Like the elf who yearned to fix teeth instead of making toys, work “misfits” are employees whose core values don’t align with their company’s. Such discrepancies can make workers withdrawn, unproductive and unhappy. But new research from the University of Georgia suggests there are ways to help misfit employees stay engaged on the job.

“An employee can value pay, prestige, job security, altruism – any number of things – but if that core value isn’t being fulfilled then there can be a serious issue with fit,” said Jessica Rodell, a management professor at UGA’s Terry College of Business. “For example, if you value variety and autonomy at work, but your company has a culture of micromanaging and assigning tedious tasks, that would be a bad fit for you.”

Rodell and her co-authors started to study misfit employees upon noticing that, when the economy was bad, job opportunities were scarce and workers couldn’t easily change employers. They wanted to know why some workers remained good employees when their core values weren’t met at the office. For the study, they surveyed nearly 200 workers and their supervisors across just as many companies.

“We know from years of research in psychology that one of our fundamental needs as humans are a sense of purpose and meaning or quality relationships with people,” Rodell said. “We looked at some things people can do that can supplement and fulfill those needs. It turns out that there are two ways to manage that – one at work and one outside of work.”

Job crafting and leisure activities, the researchers discovered, can help misfit employees stay productive at work. 

“These steps are not designed to fix the problem,” Rodell said. They compensate for it. The best situation is still working for a company that fulfills your core values. That always makes the most engaged employees. But sometimes changing jobs isn’t realistic, and in those cases, job crafting and leisure activities are good options.”

Job crafting is the practice of realigning work duties to best suit the employee, Rodell said.

“There’s almost always an ability to do some job crafting,” she said. “It could be coordinating a corporate volunteering program to get a sense of meaning and help your company give back to the community. Or it could be choosing to collaborate with like-minded people in order to feel a sense of belonging.” 

Outside of work, leisure activities can fulfill needs that are typically met at the office. For example, joining a civic organization can allow workers to take on real responsibility and be thanked for their contributions.

“By joining a group sport or playing in a band, employees can fulfill that sense of belonging and having high-quality relationships with people,” she said. “They can volunteer to get a sense of purpose and meaning.”

However, not every leisure activity can fill the void at work. Binge-watching TV, while entertaining, won’t necessarily make up for a serious value misalignment, Rodell said. The activity needs to fulfill whatever fundamental need is missing from one’s work experiences.

Rodell offered this advice if the misfit tag might apply to you or someone who works for you.

For employees:

If you’re worried that you may be a misfit at work, here’s how to find out. First, identify your core values. These are fundamental, unchanging beliefs that describe how you see yourself. Then do the same for your company. Think about the corporate culture and the role of the organization. If you notice a mismatch, start thinking what you would like to be different.

“It’s like any relationship. You’re never going to connect 100 percent, but you should figure out your major deal breakers,” Rodell said. “It’s challenging. I always have my MBA students try this exercise. We talk about what they’re happy about in their jobs and what they’re not happy about. We brainstorm things they can do to change that and how it could work for them.”

For supervisors:

“Have an open discussion with the employee about why they’re valuable and what they offer to the organization,” she said. “Tell them you recognize that there may be a disconnect and talk to them about potential opportunities job crafting, whether they can help with team endeavors, keeping them with the people that they enjoy being with, or if there are certain projects that, as their job evolves, they could do too.”

The study, “Engaged and Productive Misfits: How Job Crafting and Leisure Activity Mitigate the Negative Effects of Value Incongruence,” was published in the Academy of Management Journal. Rodell, who studies workplace meaningfulness, corporate volunteering, and justice, co-authored the article with Ryan Vogel of Penn State Erie, Behrend College; and John Lynch of the University of Illinois at Chicago.