Hitting rock bottom after job loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity


Title of the Article : Hitting rock bottom after job loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity

Author Information : Trenton Williams (Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University)
Dean A. Shepherd (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University)

Year of Publication : Academy of Management (Forthcoming)

Summary of Findings : This paper shares a model for how people deal with significant job/career loss. This model theorizes that people who are more focused on promotion will engage in exploratory activities in support of finding a new work identity while people who are prevention-focused are more likely to try to escape the emotional crisis and retreat, thereby taking them longer to find a new identity, if they find one at all.

Research Questions : How and why do some individuals use identity play to create a new positive work identity after identity loss whereas others languish?

What we know : Work identities are highly valued and build up over time through an accumulation of experiences and feedback. When a person loses a job or can no longer work within that same identity, it can be difficult for them to find the way forward. This paper seeks to determine how some people successfully redefine their work identities while others are not able to move forward.

Novel Findings : When a person loses his or her work identity due to a job loss, it’s possible for them to create a new identity but only after a period of grieving, followed by unstructured exploration of new career paths and finally taking steps to move toward establishment of the new identity.

Implications for Practice : The model has a number of practical implications. When hitting rock bottom we would obviously prefer the individual to be on the functional path to a new positive work identity than the dysfunctional path of cognitive deconstruction. We may be able to help people who have hit rock bottom pursue this functional path by simulating in them a promotion focus, achieved through formal organizational efforts (e.g., career transition organizations and counseling services for unemployed) as well as informal efforts (e.g., family and social network interactions).

Implications on Research: Future research could explore specific career types that are more difficult escape, such as professional athletes or other high-profile celebrity status work identities.

Full Citations : Shepherd, D.A. and Williams, T. “Hitting rock bottom after job loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity.” Academy of Management Review (in press).

Abstract : Although individuals often value work identities, sometimes events threaten these identities, creating a situation in which people struggle to overcome the identity threat. Building on the theories of identity and escape from self, we develop a "rock bottom" model of generating a new positive work identity. Specifically, individuals who eventually hit rock bottom come to the realization that the identity has been lost, which can lead to a path to recovery or a path to dysfunction. The path to recovery involves escape through identity play and the oscillation between disciplined identity play and identity refinement/validation. The path to dysfunction involves escape though cognitive deconstruction. Regulatory focus is important in distinguishing between those who engage in identity play to generate possible new positive identities (i.e., promotion focus) from those who engage in cognitive dysfunction (i.e., prevention focus). A deeper understanding of why some recover and others languish provides an opportunity to develop interventions that facilitate recovery from work identity loss.

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This research offers a “rock bottom” model for generating a new positive work identity after experiencing significant job loss.

Trenton Williams

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