Misfits in the Workplace

If you are involved in hiring, or if you do research about hiring, one of the terms that you consistently encounter is “person-organization fit”. That term describes the idea that in a successful hiring, the values of the employee match the values of the organization. However, in turbulent labour markets, job seekers may be less concerned with finding a “fit” and more concerned with just finding a job. On the other side of the equation, employers may be less worried about “fit” and more worried about finding someone who’s capable of adequately performing the job. Those priorities can result in more and more workplace  “misfits”  – employees who don’t feel like they belong in the organization, or who don’t want to be there, but who don’t feel they have the option to leave.

A research article published late last year takes a very interesting perspective on the “misfit” experience.  It seems reasonable to assume that because misfits are unhappy at work, their job performance would be poor, and they would tend to be disengaged from the organization. However, this study proposes that, rather than being miserable, misfits instead can “buffer” the discomfort caused by their values not matching the organization’s. The study looks at two actions that might serve as buffers for misfit employees: performing “job crafting” at work – changing the design of their job or their social environment  – and participating in leisure activities outside of work.

The researchers who wrote the article collected data by surveying 193 full-time employees; the participants’ average age was 35 years old, and on average they had been working for their current employer for five years. The researchers distributed two surveys to the participants, three weeks apart. The survey questions asked the employees to rate the importance of specific values to them and to their employers, asked the employees how much they adjusted their job tasks and procedures, and asked the employees to identify their leisure activities.  Three weeks after the last survey of the employees, the researchers asked the participants’ supervisors to assess the employees’ job performance and organizational citizenship (how much they voluntarily took on tasks to help the organization run smoothly).

The analysis of the survey data showed that when the “misfit” employees felt they could adjust their jobs, this offset the negative effects from their values not fitting the organization’s values. The employees who could do more “job crafting” were more engaged with their jobs, had better job performance, and demonstrated more organizational citizenship behaviour. Leisure activity had the same buffering effect against mismatched values as job crafting; employees who regularly engaged in leisure outside of work showed higher levels of job engagement, job performance and organizational citizenship behaviour, even when they felt their values did not match the company’s values.

The researchers suggest that the results of this study would be useful to managers wanting to help misfit employees be more productive and involved. I have to admit I have some reservations about that suggestion. There are many companies whose values say one thing but whose actions say the opposite; if companies themselves are not consistent in their values, misfit employees may feel even more alienated. Also, if the organization is poorly run and is not a satisfying or rewarding place to work, the responsibility to change should be more on the employer or the manager than on the employee.

But, nevertheless, this study and its results raise some fascinating and highly relevant issues. When people are taking jobs just to survive, regardless of what the job is or who the employer is, there is much more potential for workers to become misfits. Getting employers and employees to think about why employees become misfits, and the implications of being a workplace misfit, is a step toward possibly making workplaces better places for everyone.

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