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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2019 | Volume 24 | Issue 2

Can Psychology Majors Prepare for a Career in Business? Part V: Sustainable Employability

Drew C. Appleby PhD
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Once I am hired, how can I successfully sustain my employment by keeping my job, avoiding negative on-the-job consequences, gaining promotions, and developing a sense of occupational self-actualization?

You are probably most familiar with the word sustainable as it is used by environmental scientists who urge us to behave in ways that maintain ecological balance during our production of consumables like food and energy, so we neither harm our natural environment nor deplete its resources. These strategies enable us to enjoy our time on our planet with our fellow living things in a healthy, harmonious, and mutually beneficial manner for as long as possible. But what about our work environment? Are there not also some things we can do—or avoid doing—that will enable us to sustain this very important part of our environment as well?

If you agree with this, then I would like to introduce you to four different types of sustainability that I believe exist within our occupational environments. The first of these is Survivable Sustainability, which you can attain by keeping your job (i.e., not being fired). The second is Harm-Avoidance Sustainability, which you can attain by not being reprimanded or disciplined because of what you have done or not done on the job. The third is Advancing Sustainability, which you can attain by advancing in your organization when you receive promotions. The fourth is Self-Actualizing Sustainability, which occurs when you discover what you truly want to become, create a plan to establish yourself in the image of that person, and then follow your plan until one morning you wake up and discover that the person looking back at you from your mirror is the person you have always wanted to be.

Congratulations if you are beginning to realize how similar these types of occupational sustainability are to the stages of Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. Let me now present you with some new information—and remind you of some old information you have already encountered in this series—that you can use to attain all four of these types of sustainability in the job you want to enter.

Survivable Sustainability

The best example of a career that lacks survivable sustainability is one from which you are fired. But, what exactly are the behaviors that can produce this unfortunate and shocking outcome? Luckily, Phil Gardner (2007)—who is the director of Michigan State’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute—has performed research that identifies these behaviors. His six top reasons why new college hires are fired are listed below with the percentage of employers who report having fired someone for this reason.

  1. Unethical behavior 28%
  2. Lack of motivation/work ethic 18%
  3. Inappropriate use of technology 14%
  4. Failure to follow instructions 9%
  5. Late for work 8%
  6. Missing assignment deadlines 7%

The interesting thing about these reasons is that, when you think about them in terms of the knowledge, skills, and characteristics (KSCs) that business employers value in new hires, none of them appear to belong in the knowledge or skill categories. They seem to be a much better fit for the “characteristics” category. That is, they appear to be indicators of the type of person you are rather than what you know or can do. Acting in an unethical manner, choosing to use technology inappropriately, refusing to follow directions, showing up for work late, missing deadlines, and displaying a lack of interest in your work are all behaviors that can easily be interpreted as the actions of a dishonest, lazy, devious, insubordinate, and irresponsible person.

It is common for employers to provide new hires with training to increase their knowledge and skills, but they are far less likely—and probably both unwilling and unable—to try to make you a better person. For them, the easiest thing to do is simply replace you with someone whose character traits are less likely to produce problems in your organization such as decreased efficiency, lower morale, or negative publicity. In other words, you would be classified as a “bad apple” that needs to be removed from the barrel before the rest of the apples begin to think it is acceptable to act like you do.

Harm-Avoidance Sustainability

Congratulations! You have passed the first Survivor sustainability test by not being “voted off the island.” But, just because you are still on the island does not necessarily mean you are a happy survivor. What if your supervisor is so dissatisfied with how you are applying your knowledge and skills on the job that she often tells you that the quality of your work is substandard and that it must be improved.

In the world of work, this disciplinary action is known as a “reprimand.” According to Gardner, although it does not necessarily mean you are going to being fired, it certainly does not mean you are going to be promoted. The reasons for discipline include all six of the previously mentioned reasons for being fired plus the four following items with the percentage of employers who reported them as the causes for discipline either fairly often or very often.

  1. Ineffective in teams – 41%
  2. Unable to communicate effectively verbally – 32%
  3. Unable to communicate effectively in writing – 28%
  4. Failure to take initiative – 26%

If you interpret being disciplined as a harmful workplace event, then you can avoid this situation by making sure your supervisor perceives you to be an employee who

  1. behaves in an ethical manner,
  2. is motivated and displays a strong work ethic,
  3. uses technology in an appropriate manner,
  4. follows instructions,
  5. comes to work on time,
  6. meets deadlines for assignments,
  7. works well in teams,
  8. speaks in a clear and effective manner,
  9. writes in a clear and effective manner, and
  10. demonstrates initiative.

It is no coincidence that these are the same behaviors that demanding college instructors require you to exhibit in their classes. So, why not take advantage of these academic opportunities to learn how to avoid failure in the workplace while you are still in an educational environment where deviations from these standards will produce far less damaging consequences?

Let me offer you some very simple advice that my less-than-savvy students seldom want to hear. The next time you have a choice between taking a class from a “hard” teacher or an “easy” teacher, pick the “hard” one who is going to provide you with more opportunities to develop the skills and characteristics that will enable you to avoid potentially harmful consequences in the workforce like being fired, reprimanded, or overlooked for the promotion you feel you deserve.

The purpose of your undergraduate education is to provide you with an opportunity to prepare yourself for the many demanding challenges you will face after you graduate . . . and your career is certainly one of these challenges. How sad it would be if you purposely wasted your time and money during this time by deliberately avoiding the very situations that could prepare you to obtain and maintain the career to which you aspire.

Advancing Sustainability

The word advancing in Advancing Sustainability refers to situations in which your supervisors begin to view you not just as someone who should not be fired or reprimanded, but as a valuable employee who can be trusted with assignments with more responsibility and—depending upon how successfully you carry out these assignments—who may also be deserving of a promotion to a higher rank in the company. But, what are the actions that can bring this positive attention to you?

Once again, Gardner’s research provides us with the answer, and I have provided you below with the 11 behaviors that employers said they have used to identify new college hires to whom they gave promotions or new assignments with more responsibility. I have paraphrased these behaviors from Gardner’s work and arranged them in order of most-often to least-often reported by those who employ new college hires.

  1. Displaying Initiative by accepting more responsibility than your job officially requires, volunteering for additional activities above and beyond the stated job, promoting new ideas, and being a motivated, self-starter.
  2. Networking by connecting with coworkers who possess technical expertise, helping others by sharing your knowledge, and accepting both positive and negative feedback.
  3. Displaying Self-Management skills to successfully handle your stress, manage your time to meet deadlines, set work-flow priorities, understand and abide by performance quality standards, adapt to change, display accountability, and provide quality customer service.
  4. Displaying Team Effectiveness by assuming joint responsibility for work activities, helping to coordinate group efforts, and accomplishing shared goals.
  5. Displaying Leadership by increasing management skills such as encouraging consensus about common goals and working to accomplish these goals by recognizing and developing the talents of others.
  6. Displaying Followership by helping leaders accomplish their organizational goals by working autonomously and in a self-reliant manner.
  7. Displaying Perspective by being able to understand the viewpoints of others, possessing a global outlook, and understanding your position in your company and your company’s position in the industry.
  8. Displaying the ability to “Show and Tell” by presenting your ideas in a clear and persuasive manner, both verbally and in writing.
  9. Displaying Organizational Savvy by getting things done, fitting into the organization by understanding and adapting to competing organizational interests, working well with others, and recognizing and managing conflict.
  10. Displaying Technical Competence by exhibiting mastery of the specific tasks—and the technological tools needed to accomplish these tasks—required by your current position.
  11. Displaying the Cognitive Abilities required by your job such as remembering, comprehending, analyzing, and evaluating information and then applying this information in a creative and open-minded manner that benefits your employer.

Self-Actualizing Sustainability

Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization is a complex, multi-faceted, and difficult to quantify concept that refers to how well individuals progress toward the fulfillment of their highest needs including those needs they can fulfill on the job. It is clear that reaching a state of self-actualizing sustainability in your career requires, but is not guaranteed by, your attainment of survivable, harm-avoidance, and advancement sustainability, all of which depend upon your ability to live up to the standards that others have placed upon you. To attain true self-actualization in your career, you must also create standards and goals for yourself and then do everything in your power to live up to these standards and accomplish these goals.

Once this happens, you can begin to realize that you are not only good at your job, but that you also enjoy what you are doing at work, and that what you are doing at work has a positive impact on some aspect of the world you believe is important and needs to be improved. To provide you with a more eloquent description of self-actualizing sustainability, please allow me to share three very relevant and inspiring quotations with you. The first is by Monique Valcour (2013) from an article she published in the Harvard Business Review titled “Craft a Sustainable Career.”

  • Imagine crafting a sustainable career for yourself. Year after year, you perform work that makes full use of your skills and challenges you to develop new ones. Your work not only interests you, it gives you a sense of meaning. You enjoy opportunities for learning and development. You work with people who energize you. You are confident that your skills and competencies make you valuable and marketable and that you can access opportunities through your network. You are able to fit your work together with the other things in your life that are important to you, like family, friends, and leisure. (para. 1)

The second quote is from the coauthors of Uncover Your Calling: Work Reimagined (Leider & Shapiro, 2015, p. 16), who say:

  • Uncovering our calling is a process that has stages to it, much like when we learned to walk. Each stage—rolling over, crawling, walking, and running—had to be experienced in turn. Likewise, we move from jobs that pay the bills, to careers that help us grow, to callings that give us meaning.

The third quote from Leider and Shapiro (2015, p. 6) further clarifies the concept of a calling by saying:

  • When we uncover our calling, we never have to work again . . . we are always doing what we want to do.

My fondest desire is for you to use the advice and resources contained in this series to identify, investigate, prepare for, obtain, and succeed in a business career that fits the description of both Valcour’s “sustainable career” and Leider and Shapiro’s “calling.” The best way you can do this is by making a firm commitment to do all you can to create clear, confident, and convincing answers to the following questions that accompany the six employability concepts I have used as the organizational structure of this series.

  1. Actual Employability. Are psychology majors actually employed in business careers?
  2. Specific Employability. What specific business careers can I prepare to enter with a bachelor’s degree in psychology?
  3. Potential Employability. How can I use my psychology major to increase my potential to enter and succeed in a business career?
  4. Strategic Employability. What strategies can I create to use my undergraduate education to develop and strengthen the knowledge, skills, and characteristics (KSCs) I will need to enter and succeed in the specific business career to which I aspire?
  5. Promotional Employability. How can I promote the existence of my KSCs during the hiring process so a potential employer will come to the conclusion that my KSCs are a better match for the position for which I am applying than the KSCs of any other applicant?
  6. Sustainable Employability. Once I am hired, how can I successfully sustain my employment by keeping my job, avoiding negative on-the-job consequences, gaining promotions, and developing a sense of occupational self-actualization?

You can answer these questions as you engage in the following strategies I have provided you in this series.

  1. Choose a broad occupational field in which your work would be a good match for your interests, values, and goals.
  2. Examine several careers in this field and choose one whose description makes you excited about obtaining it.
  3. Investigate this career carefully to determine the KSCs you will need to succeed in it.
  4. Work with your professional academic advisor and career counselor to develop a plan to use both the curricular and extracurricular components of your undergraduate education to acquire these KSCs and to create the strategies that will convince employers to hire you.
  5. Finally, make a firm commitment to do everything in your power to carry out your academic plan and to put your KSCs to work when it is time to make your transition from college to the workforce.

Begin this strategy now, not tomorrow, not at the end of this semester, and absolutely not until after you graduate. You should be aware that more than 100,000 other psychology majors will graduate with you. They all want good jobs too. But, until they read this series, you will be the only one who has been able to use the information it contains to develop the hope and the ability to identify, prepare for, enter, and succeed in the sustainable career that will become your calling.


Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out of the company? Factors that influence the promoting or firing of new college hires. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Retrieved from

Leider, R. J., & Shapiro, D. A. (2015). Work reimagined: Uncover your calling. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, inc.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–96.

Valcour, M. (2013, July 15). Craft a sustainable career. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved

Drew C. Appleby, PhD, earned his BA from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. He chaired Marian University’s Psychology Department, was the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the IUPUI Psychology Department, and served as the Associate Dean of the IUPUI Honors College. He used his research on teaching, learning, advising, and mentoring to help students develop academic competence and achieve their career aspirations. He published over 200 books and articles; made over 600 professional presentations (including 29 invited keynote addresses); received 44 institutional, regional, and national awards for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service; and was honored for his contributions to psychology by being named a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the 30th Distinguished Member of Psi Chi. Over 300 of his students earned graduate degrees in a wide variety of professional fields, and he was designated as a mentor by 777 IUPUI psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated that he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life and his effect on me has been invaluable.” Dr. Appleby retired from IUPUI with the rank of Professor Emeritus in 2011.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 24, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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