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Understanding the Role of Vocational Psychology in Recruiting

Dan Sines

CEO at Traitify | Star Wars & Superhero Fan, Adventurer, aspiring Renaissance Man | Inventor/Visionary in Work

For those tasked with climbing the ever-growing mountain of applications and résumés in search of people who will truly fit your company and flourish as employees, there are many tools available to help make the excursions far less painful and far more successful.

Many of these tools depend on an academic discipline known as vocational psychology, which (as the name implies) is devoted to investigating and improving how people choose and manage their careers.

Yes, this is somewhat academic territory. But you don't need a Ph.D. to put ideas and concepts associated with vocational psychology to work for you in your recruiting process.

Let's take a look.

What Is It?

Vocational psychologists focus on understanding factors that influence people's job choices and on helping them to make more suitable, effective career decisions, according to Professor Nadya Fouad, the author of an informative and accessible article I recommend as further reading, "Work and Vocational Psychology: Theory, Research, and Applications."

The ultimate objective is to help people select careers that fit their personalities— that align their characteristics and capacities with the job's requirements and routines. 

Dr. Fouad writes that vocational psychology is primarily interested in answering four major questions:

  1. What factors influence career choices?
  2. How do people make career decisions?
  3. How does context influence career decisions?
  4. How are people effectively helped in the career-counseling process?

Work Personality

For our purpose — improving hiring decisions — I want to concentrate on question No. 1: What factors influence career choices? Of course, our aspirations are important (especially early in our career). But our aspirations may shift as we build new skills and adapt to changing market conditions over time. So, experts tell us that our own development is likewise an important factor.


Not surprisingly, personality — what experts call work personality — is another key piece of the puzzle. In fact, work personality is a fundamental matter. It's one element of the following three-part formula for making sound, informed career decisions: Know yourself; know the work world; and be able to analyze yourself in relation to that world. Vocational psychologists refer to this formula as the person-environment fit model.

As Dr. Fouad discusses in depth in her article, the most commonly used model is Holland's Theory of Vocational Personality Types, named after the late psychologist and Johns Hopkins University professor John Holland.

Who Am I at Work?

The Holland model characterizes people according to one or more of six interest themes, as described in this helpful document published by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The interest themes are as follows:

  1. Realistic: Active, stable; enjoy hands-on activities; prefer working with things rather than ideas or people; like to learn by doing; direct communicators.
  2. Investigative: Analytical; observant; problem solvers; often work alone and do not seek leadership roles; value science and learning.
  3. Artistic: Intuitive; imaginative; creators; prefer flexibility; averse to convention and conformity.
  4. Social: Idealistic; concerned about others; enjoy group and social activities; like to be a part of a team; warm, tactful, persuasive communicators.
  5. Enterprising: Energetic; ambitious; confident; enjoy persuading and leading; may avoid routine or systematic activities.
  6. Conventional: Efficient; careful; conforming; comfortable working in an established chain of command; prefer well-defined instructions over assuming leadership roles.

It is essential to note that people rarely fit into a single theme. Instead, we tend to be combinations of two or more.

Either way, collecting and understanding this kind of information is powerful not only for the person who took the test. It could also prove significant to companies with jobs to fill, and it's not hard to see why.

The more we know, the better we do. If your company is looking for, say, salespeople, then people who score high in the "enterprising" category should go to the front of your candidate line, while strong "investigative" types probably should go back into the applicant pool for any opportunities that better fit who they are. Meanwhile, if your business relies on a great deal of collaborative team work, seeking out "social" individuals stands a good chance of serving them and you well. 

Vocational psychology represents another powerful device to put into your recruitment tool chest. If you'd like to learn more, contact us

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