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May 2006 Issue
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Getting the right fit for Antarctic jobs


A University of Adelaide Psychology Lecturer has been undertaking research into what it takes to "fit in" to one of the most extraordinary workplaces on earth: Antarctica.

Dr Aspa Sarris received her PhD from the University of Adelaide in 2002 and has continued her research in organisational culture and the behaviour of groups in isolated and confined environments.

Her latest work examined the environmental and organisational demands and stressors of living and working in the Antarctic, and whether it is possible to assess the degree of "fit" of individuals to the culture in order to identify those more likely to do well.

"The recurring themes in the responses of men and women toward Antarctic station life included references to the beauty of the Antarctic environment, and to the social and work-related demands of station life in this remote, frozen location," Dr Sarris said.

"The results showed that person-culture fit was an important consideration. For areas like Antarctica, research that may contribute to effective selection and recruitment is vital given that people are required to live and work away from home for extended periods of time with limited access to family and friends, and without their regular social support systems. Research of this kind is also important because of the social and economic cost of individual and group failure resulting from poor recruitment choices."

Dr Sarris interviewed 117 men and women who lived and worked on Australian Antarctic or sub-Antarctic stations between 1950 and 2000. The sample included over 100 "winterers" who remained in the Antarctic for between 12 and 15 continuous months, including scientists, plumbers, diesel mechanics, technical staff, doctors, station leaders and chefs.

The concept of person-culture fit suggests that individuals and organisations are attracted to each other based on the extent to which they have similar values.

"Traditionally, personnel recruitment has focused on job relevant skills and abilities and past work experience," she said. "Those characteristics are considered to predict if a person will do well in any context. However, research on values suggests that when the values of new recruits match those of an organisation, then the person will be happier at work and more likely to fit in and do well."

Dr Sarris's research showed that for the Antarctic good person-culture "fit" predicted better job satisfaction and group cohesion.

There is potential for "values congruence" to be used to improve selection procedures, not just for remote environments like the Antarctic but for more general recruitment.

"Consideration, however, needs to be given to the extent to which good fit with an existing culture is always desirable," said Dr Sarris. "For instance, it may be argued that, in many instances, cultural change may be the preferred option."

Story by Robyn Mills

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Dr Aspa Sarris
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Scene from Antarctica
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Scene from Antarctica
Photos courtesy of Robin Tihema

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