Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Grow, broaden, maintain: HR practices and how they matter for older workers

In the last issue of the Human Resource Management Journal, Dorien Kooij and colleagues investigate how general HR practices might have differential effects for younger and older employees. Given the ageing workforces prevelant in the West, it's an increasingly relevant issue.

800 respondents to a much larger survey were randomly selected to form eight equally sized age groups, ranging from those below 20 to an over-50 group. Participants reported their experiences of HR practices that could influence their ability, motivation or opportunities within the last 12 months. These practices were organised into bundles, the first containing practices that help the employee maintain their performance or minimise drops in capability: this comprised career advice, performance appraisal, opportunities to voice ideas, and access to information needed to carry out the job.

This was to be accompanied by just a second bundle, but confirmatory factor analysis found the best fit to the data was a total of three categories. Consequently the researchers added a development bundle, composed of formal training both for the current role and for anticipated future roles, and a job enrichment bundle, involving challenging job demands, and whether the job called on the full capacity of skills and knowledge that the individual possesses.

Overall, experience of each bundle was positively related to the measures of wellbeing collected in the survey - the individual's organisational commitment, their job satisfaction, and their perceived organisational fairness. The association between developmental practices and wellbeing was weaker for older workers relative to their younger counterparts. This was predicted on the basis that as we develop over our lifespan, our priorities shift away from opportunities for growth towards a 'prevention focus' that is concerned with keeping problems at bay. And indeed those practices within the maintenance bundle had a stronger relationship with wellbeing measures for older workers.

Although for older workers, growth is less important for wellbeing, Kooij's team predicted that it may be vital for their performance . As workplace demands evolve and fluctuate, older workers tend to be more at risk of experiencing obsolescence, which can be mitigated by proactively broadening functionality. Job performance was captured in the survey in the form of a self-rating, and was indeed found to have a significantly more positive relationship with both the development and job enrichment bundles (originally these were to be a single bundle, at which the prediction was pointed).

It should be noted that this 'more positive relationship' was a little odd, as it actually reflects a move from a negative relationship (more HR practices relating to negative wellbeing) to a non-significatn one, rather than from positive to more positive. There are some precedents for this negative relationship; explanations include participants self-reporting poorer performance because they are conscious that the training, while broadening, may be taking them away from the immediate demands of the job. Still, this makes the finding harder to parse, as does the fairly low effect sizes found in the study. (The authors raise this, but counter that effect size is of limited insight in these forms of regression analysis.)

This study suggests that older adults appreciate HR interventions to different degrees compared to their younger counterparts, treasuring more those that keep them on track than those designed for growth. The data at the least poses the possibility that in contrary to these preferences, these older workers may have more to gain from the activities they seek less. A conundrum for the HR sector to consider.

ResearchBlogging.orgKooij, D., Guest, D., Clinton, M., Knight, T., Jansen, P., & Dikkers, J. (2013). How the impact of HR practices on employee well-being and performance changes with age Human Resource Management Journal, 23 (1), 18-35 DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.12000

Dorien T. A. M. Kooij, Annet H. De Lange, Paul G. W. Jansen, Ruth Kanfer and Josje S. E. Dikkers Age and work-related motives: Results of a meta-analysis Journal of Organizational Behavior 32. DOI: 10.1002/job.665

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