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The role of organizational culture and climate strength

Our review of the literature related to turnover has revealed very little discussion of issues related to culture or climate strength. There are two exceptions: one theoretical paper by DelCampo (2006) on culture strength, and one empirical paper by Sowinski and colleagues (2008) on service climate level and strength.

DelCampo (2006) proposed that strong cultures will have higher turnover rates than weak cultures. The basis of his argument is that it is easier to identify the important shared assumptions in a strong culture, and thus individuals new to the culture can quickly identify whether their personal values are a fit or not. If not, these individuals will leave. However, in a weak culture it is more challenging for new workers to understand the core values and assumptions, and they may believe they can even change the organization to fit their own values. In this case, individuals who do not fit the culture will be less likely to leave. An alternative perspective is that strong cultures develop because of the organization’s success; in other words, the reason the values become deeply accepted and embedded in the organization is because they have been reinforced over time by the positive results with which they are associated (Schein, 2010). In general, such cultures are expected to be positive. There are certainly exceptions. Cooke and Szumal (2000) described two mechanisms through which this can occur: the defensive misattribution of success (‘organizations that enjoy strong franchises, munificent environments, extensive patents and copyrights, and/or massive financial resources are likely to perform quite adequately, at least in the short term’, even if they have negative cultures’, p. 160) and the culture bypass (organizations can create operational systems that minimize the effect of culture on outcomes, such as in fast-food restaurants). However, these are expected to be the exception rather than the rule. If strong cultures have tended to be successful in the past, and if successful cultures are more likely to be positive, then it would be expected for turnover to be lower in strong cultures than in weak cultures. Weak cultures, by contrast, are not internally aligned. Employees are more likely to receive conflicting messages from various sources or have different experiences of the organization’s culture from their coworkers’. The resulting stress associated with role conflict and/or ambiguity is likely to result in higher turnover (Beehr & Glazer, 2005; Firth & Britton, 1989; Griffeth et al., 2000; Podsakoff, LePine & LePine, 2007).

The evidence from the climate literature is more in line with this argument. Specifically, Sowinski and colleagues (2008) found that stores with weak climates on the means emphasis sub-dimension of service climate had higher turnover rates (although just outside the commonly accepted cutoff for statistical significance at p = 0.055). They explained their results:

when there are no clearly defined guidelines about what behaviours and practices are encouraged and rewarded in an organization, individuals may become frustrated and experience stress as a result of interpersonal friction, conflict, and process loss (Lindell & Brandt, 2000), or experience reduced psychological well-being (Bliese & Halverson, 1998). Any of these experiences would most likely have a negative impact on resulting employee behaviours, including voluntary turnover. (Sowinski et al., 2008, pp. 85-86)

As opposed to examining main effects, climate strength may moderate the relationship between climate level and turnover. This approach conforms to the way climate strength is typically studied (e.g., Colquitt, Noe & Jackson, 2002; Gonzalez-Roma, Peiro & Tordera, 2002; Schneider, Salvaggio & Subirats, 2002), and suggests that the negative effects of climate level on turnover are even more negative when employees tend to agree that the climate is negative (vs. when there is less agreement).

More research is needed to understand the role of culture and climate strength in predicting turnover. When cultures or climates are generally positive, it seems that strength should be associated with lower turnover. When the culture or climate is generally negative, however, it seems that strength should be associated with higher turnover. When the aspect of culture or climate under investigation (e.g., the focused climate) is neutral, then perhaps fit becomes the stronger determinant of turnover. Moreover, this discussion has treated culture and climate as equivalent, but in line with the previous section, the distinction between culture and climate is important. Along those lines, research on the unique roles of culture strength versus climate strength is also needed.

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