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Flexibility in looking for a job is not all it's cracked up to be, new research cautions

August 15, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, 212-233-6170,

A means of keeping up in a tough job market or a way to lose ground?


I talked to Duane, who was laid off at a packaging company, is now learning how to operate high-tech machinery. Andrea lost her job as an HR analyst, but she's now getting certified in the fast-growing field of electronic medical records...That's why we're helping more community folks who are looking for a new job or a better-paying job can learn the skills that businesses need right now.


Aug. 15, 2013 - When President Obama praised these and other students in a speech at an Ohio community college last year, he was echoing a theme heard not just in the U.S. but in many countries -- the need to address a mismatch between a growing number of job openings and high levels of unemployment. Encouraging, even pressuring, job seekers to seek positions that differ considerably from the work they've done in the past has proved to have strong appeal not just for policy-makers but for management scholars, who for the past several decades have proclaimed the virtues of psychological mobility in a world in which prospects for long-lasting employment have receded.


Added to the normal economic and social pressures of joblessness, this environment has made job-search flexibility a virtual mandate for the unemployed. Indeed, so prevalent is the counsel to be flexible that job-seekers should be wary of adopting this approach too soon, cautions a paper that was presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Orlando, Florida, August 9-13).


Even as it concedes possible benefits from flexibility, the new research, by Sarah Vansteenkiste, Marijke Verbruggen, and Luc Sels of the University of Leuven, Belgium, questions how much it enhances the prospects of job seekers, and even suggests that it results in their losing ground. In the words of the paper, flexible job searching "leads to underemployment, which in turn results in more negative job attitudes. Having negative job attitudes may induce individuals to leave their jobs and become unemployed again. In this way, a flexible job search could cause one to obtain a less sustainable job and career path."


The researchers add: "The prevailing notion in career research suggests that in the last decades, traditional, steady career paths guided by employers have increasingly been replaced by so-called 'protean' and 'boundaryless' careers -- i.e. careers in which the onus rests on individuals themselves and where physical boundaries are blurred and can easily be crossed." But, they add, "little attention has been given to the potential downsides of such flexibility."


The paper addresses this gap by analyzing the impact of flexible job search in three aspects of employment -- job content, job pay/hierarchical level, and commuting time. On the first, the authors note that previous research "suggests that in order to find reemployment, a large proportion of unemployed jobseekers (more than half, by one estimate) are willing to accept jobs that require retraining. Moreover, jobseekers often end up in jobs for which they are overskilled." On the second, one study "indicated that around 60% of British jobseekers have a reservation wage that is less than their previous wage. Along the same lines, a group of Belgian and Dutch scholars...point out that the pay/hierarchal level is one of the main aspects unemployed individuals make concessions upon." As for commuting time, several studies have "demonstrated that a majority of unemployed jobseekers are willing to accept jobs for which they have to commute extensively."


To probe these various effects, the researchers analyzed the responses to online questionnaires at successive points in time of 302 randomly selected unemployed individuals who managed to land jobs in the six-month period covered by the study. Average age of participants was 37, and about 80% had at least some post-secondary education. All were unemployed less than four months (on average 2.35 months) at the outset, the focus being on short-term unemployed "since [the researchers] wanted to exclude as much as possible people who would feel obliged by the public employment agencies to be more flexible in their job search behavior."


Job seekers responded, on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (definitely), to statements related to the three dimensions of job search. Flexibility regarding skills was gauged by three items defining the extent to which participants sought jobs that differed strongly in content from their previous jobs or studies. Pay/hierarchical flexibility was determined by five items, including "I search for jobs which pay less than my previous job." Commuting flexibility was assessed by a single item probing openness to longer commuting times than in previous jobs.


After the participants gained positions, they responded to parallel items that gauged extent of underemployment, such as in not using knowledge and skills acquired through prior experience or in making less money or having less responsibility than in previous jobs or in spending more time commuting. Other survey items assessed four indicators of job attitudes -- how well respondents' current positions fitted their needs or desires; how satisfied they were with their jobs; to what extent the job engaged their energies and enthusiasm; and their level of interest in finding another job. 


On all three dimensions studied -- skills, pay/hierarchy, and commuting -- flexibility in the job search was associated with underemployment in the individual's next job, which in turn was associated with significantly poorer job fit, job satisfaction, and job engagement and a significantly greater wish to find another job.


By far the most negative impact on job attitudes came from lowered pay and position, leading the authors to note the difference from "past research [which] has suggested that pay level has only a moderate influence on job attitudes...It is possible that both aspects (pay and hierarchical level) reinforce each other, which explains why we found such a significant impact of this indicator on job attitudes."


Adds Ms. Vansteenkiste, "It seems ironic that in some prior research pay has turned up as a favorite point of flexibility among job seekers. Our study suggests that perhaps it ought to be the last item one is flexible about rather than the first."


What are the implications of the study? In the words of the authors, "Policymakers should be cautious when promoting or obliging people to search flexibly and keep in mind that this type of search can have negative effects on unemployed jobseekers' job attitudes...It could be that initial transition phase which we observed is temporary and that the work situation will ameliorate with time. However, it could also be that our observed negative effects become even more prominent. Underemployment research suggests that people do not leave their substandard jobs easily and that arriving in a substandard job may lock individuals in a downward path."


As for jobseekers themselves, some skepticism about flexibility is in order, Ms. Vansteenkiste adds, particularly in the early stages of job search, when economic pressures tend to be less severe than they become later.


"This isn't to suggest that flexibility doesn't have its virtues or that people haven't benefitted from programs that help them change careers," she says. "But this is the second study our group has carried out that raises questions about this approach: in an earlier study we found that greater flexibility leads to fewer job offers, and now we find that it leads to problems when people manage to land jobs. Hopefully, the conventional wisdom is not so strong on this subject that jobseekers will fail to appreciate that, whatever the benefits of flexibility, it has definite downsides."


The paper, entitled "The Consequences of Flexible Job Search Behavior: From Unemployment to Underemployment?" was among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, held in Orlando from August 9th through 13th. Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has some 19,000 members in 110 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting drew more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human resources, technology development, and other management-related topics.

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