What Makes for a Successful Employee and Why?

Topic: Job Performance, Personality
Publication: Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (MAR 2010)
ArticleHuman capital and objective indicators of career success: The mediating effects of cognitive ability and conscientiousness
Authors: T.W.H. Ng and D.C. Feldman
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Career success is important for determining an employee’s well-being, life satisfaction, and can also contribute to organizational success.  While it is well known that an employee’s level of education and work experience influences his/her career success, Ng and Feldman suggest that why this relationship exists is unclear.

According to Ng and Feldman, education and work experience are indicators of an employee’s human capital (i.e., competencies possessed by employees that positively influence performance).  Such indicators of human capital signal to organizations that employees/job applicants posses valued competencies and will likely be successful on the job.

In a recent meta-analysis, Ng and Feldman argue that education can actually increase employees’cognitive ability which in turn enhances job performance. They argue further that work experience and attaining a high level of formal education leads employees to develop better work habits (i.e., become more conscientious) which is also a well known predictor of job performance.

Ng and Feldman’s results suggest that these indicators of human capital directly and positively influence objective indicators of employee career success (salaries and promotions).  However, investments in human capital development also appear to increase employee cognitive ability and conscientiousness and thus affect career success indirectly as well.

Caution: While Ng and Feldman argue that education and work experience lead to cognitive ability and conscientiousness, the opposite could also be the case.  This would suggest that smarter and more conscientious people seek out more education and tend to stay with their organizations longer which is also quite plausible and probably true to some degree.

These results lend support to the common practice of screening job applicants based on their education and work experiences prior to testing and/or interviewing.  This initial step can save significant time and money and can effectively screen out applicants that do not possess the human capital necessary for successful job performance.  Ng and Feldman also suggest that organizations make “tradeoffs” between work experience and education since applicants who attend school longer have fewer opportunities to gain work experience.  Weeding out applicants with high levels of education because they do not possess certain work experiences may be cutting applicants who DO possess the necessary human capital for good performance.

Ng, T. W. H., & Feldman, D. C. (2010). human capital and objective indicators of career success: the mediating effects of cognitive ability and conscientiousness . Journal of Occupation and Organizational Psychology, 83, 207-235.