. By adding behavioral decision making and process-oriented versions of job search to the expectancy formulation, a more complex picture of choice is emerging that uses the decision maker’s active participation in the process as a central theme.

Developing a Job Choice Set

Job seekers actively attempt to improve their match with their work environment during the job search process. Theoretically, those with more information will be better able to assess the extent to which they will match with their new positions. Therefore, the process of searching for a job is a major component of the job choice literature.

A job search process is initiated when an individual determines that his or her current employment situation is not meeting key employment goals. Thus, the first choice that an individual makes in the job choice process is that a new job is needed. Meta-analytic research has demonstrated that individuals with higher financial need and employment commitment engage in more intense job search, which is consistent with the concept that these individuals place greater valence on a new job relative to those with less financial need or lower employment commitment. Evidence shows that those higher in self-esteem and self-efficacy engage in more active job search behavior, which is consistent with the concept that such individuals have greater expectancy of finding and obtaining a new job than do those with less self-confidence.

Job seekers use several techniques to find information regarding jobs and create their estimates of job attributes and the associated probabilities of obtaining each attribute. Evidence suggests that for most individuals, a social network is critical to the process of job search. Many of these networks are informal, including word of mouth provided by family and friends. Such sources are deemed more trustworthy in persuasion research and therefore produce descriptions of job features that have higher instrumentality. An important secondary source of information used by job seekers is formal organizational announcements regarding open positions. Because the organization is believed to have a vested interest in increasing application activity, job seekers attach lower instrumentality to these promised rewards. Job seekers also make inferences regarding culture based on the image an organization projects through product advertising and media coverage in professional magazines. Some organizations, cognizant of the importance of image, have begun to carefully craft an employment “brand” for themselves using techniques from marketing. Many of these techniques are designed to supplement rational information regarding options with appealing emotional images regarding alternatives.

Valence of Outcomes: Job Attributes

Once individuals are aware of potential jobs, the question of how they evaluate job attributes arises. Attraction to an organization is at least partially determined by the set of recruiting activities described elsewhere in this section of the site. But attraction is also shaped by factors that are more directly related to the rewards that come with a job, characteristics offered by the work, and organizational reputation. Certainly, some job preferences differ from person to person, but research also suggests that some job characteristics have high valence for nearly all job seekers.

Research in the area of labor economics suggests, not surprisingly, that most voluntary turnover involves a change from a lower paying job to a higher paying job, which demonstrates that most individuals do place a high valence on monetary compensation. Simulation studies, in which respondents indicate which of several potential alternative positions is most attractive, support the central importance of compensation in job choice, as well. Among managerial employees, the perceptions that a job offers opportunity for advancement, challenging or interesting work, positive organizational climate, and benefits are also rated as highly valenced features. Advancement usually entails higher compensation, further underscoring the importance of monetary rewards in the job choice process. Advancement also provides the promise of achievement and interesting new work tasks. There is less information regarding the specific job characteristics preferred by other populations, including professionals, service workers, and blue-collar workers.

Another factor that might influence an individual’s decision to apply for or accept a job offer is the reputation of the employing organization. The publication of guides to the best companies to work for in America and the like suggest that there is a keen interest in the corporate culture from potential employees. Such guides often describe the social aspects of work and suggest that valence is attached to more than just money. In terms of employment reputation, a perception of corporate concern for employee well-being is associated with job choice intentions among potential applicants. One related possibility is that firms can attract applicants with a progressive stance on certain social issues. Although there is limited evidence on this issue, there is some data to suggest that applicants do take elements of an organization’s social responsibility into account.

Different Valences: Personality and Job Preferences

One major implication of studying the active decision maker is that individual differences should be considered. Whereas expectancy theory suggests individuals have different valences, matching models take this proposition a step further and investigate why different job seekers prefer different jobs. Matching models propose that individuals bring certain productive characteristics or “supplies,” including their skills and abilities, as well as their preferences or “demands” for work environments with them into a new job. Organizations similarly have work environments or “supplies” to provide to workers, as well as job requirements or “demands” for employees. A match occurs when the supplies of workers match the demands of organizations and the demands of workers match the supplies of organizations.

The dominant paradigm in the literature on personality and job preferences comes from the program of research on the realistic-investigative-artistic-social-enterprising-conventional (RIASEC) circumplex. The basic propositions of the RIASEC model are that there are stable differences in preferences and abilities related to work characteristics, and that individuals who are in jobs that match their preferences will be more satisfied. Job preferences using the RIASEC model are measured by having individuals read descriptions of major job tasks from a variety of occupations and indicate which sound appealing to them and which they can do well. Each individual is given a profile consisting of his or her most suitable occupational types. Basic definitions for tasks found under each of the six types are as follows:

  • Realistic: engaging in physical activities, including working with machines, objects, or related tools
  • Investigative: solving problems, gathering information, analyzing data, and other scientific or research-related activities
  • Artistic: creating new ideas, using creativity, and producing innovative solutions
  • Social: working closely with others in providing information, collaborating, or directly providing assistance to customers, clients, or patients
  • Enterprising: persuading others, leading groups, and managing organizational resources
  • Conventional: completing detail-oriented tasks with a clear system for evaluating outcomes, or with directions provided by others

Jobs call on varying levels of each of these activities. For example, work as an industrial/organizational psychologist is highest on the investigative dimension, whereas work as a business executive is highest on the enterprising dimension. The RIASEC inventories are used frequently by vocational counselors as a tool to aid job seekers.

The RIASEC types are stable over time and are related to other measures of personality. Individuals high in artistic and investigative interests tend to also be high in openness to experience. Individuals high in enterprising and social interests tend to be more extroverted. The relationships of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability with any of the RIASEC dimensions are more tenuous. Despite partial overlap with personality, RIASEC dimensions are superior predictors of job choice. For example, although RIASEC dimensions rated at graduation from school were consistently predictive of employment in commensurate jobs in one study (e.g., realistic individuals tend to hold jobs higher in realism), other elements of the five-factor model explained almost no variance in job choices after RIASEC scores were taken into account.

Although the RIASEC model has investigated fit between job seekers and work characteristics, other research has investigated the fit between job seekers and organizational culture. Much of the research on organizational culture and fit has been assessed through the use of a forced-distribution preference inventory called the Organizational Culture Profile (OCP). Job seekers are asked to rank potential organizational attributes on a list from most preferred to least preferred, and then individuals familiar with the organization sort these same attributes from most descriptive of the organization’s culture to least descriptive of the organization’s culture. A match occurs when the job seeker’s desired culture is commensurate with the organization’s extant culture. Research across several studies has shown that even after statistically controlling for attractiveness of job attributes, a match between individual preferences and organizational culture predicts job choice intentions.

Putting It All Together: Decision Process Studies

There are comparatively few studies that currently address the process by which individuals make job choice decisions, but the research that does exist provides some insights into the manner in which individuals evaluate evidence for each job. Consistent with the literature on persuasion and decision making, the emphasis here is on how individual job seekers come to believe that jobs have certain attributes and on how they evaluate the relevance of sources of information differently.

Research on decision-making processes under the rubric of image theory has suggested that it is not cognitively efficient to consider all possible alternatives. Instead, decision makers are likely to engage in a multiple-stage evaluation of options. The first stage is a screening process, wherein decision makers quickly scan through the critical features of alternatives and eliminate those that fail to meet certain minimum standards. After screening out options, the second stage is selecting the most attractive options from those that remain. The selection process is much more deliberative and entails many of the elements of a more classic expectancy formulation. Another important component of image theory is that decision makers do not consider their options most of the time, but act out of habit by following cognitive scripts. This means that many individuals do not make routine choices about all available jobs, but consider jobs based on only their most familiar options.

One conclusion that can be reached is that individuals place a heavy weight on negative information in the recruiting process. In general, signs of trouble or difficulty regarding a potential job have a stronger impact on job-seeker attitudes toward an organization than does positive information about a job. The tendency for job seekers to prefer a job presented primarily in positive terms to a job presented in partially negative terms is a potential avenue for investigation of mood in job choice, although there is not a great deal of evidence on this proposition. The differential weighting of negative and positive job elements, and aversion to taking an option with negative characteristics, is consistent with prospect theory.

Another important component of the job choice process is the development of inferences regarding an organization’s policies and practices from distal sources of information. It has been noted previously that many individuals draw inferences regarding an organization’s policies and practices from discussions with family and friends. Without these interpersonal contacts, applicants try to draw inferences from their interactions with individuals they encounter during the recruiting and hiring process. Many of the key findings are consistent with the literature on persuasion. Applicants generally make more positive inferences about an organization when the messages are delivered by a sympathetic or attractive recruiter who provides a positive message in an informal tone. Other studies have shown that interviewers who make use of marketing and sales skills are more effective.

Decision process studies do suggest that recruiter characteristics   influence   inferences   about the organization, but almost all studies suggest that job attributes have a much stronger influence on the likelihood of job acceptance than do recruiting activities. Results typically show that recruitment activities are significantly related to reactions only at the initial interview stage. Job attributes, on the other hand, are significant predictors of reactions in all subsequent stages. These results suggest that the importance of the job choice is too great for employees to make decisions simply on the basis of the person conducting an interview unless the interviewer’s characteristics are translated into a perception of the job’s characteristics. This tendency to use a rational approach for important decisions when feasible is consistent with the literature on persuasion. However, it is also possible that the affective tone generated by organizational efforts influences job choices in ways that have not yet been investigated.


Research on job choice provides a unique window on how individuals come to select a specific organization as their place of work. The key processes underlying job choice research include a search for job alternatives, evaluation of job attributes, and then a final selection process. Further knowledge of the process of job choice will be of use for individuals trying to select their ideal job as well as for organizations trying to design messages that will appeal to an appropriate audience of job seekers.


  1. Barber, A. E. (1998). Recruiting employees: Individual and organizational perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Barrick, M. R., Mount, M. K., & Gupta, R. (2003). Meta-analysis of the relationship between the five-factor model of personality and Holland’s occupational types. Personnel Psychology, 56, 45-74.
  3. Beach, L. R. (1990). Image theory: Decision making in personal and organizational contexts. New York: Wiley.
  4. Cable, D. M., & Turban, D. B. (2001). Establishing the dimensions, sources, and value of job seekers’ employer knowledge during recruitment. In G. R. Ferris (Ed.), Research in personnel and human resources management (Vol. 20, pp. 115-163). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  5. Highouse, S., & Hoffman, J. R. (2001). Organizational attraction and job choice. International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 16, 37-64.
  6. Kanfer, R., Wanberg, C. R., & Kantrowitz, T. M. (2001). Job search and employment: A personality-motivational analysis and meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 837-855.
  7. Osborn, D. P. (1990). A reexamination of the organizational choice process. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 36, 45-60.
  8. Sauermann, H. (2005). Vocational choice: A decision making perspective. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 66, 273-303.
  9. Soelberg, P. O. (1967). Unprogrammed decision-making. Industrial Management Review, 8, 19-29.
  10. Stevens, C. K. (1998). Image theory and career-related decisions: Finding and selecting occupations and jobs. In L. R. Beach (Ed.), Image theory: Theoretical and empirical foundations (pp. 227-240). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  11. Tom, V. R. (1971). The role of personality and organizational images in the recruiting process. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 6, 573-592.
  12. Vroom, V. H. (1966). Organizational choice: A study of pre- and post-decision processes. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 1, 212-225.

See also: