There’s never been a better time to work in a cleared job, and yet workers are unhappy and changing jobs. A psychologist tells ClearanceJobs the reason why.

By the numbers, there has never been a better time to work in the clearance community, and yet most workers want to change jobs. According to the 2018 ClearanceJobs Compensation Survey, salaries for cleared jobs are at a high. Workers last year experienced a mean base salary increase of 8%, and a total compensation increase of 7%. (Even student interns received a 4% salary increase.) Salary satisfaction is up 2% this year. These would all seem like positive signs, and that everyone should be content and on cruise control toward retirement.

Perhaps paradoxically, however, there is an extraordinary amount of job hopping in the field right now. Despite making more money than ever, job satisfaction is down, and 84% of cleared workers say they are likely to change jobs in the next year. To learn what’s going on in the field, I asked Dr. Richard Flicker, an industrial-organizational psychologist, to explain what makes workers happy, and what makes them quit. (The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

Q: When conventional markers like money and benefits are favorable, what factors lead to worker dissatisfaction?

Flicker: There is something called the “two-factor theory of motivation” by a psychologist named Frederick Herzberg. It says that there are things that cause people to be satisfied with their jobs, and there are things that cause them to be dissatisfied with their jobs—and that they are two separate categories. Herzberg called them the ‘motivator factors’ and the ‘hygiene factors,’ respectively.

The motivator factors are the things that, if they are there, make you happy with your job. This would include the work itself, and is it challenging? Is there a sense of accomplishment and achievement? Do you have responsibility? Do you feel like you are doing something meaningful? If motivators are present, then you will be satisfied with your job. If those things are lacking, you won’t necessarily be dissatisfied; you just won’t be satisfied.

And the hygiene factors?

The hygiene factors are more the extrinsic things, more the context of the job. Such as your salary, your fringe benefits, your job security, and your working conditions. Those things do not bring you satisfaction, but if they are lacking, they will make you dissatisfied. In other words, if you don’t like your pay or you don’t like your benefits package, you will be very dissatisfied with your job. If those things are good, you won’t necessarily like your job, but you won’t dislike it, either.

Herzberg saw those as two separate things. What makes people satisfied is the work itself. What makes people dissatisfied are those external factors.

In many ways, all of this overlaps with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the need hierarchy, those external factors are the bottom levels of the pyramid: your physiological needs and your safety needs. Maslow said you won’t worry about higher level things like self-esteem and self-actualization unless those lower level needs are adequately met. If you are not making enough money to pay your bills, you won’t care if your work brings a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction. Instead, you are focused on ‘I need more money’ and ‘I need to survive.’ The bottom levels of Maslow really correspond to those hygiene factors: the pay, the benefits, the security.

Because the clearance community is currently experiencing a very high rate of employment, job recruiters can be very aggressive in pursuing workers from other companies. In what way does that have a negative effect on one’s job satisfaction?

I’m an industrial-organizational psychologist, and one of my favorite theories is called “equity theory.” It’s a social comparison theory: We compare ourselves with others. It’s also a social justice theory: We want the world to be fair. One thing the theory points out is that you can be very happy with your situation—you thought you were getting paid fairly, that everything was fine. (You may or may not feel satisfied with your work, but right now I’m talking about things like pay and fringe benefits.) I’m doing my job and they are compensating me fairly—and then you find out that someone else has it better than you. And all of a sudden, the world has become unfair, and you get angry.

If people are recruiting and they are promising more than you may be receiving in your current situation… you might only moments ago have been very satisfied with your pay and benefits. But then when you find out someone else has it better, or that you could have it better, you can flip in an instant from being happy with your pay and benefits, to being dissatisfied.

So is it all about money?

Not exactly. Some people will look at the work itself and say ‘I don’t care what somebody else makes. I get certain things from my job that they don’t.’ It might be a sense of fulfillment, a sense of accomplishment. A schoolteacher or a firefighter who doesn’t get paid adequately compared to other jobs: they may say, ‘OK I don’t make as much money, but I get a certain type of satisfaction from performing my work that other people don’t get.’

In many ways it’s a rationalization. They don’t want to admit that they are being underpaid, so they say there are other outcomes than just money. This becomes an individual thing. How do you deal with inequity?

How do you deal with it?

When you feel there is inequity—unfairness—you have options. You can stop comparing to people who have it better than you. You can rationalize and say, ‘My outcomes are more than just money and benefits. I get satisfaction from helping people, from performing a vital task that makes me feel like I’m achieving something.’

Or you can always ask for a pay raise. When people are recruited heavily by these headhunters, they’ll often go to their boss and try to leverage that into another pay raise—even if they were happy with how things were. Each individual deals with inequity differently. Right now someone in the clearance community might have it very good. But if somebody lets them know that there’s another job that will be better, they can suddenly become dissatisfied.

What I like about equity theory is that people have choices. In the work setting, some people ask for a pay raise. Some people decide to give themselves a pay raise. That’s called stealing. They start stealing from their employer. (I don’t know if that would work in the clearance community!) Others will just cut their input. Equity theory says that we each have a formula. What do we get out of a job, divided by what we put in. We want that formula to equal other people’s formulas. What do they get out? What do they put in?

How does that work?

Say you work 40 hours a week. If you make $400 a week, that’s $10 an hour. Your formula is $10 an hour. You don’t want somebody else who works 40 hours to make more than you make. They make $500 or $600, then there’s an inequity. What people forget is that we’re not just putting in the same number of hours. Yes, you both put in 40 hours, but maybe the other person has more education. Maybe they have more experience. Maybe they have more talent and ability. And most of us don’t think of those things. We just look at that monetary amount—oh they’re making more, and we both work the same number of hours, and it’s not fair! But true equity is more than just how many hours per week that you put in. It’s what do you bring to the table? How much experience, how much knowledge, what are your skills, what is your education?

In equity theory, people can quit a job they’re not happy in. And when I say not happy, you really have to separate the work itself from the pay and benefits. The hygiene factors versus the motivator factors. And I think sometimes people quit good jobs that they are happy with—they quit for the money. And they get into another job making more money, but they don’t feel as satisfied. All of that should go into a person’s decision-making when they choose a career, choose a particular job, and choose to change.

What else leads people to change jobs—or stay for that matter?

My Ph.D. dissertation, which was 44 years ago, was on job change, and what factors lead people to change jobs. What I found was that the single most important factor was their self-esteem. (Self-esteem being the most important personality variable.) People with low self-esteem will stay in any situation, whether it’s a bad marriage or a bad job—they’ll stay longer, and maybe indefinitely—than people with high self-esteem. People with low self-esteem don’t want to take the risk. ‘I better just stay with what I have because I probably won’t be able to do any better.’ People with high self-esteem are much more likely to a leave situation that they are not happy with.

What do you suggest to a worker being wooed by a talent recruiter?

If a person is going to be enticed by a headhunter, they need to ask themselves: What is it that I value about my current job? What is it that is lacking in my current job that I would like somewhere else? And is that really important? The key is knowing what you want—what you value—before you are in a situation where you have to make a decision. What are the top two or three or four critical factors that make you happy.

In the work setting, I think people go into job interviews and they don’t really know the answers to those questions. Which means when they get to an interview, they are going to be sold a bill of goods. They’re going to be offered to work in a beautiful building with an atrium, and look how big my office is going to be!—but if you had asked them to rank order those things from one to twenty, they would be very low priority items. So they may take a job, or if they are recruited, change jobs, without thinking through their decision. Whether it’s a job or whether it’s your social life, it’s important to know what your priorities are, what you truly value.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His next book, THE MISSION, will be published later this year by Custom House. He can be found online at