Spotlight on O*NET Users: Dr. J. Bruce Tracey

Dr. J. Bruce Tracey

Associate Professor, School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University

If you ever have wondered what makes the difference between a great server and an adequate server in a restaurant, you will be fascinated to learn about research Dr. J. Bruce Tracey has conducted at Cornell University’s famed School of Hotel Administration. An Associate Professor and recently-named editor of the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, Bruce creatively uses O*NET occupational data not only in seminal research. He uses O*NET regularly for instruction in the classroom.

“We began by examining some of the individual characteristics that might influence job performance among front-line service employees, and particularly the relevance of these characteristics over an employee’s job tenure,” Bruce explains. One of the most predictive factors is cognitive ability, but a variety of personality dimensions also have been found to be significantly related to performance outcomes. However, some of the more recent research in this area suggests that the relevance of these and related individual characteristics might vary over time. “It made sense to use O*NET in our study because for each occupation O*NET has education and training requirement information that identifies how long it takes an employee, on average, to reach average levels of proficiency. Thus, we had a terrific reference point for examining the predictive validity of the various individual characteristics for new versus experienced employees.”

Hiring the right people is a big-stakes operational responsibility in the hospitality industry. High-performing bartenders and servers, for example, provide higher quality service, experience a much lower turnover rate, and contribute far greater revenue than do lower performing workers. Bruce approached the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at a national restaurant chain to examine the impact of various characteristics on individual job performance during different stages of employment, as well as the characteristics’ impact on retention and a host of other operational outcomes.

“We used O*NET data to identify the worker characteristics needed in these occupations, as well as the lengths of experience that distinguish between a new and experienced worker. Then we looked at the correlation of cognitive ability and personality traits (such as conscientiousness, extroversion and others) with performance among new and experienced staff,” relates Dr. Tracey. The results showed that cognitive ability is a very strong predictor of performance for new staff, but that the importance of cognitive ability is much less for experienced staff. In contrast, certain personality traits are much more important for experienced workers who perform well than for newly hired individuals who perform well.

The results were important in several respects. First, they showed that business owners can recruit and select with increased rigor, because they know what traits to look for among candidates, given the jobs they need to fill. “It might take 30 or 45 minutes more time for assessment up front, but in the long run, the operation will be much better off financially in terms of decreased turnover and training costs, better performance, higher average check, and overall operation efficiency,” Bruce summarizes. “We now know that it makes good sense to apply the O*NET characteristics and stratifications of the work and the worker to making hiring decisions.” Bruce’s study also provides insights for designing new-employee on-boarding programs. “Our results suggest that managers initially should focus on the technical requirements of the job, which might require one’s cognitive ability to master. Subsequent training can address job requirements that involve personality—in this specific case, interactions with guests, interpersonal relationships with coworkers, and so forth.”

The results of Bruce’s study were published in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly. In addition, he has prepared a manuscript that is under review at a “top tier” management journal.

Bruce also uses O*NET in the classroom. “One of the concepts I want my students to understand is that job analysis is the cornerstone of Human Resources work. If you know the job and the people-related requirements for a job, most of your functional decision making is done.” “In class I demonstrate how to use O*NET, the world’s largest data warehouse of occupational information, in the job analysis process. I show my students how to navigate and use the O*NET system, and the ways that they can incorporate the O*NET information into a wide variety of HR-related decisions—from staffing and training, to performance management, compensation and benefits, and employee relations. Bottom line: It’s a terrific tool that anyone can apply to many HR tasks.”

Away from work Bruce enjoys “taking to the outdoors with my family. We live on a lake and take advantage of being on the water.” He also enjoys the winter pursuits, particularly skiing, sledding, and skating. He loves to travel and to eat great food. “Europe, Asia, the world!” he joyfully proclaims.