Job security is the stability and continuance of one’s current employment as one knows it to be. An appraisal of one’s job security involves an assessment of both one’s position and one’s employment within an organization. In other words, job security can be affected by the potential loss of employment and/or the potential loss of valued aspects of one’s position within an organization. Related concepts include economic stress, job insecurity, job stability, underemployment, and unemployment.
Job security is closely related to the issue of career development. It is estimated that the average employee will follow approximately seven different career paths during a typical 30-year span of employment. Analyses of Current Population Survey data suggest that the average tenure in a job in the United States is 7.4 years, among the lowest in industrialized nations. Often, career changes can be a direct result of involuntary turnover, layoffs, outsourcing, or shifts in the national economy. During the 1990s, there were over 15 million layoffs. A comparison of 21 industrialized nations found that the United States ranked among the lowest in employee perceptions of job security.
Conceptualizations of Job Security
Job security can be thought of as a subjective experience or an objective state. Objectively, the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provides biennial estimates of the job outlook for hundreds of occupations within the United States. The job outlook for these occupations is based on whether employment opportunities within these occupations are growing, stable, or declining over the next decade. Occupations with declining employment can be objectively categorized as having less job security than those with growing employment. Organizations can also objectively identify positions within the company as being more or less likely to be outsourced, eliminated, retained, or expanded on in the future. Often, this assessment can be made by upper-level management based on annual strategic planning and company economic forecasts.
While job security can be described objectively, it is more commonly conceptualized and measured as a subjective perception on the part of the employee. Using this methodology, a job can be defined as insecure if an employee perceives his or her job to be unstable or at risk regardless of any actual objective level of job security. Thus, it is possible to have a job that is objectively considered to be secure but is subjectively perceived to be insecure by the employee holding that position. The reverse situation may also occur, whereby an individual perceives his or her job to be secure but organizational or DOL estimates would categorize that position or occupation as having a poor job outlook.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches of conceptualizing and measuring job security. The objective approach removes individual perceptions from the equation and relies on government or organizational forecasts of job security. This can be advantageous if one’s purpose is to accurately categorize a position or occupation as having (or lacking) job security. On the other hand, the subjective approach explicitly relies on individual perceptions of job security, which can be colored by economic, social, organizational, and individual characteristics. However, many outcomes of job security are best predicted by such subjective individual perceptions rather than more objective assessments. Thus, if one’s purpose is to predict individual outcomes, assessing job security subjectively may be more informative.
Antecedents of Job Security
There are many known antecedents and consequences of having a secure or, conversely, insecure position at work. The predictors of job security can be summarized into four categories: organizational change characteristics, worker characteristics, employment characteristics, and economic factors.
Formal announcement of layoffs, an upcoming merger or acquisition, organizational restructuring, and/or downsizing are all potential organizational change characteristics that may decrease employee job security. Annually, over 1 million U.S. workers can expect to lose their jobs as a result of these transitions. In addition to actual job loss, organizational change characteristics have also been shown to predict employee reports of job loss fears, perceived psychological contract violations, and lowered expectations regarding job security, compensation, and opportunities for advancement.
An additional antecedent of job security may be related to changing organizational technology. A change in the technological systems of an organization can have a profound effect on the security of positions experiencing the technology change. As the level of technological complexity required in an organization changes, so do the worker requirements, which can, in turn, affect the security of individuals who cannot adapt to the change or whose skills are no longer required (i.e., obsolescence). Thus, technological change can decrease job security and eventually lead to job loss for workers whose skills and/or positions are obsolete.
Worker characteristics refer to a variety of individual-difference variables that can affect an individual’s perception of job security. These variables include employee gender and race, absenteeism rates, grievance filing, organizational tenure, career history, and education level. Government data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the rate of unemployment is traditionally higher among racial minorities than among Whites. Although the actual rates of unemployment for women are not higher than for men, research indicates that women tend to suffer from greater downward mobility than do men. Workers who are frequently absent are less likely to be secure in their positions and are more likely to face involuntary turnover than workers who do not absent themselves as often. Research has also shown that workers who file grievances are less likely to be promoted, receive lower performance evaluations following the grievance activity, have higher voluntary and involuntary turnover rates, and have lower job-security perceptions than workers who do not file grievances.
Job longevity or organizational seniority often provokes feelings of security; in particular, due to seniority protections, older workers are less likely to be laid off than their younger counterparts. An employee’s career history may also be related to job security. Employees who have been laid off in the past, have been laid off for longer periods of time, or are at career plateaus are more likely to face underemployment and job insecurity, perhaps due to a marketplace stigma associated with having been laid off. Finally, workers with more education tend to experience fewer layoffs than their less educated counterparts. Thus, education appears to provide some protection against job insecurity.
Employment characteristics refer to the contractual relationship that an employee has with his or her organization. This includes whether the worker is employed on a temporary or contingent basis versus a permanent one, whether the worker is employed part time versus full time, and whether the job falls under union jurisdiction. Nonbinding, temporary, or part-time contracts typically result in lower job security, because these characteristics implicitly suggest a briefer tenure with the organization than would a binding, permanent, full-time contract. In addition, these types of contractual arrangement also tend to pay less and offer fewer employee benefits, such as retirement and health benefits, than permanent or full-time arrangements.
Economic factors are the last set of antecedents of job security. When the state of the economy is poor, rates of unemployment and underemployment increase. As news of mass layoffs, low levels of job creation, and a scarcity of high-wage jobs loom large in the public eye, employee perceptions of job security typically decline. Research suggests a link between media reports of mass layoffs and employee perceptions of job insecurity. Thus, regardless of any planned layoffs in one’s organization, exposure to media accounts of mass layoffs occurring in other organizations can stimulate anxiety regarding one’s own job security.
Although organizational change characteristics, worker characteristics, employment contractual arrangements, and economic factors can serve as useful predictors of employee job security, far more research attention has been paid to the individual, organizational, and societal consequences.
Consequences of Job Insecurity
According to the “vitamin model” of work and unemployment, individuals require nine environmental “vitamins” to maintain their psychological health: opportunity for control, opportunity for skill use, externally generated goals, variety, environmental clarity, availability of money, physical security, opportunity for interpersonal contact, and valued social position. Many of these aspects are threatened or compromised under conditions of job insecurity. For example, a loss of control over one’s employment security, low environmental clarity, and an anticipation of a loss of income often accompany employee job insecurity. Based on this model, one would expect that the consequences of job insecurity would be negative as a result of these “vitamin” needs being compromised, and, indeed, research has borne this out.
Research from as early as the 1970s suggests that concerns about job security can have a detrimental effect on employee health outcomes. Employees with low job security report a greater incidence of physical health conditions, elevated levels of blood serum cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, and elevated levels of stress hormones. Job insecurity has also been associated with higher levels of general psychological distress, increased medical consultations for psychological distress, and increases in depression, somatization, anxiety, and hostility.
Research suggests that in addition to affecting the workers themselves, concerns over job security may have implications for the families of affected employees and society at large. Work and family research suggests that these two spheres of life do not operate independently of each other. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that the economic worries of one member of a couple cross over to predict the job security of the other partner. In addition, in couples who experience job insecurity, the individuals display more negative affect, evaluation, and behaviors toward one another. Children of parents who are experiencing job insecurity at work are also not immune from its negative effects. Children’s perceptions of work, work beliefs, and work attitudes are influenced by their parents’ job insecurity. In addition, student grades are related to parental perceptions of job security.
Extensive research has also focused on the job-related outcomes associated with job-security concerns. A recent meta-analysis reported that insecure employees experience decreased job satisfaction, are less involved in their jobs, are less committed to the organization and more likely to quit their jobs, place less trust in management, and have lower levels of performance than do workers with more job security. Other studies report significantly higher levels of job-related stress; more work withdrawal behaviors, such as absenteeism, tardiness, and work task avoidance; lower levels of creativity; and more work-related accidents and injuries among less secure workers.
Factors that Influence the Outcomes of Job Security
Despite the evidence indicating that concerns over job security have negative implications for individuals, organizations, and society, certain variables can serve to moderate (or influence) the effects of job insecurity by either mitigating or exacerbating its consequences. These moderators fall into two categories: individual-difference moderators and organizational-level moderators. Individual-difference moderators refer to characteristics that vary from person to person, whereas organizational-level moderators refer to differences within or between organizations.
One individual-difference moderator, cultural values, may influence the extent to which employees react negatively to perceived job insecurity. Individuals with collectivist cultural orientations or from collectivist cultures appear to be more likely than their individualistic counterparts to report lowered job satisfaction, more job stress, and more turnover intentions as a function of job insecurity.
Workplace control (i.e., the ability to protect oneself from negative events at work) may also be an important moderator of the stress associated with job insecurity. Research has found that employees who perceive they have little control over their workplaces exhibit more somatic symptoms and higher blood pressure in response to job insecurity, whereas employees who perceive they exert greater control over their workplaces do not experience these outcomes. Thus, individuals who perceive that they are able to protect themselves from negative events at work may be less vulnerable to the effects of job insecurity.
Another variable that has been theorized to buffer the effects of job insecurity on employee outcomes is emotional intelligence. Because emotional intelligence regulates the way in which individuals manage emotions, it is argued that emotional IQ will moderate the effects of job insecurity on emotional reactions and behaviors. Specifically, high-emotional-intelligence employees should be less likely to experience negative emotional reactions to job insecurity or use negative coping strategies than low-emotional-intelligence employees.
Finally, job involvement has also been shown to moderate the effects of job insecurity on employee outcomes. Employees who are highly invested in their jobs appear to be more adversely affected by job insecurity than their less involved counterparts, reporting more negative job attitudes, more health problems, and higher levels of psychological distress when they perceived their jobs to be threatened. This implies that individuals who consider their jobs to be quite important and whose jobs may be significant to their self-identity or financial security are more at risk for negative outcomes as a result of job insecurity than are individuals who are relatively indifferent to their jobs.
Although the individual-difference moderators may explain who is most likely to negatively react to job insecurity, these variables are not easily modified. For example, one cannot change an employee’s cultural values or level of job involvement in an effort to ward off the negative effects of job insecurity. However, research has shown that a number of organizational interventions may be effectively utilized toward this end.
One of the major sources of stress during times of organizational change is the uncertainty associated with such events. Whether an organization is restructuring, merging with another organization, or downsizing, research has shown that employees face concerns regarding their job security during those periods. In addition, during times of organizational transition, the “rumor mill” often plays a large role in employee perceptions. Reliance on the rumor mill and the absence of factual information can exacerbate employee anxiety. On the other hand, increased organizational communication may reduce the consequences of such uncertainty. Offering “realistic merger previews,” “realistic downsizing previews,” and increasing upward and downward communication may counter the negative effects associated with job insecurity. These types of interventions may be more attractive when one considers that providing increased communication within an organization is a relatively low-cost endeavor.
A slightly more involved organizational intervention found to reduce the negative effects of job insecurity is to increase employee participative decision making. Whereas job insecurity is associated with a lack of control perceived by employees, participative decision making has been found to be effective within organizations precisely because it allows employees to have a substantial voice in job-related decisions.
Organizations that provide their employees with participative decision-making opportunities may offer their employees the chance to regain control over important aspects of their jobs, which is otherwise lost under conditions of job insecurity.
A final organizational intervention that shows promise in attenuating some of the safety-related effects of job insecurity involves the organizational safety climate under which employees work. As noted earlier, research suggests that job insecurity has a detrimental effect on employee safety attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes. However, the effects of job insecurity on safety appear to be moderated by the extent to which the organization is seen as valuing and emphasizing safety. Thus, during times of organizational transition and employee economic stress, it may be wise for organizations to consistently send a strong message regarding the importance of safety to their employees.
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