nature matters

November 15, 2017

Every hiring manager has encountered job hoppers. Many loathe hiring them—and rightly so—because it makes the process time-consuming and expensive for the company. Such job-jumping candidates are often perceived to be selfish, disloyal, and impatient.

But what is it that makes one candidate more prone to switching jobs than the next? Is there any way to predict whether a person is more likely to stick to a job than flee after a short tenure? Is the job-hopping tendency a trait that one is born with, or a product of the environment? In other words: nature or nurture?

1201our genes do have a say

Traditionally, people have always believed that it is nurture, or work environment factors—such as managers and organizations—that mostly influence our job satisfaction, which in turn shapes turnover, because these factors seem to directly determine the tasks we perform, the amount of autonomy we have at work, and so on.

However, research has consistently shown that people are not randomly assigned to their work environments. Instead, they select themselves or are selected into compatible work environments to achieve an optimal fit between their individual characteristics and their workplace.

Along this line of reasoning, in a previous research conducted by my colleagues and me, we found that a dopamine transporter gene, DAT1, was involved in explaining genetic influences on leadership role occupancy and the extent to which people occupy leadership positions. We also found two genes were significantly related to job satisfaction. Genes affect our brain functions and individual difference variables such as intelligence, personality traits, and physical characteristics (for example, physical attractiveness, height, and weight). The individual difference variables play an essential role in the processes of job selection.

Indeed, even without studying genetic influences, we can all relate to the fact that when looking for a job, apart from considering the salary and perks, we would also consider whether the job nature suits our personality traits, interests, and values, all of which are influenced by genetic factors. Genetic factors thus shape our attitude towards work and our behavior on the job through those individual difference variables.

In a more relevant study, my colleagues and I looked at how the dopamine genetic marker DRD4 interacted with early life environmental factors, such as family socioeconomic status and neighborhood poverty, and how that interaction influenced job change frequency later on in adulthood. This gene is closely related to human motivation, reward, and self-regulation, which in turn may affect educational achievement and job changes.

Our study found that higher family socioeconomic status was related to higher educational achievement, which in turn resulted in a higher frequency of voluntary job changes and a lower frequency of involuntary job changes (such as those caused by layoff and being fired). For individuals with the presence of more DRD4 7R alleles, such relationships were shown to be stronger—whether such relationships were positive or negative. Again, genetic and early childhood environmental factors are proven to each play a role in a person’s career direction.

What we also found was the importance of providing a supportive environment to children and adolescents, as this will have a positive influence not only on their immediate education outcomes but also on their long-term careers later in life.

Knowing that both genetics and the environment shape a person’s career path and tendency to switch jobs or not, my colleagues and I were left with the question of whether the interplay between nature and nurture changes, or remains more or less the same throughout one’s career.

genetic influence not set in stone

Curious to find the answer, my colleagues and I embarked on a longitudinal twin study in the United States to find out how a person’s genetics and the environment influence his or her job satisfaction change over time. Data were collected at three time points of our participants’ early adulthood: age 21, 25, and 30. This allowed us to track changes over time, which would shed light on how environmental factors play a role.

Our findings show that genetic influences account for 31.2% of the variance in job satisfaction measured at age 21. This number is significantly larger than 18.7% and 19.8% measured at age 25 and age 30, respectively.

Normally, we would think our genetic makeup does not change that much over time, therefore genetic influences on job satisfaction are also supposed to be relatively stable. In fact, previous research has portrayed genetic influences on job satisfaction as relatively stable.

But our research showed otherwise, especially through early adulthood (up until the age of 30), as evidenced by the figures mentioned above.

The study results also show that as people accumulate more work experience, the influence of genes on individual job satisfaction becomes less important over time. In other words, genetic influences are likely to be diluted by work situations over time.

The diminishing impact of genetic factors in relation to environmental factors suggests that employees’ job satisfaction level may be increasingly shaped by external factors such as organizational leadership, performance management and reward systems, as well as salary
and benefits.

Other environmental influences on job satisfaction, such as interpersonal conflict at work and occupational status, were shown to be relatively stable across the three time points, according to our findings.

While the importance of these environmental factors did not change much over time, it should be noted that interpersonal conflicts are found to affect job satisfaction in a significant way. As such, strategies to maintain harmonious relationships at work can greatly enhance long-term job retention.

nurture or nature: what next?

The influences of nature and nurture are often intertwined. Overall, research seems to suggest that nurture is more important than nature in the biggest scheme of things.

I believe that changes in environmental factors play an important role in reinforcing what is already in a person’s genetic makeup. For example, having a supportive work environment with an empathetic and strong leadership would lead to high levels of job autonomy, which in turn would boost positive affect and job satisfaction.

Positive affectivity—a genetic trait we studied—often shows up in someone who is likely to experience positive emotions. Such a person may select or create positive situations at work, which in turn boosts his or her job satisfaction. Having a positive work environment reinforces such an employee’s disposition, which in turn may boost job satisfaction and loyalty.

All in all, organizations should pay more attention to the importance of employees’ individual characteristics in customizing their practices.

Just as medicine and nutrition are increasingly being personalized, it is about time that organizational and human resources practices are personalized based on individual employee’s personality traits and tendencies. Understanding the importance of this trend is critical to a company’s ability to retain and unleash its talents—especially when it comes to the new generation of workers, the millennials.