Into the looking glass: psychological contracts in research administration.

Author:Hicks, Melanie


This work examines the effects of psychological contract on various generations working in research administration offices across the country. The psychological contract can be defined as an exchange agreement of promises and contributions between two parties, the employee and employer, and includes an individuals beliefs regarding mutual obligations (Rousseau, 1990, 1995). With understanding psychological contract as the primary objective, this research examines the consequences influenced by psychological contracts in six areas of interest: organizational loyalty, job movement, career commitment, self-reliance, organizational commitment and organizational culture.

The analysis compares reactions and consequences based on generational cohort and specific ideologies. Specifically, this article aims to establish a deeper understanding of the psychological contract by answering the research questions: What effect does a persons generation have on perceptions of organizational obligations (aka Psychological contract), organizational loyalty, job movement, career commitment, Ideology of self reliance, and organizational commitment? What effect do current work environments (organizational culture) have on perception of research administration work by generation? The ultimate goal of this study is to provide helpful information to both scholars and practitioners enabling better human capital planning and human resource policy implementation for the future.

Background and Objectives

Research administration offices are not isolated from current workforce trends such as employee disengagement and high turnover. As Universities continue to ask for more work out of their already understaffed offices and government audit oversight tightens; healthy office environments and engaged and productive employees are critical. Understanding the preconceived notions and other intrinsic expectations found in your employees' psychological contracts could be the key that unlocks the door to more engaged workers, higher productivity and lower turnover. This study hopes to offer Research Administration supervisors insights that will help understand their employee's psychological contracts, commitment levels and loyalties.

Psychological contract.

To date, this topic has been unexplored in research administration literature. However, literature on psychological contract theory from other fields is more robust. Psychological contract theory extends from early writings of Chester Barnard and his classic book Functions of the Executive (1938), highlighting the importance of employer/employee communication in times of change. More recently, Hermida and Luchman (2012) further accentuated the important role of communication in the full understanding of employee's psychological contract perceptions. They found that employees who receive their primary information from peers had a higher risk of psychological contract breech than those who obtained information regularly from supervisors.

Psychological contract theory extends the idea that individual goals create the resistance or acceptance of workplace change and continues to highlight the importance of an individual's beliefs regarding mutual obligations to the organization (Rousseau, 1990, 1995). When psychological contract obligations are perceived as met, high levels of trust and loyalty between employees and employers are created which in turn can lead to better customer satisfaction (Restubog et. al, 2010; Wilkens and Nermerich, 2011), a point of interest for research administration officers as we move to shift the culture from one of regulation and "bad cop" to one of service to our institutions and faculty members.

Psychological contract theory is believed by many to be closely tied to organizational commitment. McDermott et. all (2013) found organizational commitment varied based on clustering of psychological contract perceptions. A similar study by Tsui et. al (2013) found that job satisfaction's effect on performance was mediated by psychological contract strength. These studies compliment earlier work by Lapalme et al. (2010) which suggests that contract breach by an employer was negatively related to affective commitment of temporary workers, an important point for research administration offices that work with part time or graduate student workers. This study will dive further into organizational commitment variables.

Other psychological contract literature examined the potential link between psychological contract and career/job loyalty. Alcover, et. al (2012) found that employees holding a transitionally oriented psychological contract were significantly more likely to leave the organization than employees with relationally oriented psychological contracts. A study by Restubog et al (2013) found that psychological contract expectations were stronger and violations more severe when the employee-employer relationship was highly transactional and relational. This point is of particular interest to predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUI) or other small research administration offices where team or familism is more common.

Finally, psychological contract has been found to affect various work environment elements. In 2007, Hicks conducted a study of psychological contract and civil service reform among Florida's state government workers. Her research uncovered correlations between the new work environment and psychological contract complicated by education and income. Ng et. al (2010) found that perceptions of psychological contract breach among employees decreased innovation related behaviors. Chang et. al (2013) had a similar finding where work engagement mediated the negative effect of transactional psychological contracts on innovative behavior.

Generational perspective.

Research indicates that attitudes toward the psychological contract are influenced by employees' experiences (DeMeuse, et. al, 2001); therefore, it can be hypothesized that generation will have an effect as well. Generational cohorts are defined as a group of people sharing similar and stable social and historical life experiences over the course of their lives (Rosow, 1974). Although there are five generations currently in the workforce, this study focuses on the most established three: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Characteristics of each are below although cohort birth dates vary slightly from source to source. Dates in this study are adapted from Meister and Willyerd (2010).

Baby Boomers. Research on Boomers (those born from approximately 1946 to 1964) paints a picture of a loyal, hardworking, and secure generation. They compose approximately 26% of the overall US population and just over 30% of the workforce. Boomers, like Matures before them, place high emphasis on warm, friendly workplace relationships (LaRocco et. al, 1980; Yankelovich, 1979).

Boomers are reportedly more concerned with money and willing to spend more of their disposable income on products and entertainment than previous generations (Whitbourne and Willis, 2006). Unlike the generations that sandwich them, Boomers report placing high value on work and generally receive high levels of job satisfaction from it (Rhodes, 1983). Boomers' upbringing was set in a traditional home life where variation was minimized in public and self-esteem and idealism were instilled. Boomers report feeling a sense of drive and dedication in the workplace stemming from their belief in their capabilities to change the world (Cordeniz, 2002). This notion of bucking the status quo credits Boomers with launching change agent societal movements from the war and civil rights protests of the 1960s to the drug culture and rock and roll era of the 1970s and 1980s (Kahlert, 1999).

Generation X. Also referred to as Gen X or GenXers, those born between 1965 and 1976 currently comprise only 17% of the US population and approximately 22% of the US workforce. Gen X is a generation of nearly 49 million of the best-educated and most technologically advanced individuals in US history (Reynolds, 2004, US Census, 2009). General values viewed most important by GenXers are a sense of belonging/ teamwork, ability to learn new things, autonomy, and entrepreneurship (Hornblower, 1997; Ramo, 1997; Tulgan, 1995; Hornbostel, et. al, 2011). GenXers strive for authority, independence, and a voice in decision-making (Jennings, 2000). Hornblower (1997) found GenXers to be more competitive, risktaking and success-minded than Boomers. The small size of this generation as compared to those that surround it, accentuates this risk acceptance by limiting competition and fear of failure.

Speaking at the 2004 Annual Convention of the American Banking Association, Greg Churchman, a retention strategist specializing in generational differences among GenXers said, "People tend to leave when they are not challenged and see no prospects for growth. Salary and benefits are important, but are not usually the top priority" (Churchman, 2004, p. 12). He outlines four important traits employers should know about their Gen X employees: "Time is more important to them than money, over 70% plan to own their own business", (Churchman, 2004, p. 12).

Millennial At nearly 80 million, Generation Y or the Millennial generation is the second-largest generation cohort behind only the Boomers and already represent 40% of the US workforce and growing. Although disputed slightly, this generation is widely accepted to be born between 1977 and 1997. They are found to have high idealism and relativism and a greater propensity for servant leadership traits. They are also highly individual, valuing their own variation but also more accepting of others variations as well (VanMeter et. al, 2013). In the workplace, Millennial hold expectations of constant communication even with those in authority and flexibility to accommodate their work-life balance (Carless and Wintle, 2007; Smola...

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