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Recruitment research on person–organization fit has typically focused on organizations’ fit with potential applicants’ actual self, not considering other possible self-images. Based on image congruity theory, we investigate how actual and ideal self-congruity relate to application intentions and intentions to spread word-of-mouth. In a first study, conducted in Belgium, actual and ideal self-congruity related positively to both outcomes. The relation with application intentions was equally positive for actual and ideal self-congruity. Ideal selfcongruity showed a stronger positive relation with word-of-mouth intentions. A second study replicated these findings in the United States and tested for social adjustment concern (need to impress others) as a moderator. As social adjustment concern increased, relations of both outcomes with ideal (actual) self-congruity were stronger (weaker).
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To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 1
Journal of Personnel Psychology
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self?
Outcomes of Potential Applicants’ Actual and Ideal Self-Congruity Perceptions
Lien Wille
Ghent University, Belgium
Greet Van Hoye
Ghent University, Belgium
Bert Weijters
Ghent University, Belgium
Deva Rangarajan
Ball State University, Indiana (USA)
Marieke Carpentier
Ghent University, Belgium
Lien Wille, Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational
Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium; Greet Van Hoye, Department of Human Resource
Management and Organizational Behavior, Ghent University, Belgium; Bert Weijters,
Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology, Ghent
University, Belgium; Deva Rangarajan, Department of Marketing, Ball State University,
Muncie, Indiana (USA); Marieke Carpentier, Department of Human Resource Management
and Organizational Behavior, Ghent University, Belgium
Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Lien Wille, Department of
Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology, Ghent University, Henri
Dunantlaan 2, 9000 Ghent, Belgium. Phone: +32-9-264-94-03. E-mail: Lien.Wille@UGent.be
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 2
Journal of Personnel Psychology
Abstract
Recruitment research on person-organization fit has typically focused on organizations’ fit
with potential applicants’ actual self, not considering other possible self-images. Based on
image congruity theory, we investigate how actual and ideal self-congruity relate to
application intentions and intentions to spread word-of-mouth. In a first study, conducted in
Belgium, actual and ideal self-congruity related positively to both outcomes. The relation
with application intentions was equally positive for actual and ideal self-congruity. Ideal self-
congruity showed a stronger positive relation with word-of-mouth intentions. A second study
replicated these findings in the United States and tested for social adjustment concern (need
to impress others) as a moderator. As social adjustment concern increased, relations of both
outcomes with ideal (actual) self-congruity were stronger (weaker).
Keywords: Applicant attraction; Actual self-congruity; Ideal self-congruity; Application
Intentions; Word-of-mouth
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 3
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self?
Outcomes of Potential Applicants’ Actual and Ideal Self-Congruity Perceptions
More than half of the CEOs express that they worry that a shortage of talented
employees may harm the financial success of their organization (Economist Intelligence Unit,
2012). As recruitment identifies and attracts such talent, it fulfills a pivotal human resource
function (Derous & De Fruyt, 2016). However, attracting suitable employees is difficult due
to demographic trends that are leading to tight labor markets, such as the shortage of young
employees (Beechler & Woodward, 2009). Given this war for talent, organizations need to be
perceived by potential applicants as attractive employers and should stand out from their
competitors (Lievens & Slaughter, 2016).
Prior recruitment research on person-organization fit has shown that potential
applicants are more attracted to organizations when they perceive a fit with their own
personal characteristics (Uggerslev, Fassina, & Kraichy, 2012). These studies have, however,
typically focused on actual self-congruity or whether potential applicants perceive that their
actual self (i.e., the kind of person potential applicants think they are; Beerli, Menses, & Gil,
2007) matches with the organization’s characteristics (see Nolan & Harold, 2010, for an
exception). Yet, image congruity theory (Sirgy, 1982, 1985), a conceptual framework
developed in the marketing domain, points out that individuals have multiple self-images that
can influence their perceptions and decisions. More specifically, research in marketing has
demonstrated that ideal self-congruity is an important factor to take into account in addition
to actual self-congruity when trying to understand people’s attraction to brands (Malär,
Krohmer, Hoyer, & Nyffenegger, 2011).
There are important parallels between the marketing and recruitment domain.
Although the comparison between these two domains might be less appropriate for low-
involvement products (such as buying a carton of milk), important similarities appear
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 4
between choosing among different employers or jobs and choosing among different
consumer brands or high-involvement products (Cable & Turban, 2001). In both the
recruitment and the marketing domain, organizations try to persuade and attract individuals
from a relevant target group. These individuals have to choose between multiple possibilities
and often possess rather limited information on the offered product or job (Cable & Turban,
2001). Previous research has successfully applied theories and concepts from marketing
research to advance the understanding of recruitment issues (Collins & Kanar, 2014). Along
these lines, we propose that the image congruity theory from the marketing literature can be
applied to extend the person-organization fit paradigm within recruitment research.
Applying image congruity theory to a recruitment context, potential applicants may
not only be attracted when they perceive a fit between organizations and their actual self, but
also their ideal self is likely to play a role (i.e., the kind of person potential applicants would
like to be; Beerli et al., 2007). That is, people might not only want to work in organizations
that allow them to be themselves, but also in organizations that bring them closer to
becoming who they ideally would like to be. Ideal self-congruity is aspirational by definition
(i.e., it is something people strive for) and people can be motivated to behave in line with
their ideal self to increase their self-esteem and to signal who they want to be (Sirgy, 1982).
So far, little is known about how ideal self-congruity might relate to key applicant outcomes,
whether these relationships are similar to those observed for actual self-congruity, and
whether they may be moderated by individual differences between potential applicants.
Hence, this paper investigates whether both actual and ideal self-congruity relate to
potential applicants’ intentions to apply to an organization as well as to their intentions to
spread positive word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth is an important source of employment
information (Collins & Stevens, 2002; Van Hoye & Lievens, 2009), but little is known about
its determinants (Van Hoye, 2013). Based on image congruity theory, we propose that people
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 5
will be more willing to apply to an organization and to say positive things to others about the
organization when they perceive it to be more similar to their own actual or ideal self-image.
Additionally, we explore whether there are differences in the strength of the relationships of
actual and ideal self-congruity with these outcomes.
In a first study, we use a Belgian sample to examine these relationships. A second
study is conducted to perform a conceptual replication and to test the robustness and
generalizability of our findings (Stroebe & Strack, 2014). We used a different sample from
another country, the United States. Furthermore, in line with image congruity theory and
research in the marketing domain, we propose that the main relationships examined in Study
1 depend on individual differences. More specifically, in Study 2 we investigate whether
actual or ideal self-congruity matter more or less to potential applicants, depending on their
need to impress others by associating themselves with particular employers. The need to
impress has been labeled social adjustment concern (Highhouse, Thornburry, & Little,
2007). We thus propose that the relations between actual and ideal self-congruity and the
recruitment outcomes depend on potential applicants’ level of social adjustment concern.
Image Congruity Theory
The image congruity theory (Sirgy, 1982, 1985) originated in the marketing and
consumer behavior literature and has been used to investigate consumer attitudes and
intentions towards brands. According to this theoretical framework, consumers hold positive
attitudes and intentions toward brands with an image similar to their self-image (i.e., self-
congruity). Consumers with an innovative self-image, for instance, might be more likely to
buy Apple than Nokia products as they may perceive Apple as having a more innovative
brand personality.
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 6
The theory assumes that self-congruity is a multidimensional construct because
individuals may have more than one self-image (Kim 2015; Kim & Hyun, 2013): Individuals
do not only have an actual self-image (i.e., the kind of person one thinks one is) but also other
images, including an ideal self-image (i.e., the kind of person one would like to be), a social
self-image (i.e., how one thinks others see oneself) and an ideal social self-image (i.e., how
one would like that others see oneself; Beerli et al., 2007). Accordingly, the image congruity
theory distinguishes actual self-congruity (i.e., the extent that a brand is similar to one’s
actual self) from other types of self-congruity, such as ideal self-congruity (i.e., the extent
that a brand is similar to one’s ideal self). In this study we focus on actual and ideal self-
congruity. These two types of self-congruity have received the most attention in marketing
research (Kim & Hyun, 2013). One reason is that organizations in reality often refer to either
actual or ideal self-images in their communications to consumers (Malär et al., 2011). By
extension, it is plausible that organizations might use similar approaches in recruitment.
Moreover, there is already some initial evidence that actual and ideal self-congruity might
also play a role in applicant attraction (Nolan & Harold, 2010).
Furthermore, the image congruity theory posits that different motives underlie the
effects of the different types of self-congruity (Kim, 2015; Kim & Hyun, 2013). The
influence of actual self-congruity would be motivated by self-consistency: consumers choose
brands with an image similar to their actual self because they want to protect their personal
identity and because it creates a sense of comfort. Ideal self-congruity, on the other hand,
would influence outcomes because certain brands might allow consumers to boost their self-
esteem by becoming who they would like to be (i.e., self-esteem motive; Sirgy, 1982).
In line with these theoretical assumptions, findings from the meta-analysis of Aguirre-
Rodriguez, Bosnjak, and Sirgy (2012) indicate that both actual and ideal self-congruity have
robust effects on consumer attitudes, intentions and behaviors towards brands operating
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 7
within different product or service categories, such as cars, jewelry, and holiday destinations
(e.g., Jamal & Goode, 2001; Kressman et al., 2006; Usakli & Balogul, 2011). Furthermore,
self-consistency and self-esteem motives were found to mediate the relations of actual and
ideal self-congruity with consumer attitudes, respectively (Sirgy, Johar, & Claiborne, 1992).
Marketing and consumer behavior research thus reveals empirical evidence in support of the
image congruity theory.
Person-Organization Fit and Applicant Attraction
Person-organization fit in a recruitment context is defined as the compatibility
between potential applicants and organizations (Kristof, 1996). As noted by Kristof-Brown
and Jansen (2007), the most frequently used characteristics to conceptualize person-
organization fit are values, needs, and personality. A meta-analysis by Kristof-Brown,
Zimmerman, and Johnson (2005) demonstrated that potential applicants with certain
personality characteristics are more attracted to organizations with particular characteristics.
For instance, potential applicants high in openness/intellect appear to be more attracted to
multinational organizations (Lievens, Decaesteker, Coetsier, & Geirnaert, 2001).
In addition to a fit with objective organization characteristics, applicant attraction also
relates to compatibility with organizations’ symbolic characteristics (Lievens & Highhouse,
2003). Examples of such characteristics include the perceived trustworthiness or
innovativeness of an organization (Kausel & Slaughter, 2011). These symbolic characteristics
are similar to human personality traits and have been described as the set of human
personality characteristics perceived to be associated with an organization” (Slaughter,
Zickar, Highhouse, & Mohr, 2004, p. 86). Therefore, they have been labeled employer brand
personality. Perceptions of employer brand personality have been found to influence
recruitment outcomes such as organizational attractiveness, job pursuit intentions, and word-
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 8
of-mouth intentions (Lievens & Highhouse, 2003; Lievens & Slaughter, 2016; Slaughter et
al., 2004; Van Hoye, 2008).
With respect to the fit with these employer brand personality perceptions, Tom (1971)
found that potential applicants preferred organizations when the personality profile of those
organizations was more similar to their own personality profile. More recently, research
revealed that person-organization fit in terms of specific personality traits may also be
relevant to consider. For instance, potential applicants high (vs. low) in conscientiousness
appeared to be more attracted to organizations perceived as high on “boy scout”, which is an
organization personality dimension relating to elements of conscientiousness such as sense of
responsibility (Slaughter & Greguras, 2009).
The studies discussed above only consider actual self-congruity of the applicant (i.e.,
fit with individuals’ actual personality characteristics). As described, based on the image
congruity theory, we expect that other types of image-congruity will also influence potential
applicants. Specifically, we propose that besides actual self-congruity, ideal self-congruity
will play an important role in applicants’ application and word-of-mouth intentions. People
derive part of their self-concept from their membership or association with certain groups,
including the organization they work for (Banks, Kepes, Joshi, & Seers, 2016). By applying
to an organization that is more similar to the actual self-image, applicants might feel they are
able to safeguard their self-consistency (Aguirre-Rodriguez et al., 2012). However, when
associating oneself with an organization that is more similar to the person one would like to
be, applicants might feel they are able to evolve in the direction they want (which might
enhance their self-esteem; Kim, 2015). Accordingly, they might not only want to work in
organizations where they can be themselves, but also in organizations where they might
become who they want to be. In line with these theoretical assumptions, research on
employer brand personality suggests that organizations’ perceived personality characteristics
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 9
matter to potential applicants because of their needs for both self-expression and self-
enhancement (Highhouse et al., 2007; Lievens & Highhouse, 2003). Thus, we propose that
both actual and ideal self-congruity will be positively related to potential applicants’
intentions to apply.
To our knowledge, only one study has explored the effects of ideal self-congruity in a
recruitment context. Nolan and Harold (2010) found that both actual and ideal self-congruity
were positively related to students’ perceptions of organizational attractiveness. In the current
study, existing organizations with a real employer brand personality were used instead of the
fictitious organizations in the Nolan and Harold study (Cable & Turban, 2001).
Hypothesis 1: Actual (a) and ideal (b) self-congruity will be positively related to
application intentions.
However, organizations today are not only concerned with short-term application
outcomes, but also with building long-term relationships with potential employees by means
of employer branding (Lievens & Slaughter, 2016). In this context, word-of-mouth plays an
important role, as potential applicants are more likely to believe and act upon information
received by other people than more company-controlled information (Collins & Stevens,
2002).
Word-of-Mouth and Self-Congruity
In a recruitment context, word-of-mouth is defined as communication between two or
more people about organizations as employers or about specific jobs, while that
communication is not under the direct control of organizations (Van Hoye & Lievens, 2009).
Word-of-mouth can be disseminated by employees (not recruiters) of the organization as well
as by people who are not currently employed at the organization. This can involve, for
example, being informed by a friend who tells positive or negative things about the company
where she did an internship, but also an acquaintance posting a job vacancy on his social
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 10
media profile (Nikolaou, 2014). Research has shown that word-of-mouth is related to
important recruitment outcomes. Several studies have found that positive word-of-mouth has
strong positive effects on organizations’ perceived image and attractiveness as an employer,
over and beyond the impact of other sources of employment information (Collins & Stevens,
2002; Jaidi, Van Hooft, & Arends, 2011; Van Hoye & Lievens, 2007, 2009). Research found
that, for a large part, these effects can be explained by the high credibility of word-of-mouth,
given its interpersonal and non-company-controlled nature (Van Hoye, Weijters, Lievens, &
Stockman, 2016). This is why job seekers tend to put their faith into word-of-mouth more
than into job advertisements spread by the organization, especially when they are confronted
with contradictory information (Van Hoye & Lievens, 2007). In the context of employer
branding, aligning and managing perceptions of the organization as an employer is of key
importance, thus word-of-mouth definitely needs to be taken into account (Lievens &
Slaughter, 2016).
For all these reasons, organizations are trying to stimulate different key target groups,
such as employees and potential applicants, to spread positive word-of-mouth about them as
an employer. One study examined the underlying reasons for spreading word-of-mouth by
current employees (Van Hoye, 2013). She found that job satisfaction, helping job seekers find
good jobs, and helping organizations find adequate employees are the most important reasons
for sharing positive word-of-mouth. In addition, it was found that providing employees
rewards for successful referrals was also (weakly) related with increased word-of-mouth.
However, further research demonstrated that rewarding word-of-mouth with financial
incentives can drastically reduce its positive impact on potential applicants’ perceptions, as
its credibility is questioned (Stockman, Van Hoye, & Carpentier, 2017; Van Hoye et al.,
2016). So far, research has tended to focus on the outcomes of word-of-mouth, consequently
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 11
there is only a limited understanding on how word-of-mouth can be stimulated effectively.
Especially little is known about why non-employees share word-of-mouth.
In the current study, we investigate the relationship of actual and ideal self-congruity
with potential applicants’ intentions to spread positive word-of-mouth about an organization.
Berger (2014) proposed that people share information with others about organizations not
only to signal who they are, but also to signal who they would like to be. Consequently, based
on the image congruity theory, we expect positive relationships between both actual and ideal
self-congruity and intentions to spread word-of-mouth. Sharing positive information with
others about an organization that is more congruent with one’s actual or ideal self-image
might be instrumental in expressing oneself or enhancing one’s self-esteem. Along these
lines, Van Hoye (2008) found that when nurses held more positive perceptions of their
hospital’s employer brand personality, they were more inclined to recommend the hospital to
others.
Hypothesis 2: Actual (a) and ideal (b) self-congruity will be positively related to
word-of-mouth intentions.
Actual Versus Ideal Self-Congruity
While both actual and ideal self-congruity are expected to relate to application
intentions and word-of-mouth intentions, they may do so to a different extent. This is a
relevant issue to address, since it has implications for organizations as to what type of self-
congruity they should emphasize in their recruitment communication efforts depending on
the desired outcome. Marketing studies found that actual and ideal self-congruity can have
different relationships to some outcomes. For example, findings from earlier studies imply
that actual self-congruity shows a positive relation with emotional brand attachment, whereas
ideal self-congruity relates positively with brand pride (Helm, Renk, & Mishra, 2016; Malär
et al., 2011).
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 12
Some researchers have furthermore proposed that different types of self-congruity
have differential effects on consumers’ attitudes and intentions depending on whether the
product is consumed publicly or privately (Sirgy, 1982; Graeff, 1996). For instance, Usakli
and Baloglu (2011) found that both actual and ideal self-congruity related positively to
intentions to return to a travel destination and to recommend it, but actual self-congruity did
so to a larger extent for the former and ideal self-congruity for the latter.
Based on these findings, one might expect that also in a recruitment context ideal self-
congruity will relate more strongly to public outcomes. It is, however, not clear whether
applying to an organization should be considered a private or a public behavior. The
application as such is private, but the potential outcomes of this application (getting a job and
working for the company) are public. Significant others will likely know which company a
person works for and one can easily communicate to others where one is employed
(Highhouse et al., 2007). Regarding word-of-mouth intentions, spreading positive
information about an organization as an employer entails making one’s ideas about this
organization public. This suggests that ideal self-congruity may have a stronger positive
relationship with word-of-mouth intentions than actual self-congruity.
In contrast to Hypotheses 1 and 2, our assumptions regarding the differential relations
of actual and ideal self-congruity with application intentions and word-of-mouth intentions
are mainly based on empirical findings in the marketing literature. Therefore, we formulate
exploratory research questions regarding the differential relationship of actual and ideal self-
congruity with potential applicants’ intentions to apply and to spread word-of-mouth.
Research Question 1: Are actual and ideal self-congruity differentially related to
application intentions?
Research Question 2: Are actual and ideal self-congruity differentially related to
word-of-mouth intentions?
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 13
In Study 1 we examine Hypotheses 1 and 2 as well as Research Questions 1 and 2.
Study 1
Method
Sample. Using a within-subjects design, a sample of potential applicants completed in
2013 an online Qualtrics survey regarding eight organizations as employers that are well-
known in many countries across the globe (Interbrand, 2012). Participants were 74
postgraduate students enrolled in one or two year business programs at a Belgian university
and a business school. They participated in the study on a voluntary basis. As the dataset
contains data on eight organizations for 74 participants, we have a total of 592 observations.
Age ranged from 20 to 48 years (M = 25.24 years, SD = 5.63) and 54.05% of the participants
were women. A majority of the participants considered actively looking for a job in the next
year (i.e., 72.97% indicated at least a score of 6 on a scale ranging from 0 [very unlikely] to
10 [extremely likely]) and 51.35% had work experience, demonstrating their relevance as a
sample of potential applicants.
Procedure. After a brief introduction and a few questions relating to participants’
feelings about their job opportunities to create involvement in answering the survey
questions, participants rated how well they knew eight organizations. All organizations were
taken from the 2012 Interbrand top 25 (i.e., BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Pepsi, Coca-Cola,
Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple; Interbrand, 2012). As all participants were at least
somewhat familiar with all organizations (i.e., they indicated 2 or higher on a 5-point scale
ranging from 1 [I don’t know this company] to 5 [I know this company very well]). They
subsequently filled out measures of actual self-congruity, ideal self-congruity, application
intentions, and word-of-mouth intentions for each of the eight organizations. The order of
these four variables and the order of organizations within each of these variables, was
randomized. Also, different scale formats were used to minimize common method variance
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 14
(Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Lee, & Podsakoff, 2003). Finally, demographics (i.e., age and
gender) and background variables (i.e., work experience and job search intentions) were
administered. The survey typically took about 11 minutes.
Measures. Self-congruity ratings were preceded by an open-ended question asking
participants to take a moment to think about the kind of person they are (would like to be)
and to describe their actual (ideal) personality using adjectives/characteristics such as
reliable, creative, etc. In this way, we wanted to increase their sense of accountability and
motivate them to think about their actual and ideal selves respectively, thus enhancing
response quality (Krosnick, 1991). Next, participants were instructed to take a moment to
think about how they would describe each organization as a person (it was not asked to write
this down). We provided some examples of characteristics that might be used to describe the
organization (reliable, creative, energetic, emotional). Finally, following Sirgy et al.’s (1997)
advice, self-congruity was measured directly and globally: Participants were asked to indicate
to what extent organizations’ personalities were similar to the kind of person they are (actual
self-congruity) or they would like to be (ideal self-congruity) on a slider scale from 0
(Personality not at all similar to who I am / would like to be) to 100 (Personality completely
similar to who I am / would like to be).
Job seekers have only limited resources which they need to divide between different
potential employers (such as cognitive resources or time to gather information and to prepare
applications; Van Hooft, 2016). Therefore, reflecting the realities of the job search process,
application intentions were measured using a constant sum measure.1 Participants
distributed 100 points across organizations reflecting the effort they would invest in applying
to each organization (0= No effort at all would go to this company; 100= All my efforts would
go to this company).
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 15
To measure word-of-mouth intentions (Van Hoye, 2008), participants indicated to
what degree they would say positive things about each organization to others using a five-star
scale (0= No positive things at all; 5= A lot of positive things; one item given the within-
subjects design).
Results
Means, standard deviations, and correlations among study variables are presented in
Table 1. This table shows that application intentions and word-of-mouth intentions were
rather highly correlated (r = .64, p < .01). However, they still showed a meaningful non-
overlap (59%). To test our hypotheses and answer our research questions, we structured the
data in such a way that each case represents the unique combination of a participant and an
organization. Hence the data have a multilevel structure but the higher levels are not nested in
one another but they are cross-classified (that is, the observations are nested in organizations
and participants). In line with this structure, we used the cross-classified random procedure
with the Bayesian estimator in Mplus 7.4, using 4 independent Markov chain Monte Carlo
chains with a minimum of 5000 iterations (thinning at every 10th iteration). This procedure
takes into account that measurements are repeated within participants and it also accounts for
variance across organizations, across individuals, and at the level of organization-individual
combinations. The variance decomposition shown in Table 2 indicates that such a multi-level
approach is required.
In the model, application intentions and word-of-mouth intentions (dependent
variables) were regressed on actual and ideal self-congruity (independent variables) at the
within level (i.e., main effects model). Both the dependent and the independent variables
were rescaled to have a range from 0 to 10 and were then grand mean centered.2 The
dependent variables were allowed to freely vary on the between organizational level and the
between individual level. In addition, the dependent variables were allowed to freely correlate
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 16
at both the within level (as we did not expect that the independent variables would fully
explain the dependent variables and their correlation) and between individual level (as
preliminary analyses showed that this covariance term was non-zero).
Table 3 displays the model fit indices, which show a satisfactory fit, and the
unstandardized parameter estimates of the proposed relationships.
The first two hypotheses stated respectively that actual and ideal self-congruity would
positively relate to application and word-of-mouth intentions. Consistent with Hypotheses
1a/b, the findings reveal that potential applicants’ intention to apply to an organization
increased when their actual (b = 0.13, 95% CI [0.09, 0.18]) and ideal self-congruity (b = 0.14,
95% CI [0.09, 0.18]) increased. Supporting Hypotheses 2a/b, potential applicants also
intended to spread more positive word-of-mouth about an organization when their actual (b =
0.18, 95% CI [0.10, 0.26]) and ideal self-congruity (b = 0.40, 95% CI [0.33, 0.47]) were
higher. Regarding the relative strength of the relationships, Research Question 1 asked
whether actual and ideal self-congruity relate differently to application intentions. No
significant difference was found as actual and ideal self-congruity had an equally positive
relationship with potential applicants’ intention to apply (bactual self-congruity - bideal self-congruity =
0.00, 95% CI [-0.08, 0.07]). Finally, for Research Question 2 regarding the relative
relationship of actual and ideal self-congruity with intentions to spread word-of-mouth, we
found that ideal self-congruity had a stronger positive relationship with potential applicants’
word-of-mouth intentions than actual self-congruity (bactual self-congruity - bideal self-congruity = -0.22,
95% CI [-0.35, -0.09]).
To test the robustness and generalizability of our findings, we conducted a second
study. In this second study we examined our hypotheses in a different sample from another
country (i.e., the United States). Additionally, we investigated whether potential applicants’
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 17
social adjustment concern moderates the relationships of actual and ideal self-congruity with
application and word-of-mouth intentions.
Study 2
Up until now, we discussed main relationships of actual and ideal self-congruity with
recruitment outcomes. However, image congruity theory and research in the marketing
literature suggests that the strength of these relationships can differ based on individual
difference variables, such as consumers’ level of public self-consciousness or self-monitoring
(Graeff, 1996; Malär et al., 2011).
In a recruitment context, we propose that social adjustment concern might play a role
(DeArmond & Crawford, 2011; Highhouse et al., 2007). This individual difference variable is
defined as “the job seeker’s awareness of or interest in the degree to which association with a
particular employer invokes prestige or impresses others” (Highhouse et al., 2007, p. 137).
According to the theory of symbolic attraction (Highhouse et al., 2007), job seekers feel
attracted to certain organizations, because it will allow them to convey to others how they
would like to be perceived. This effect is proposed to be stronger for people with a higher
motivation to impress others. In line with these theoretical assumptions, potential applicants
scoring high on social adjustment concern seem to prefer employer prestige/reputation over
other work attributes (Woodard et al., 2016) and put more effort in pursuing jobs at
impressive organizations (Highhouse et al., 2007). We argue that people high on social
adjustment concern want to present the best possible version of themselves to impress others.
This signaling motive is best served by associating themselves with organizations that show
congruity with their ideal self, more than their actual self. Potential applicants may thus find
their ideal self increasingly more important than their actual self as their level of social
adjustment concern increases. Therefore, it can be expected that people who score higher on
social adjustment concern will be more strongly inclined to apply to organizations that match
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 18
their ideal self-image and will be less inclined to apply to organizations that match their
actual self-image. For these people, applying for a job at an organization that is more like
their ideal self-image and less like their current self-image, will allow them to impress others
by signaling the best possible version of themselves. The reason for this is that their
intentions to apply to the organization are expected to ultimately impact how others perceive
them, by actually getting a job at that organization and consequently to be able to associate
themselves with that organization (e.g., display your employer on LinkedIn).
Next, the same reasoning applies to the effect on word-of-mouth intentions. People
who are more concerned about how others perceive them, may want to be perceived more in
line with their ideal self-image than in line with their actual self-image. Therefore, it can be
expected that they will be more likely to recommend organizations that are more in line with
their ideal self-image and less likely to recommend organizations that are in line with their
current actual self-image. The reason is that recommending organizations that are more
aligned with their ideal self-image, and hereby associating oneself with these organizations,
may make them look good in the eyes of others (Gregory, Munch, & Peterson, 2002).
In summary, we propose that the relationship of ideal self-congruity with both
application intentions and intentions to spread word-of-mouth will be stronger when social
adjustment concerns are higher. On the other hand, we propose that the relationship of actual
self-congruity with both recruitment outcomes will be weaker, when social adjustment
concerns are higher.
Hypothesis 3: Social adjustment concern will moderate the relation of actual self-
congruity with (a) application intentions and (b) word-of-mouth intentions, so that the
relation will be less strong when social adjustment concern is higher.
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 19
Hypothesis 4: Social adjustment concern will moderate the relation of ideal self-
congruity with (a) application intentions and (b) word-of-mouth intentions, so that the
relation will be stronger when social adjustment concern is higher.
In the second study we examine Hypotheses 1 and 2 as well as Research Questions 1
and 2 (which were also included in Study 1) and we additionally investigate Hypotheses 3
and 4.
Method
Sample. Our sample consisted of 208 potential applicants from the United States
active on MTurk (data were collected in 2016). Prior research has reported similar results for
MTurk and non-MTurk samples (Berinsky, Huber, & Lenz, 2012). Age ranged from 18 to 60
years (M = 30.16 years, SD = 9.49) and 46.15% were women. Most participants had work
experience (92.80%) and were employed full-time (62.98%) or part-time (20.19%). A
majority was currently looking for a job (65.38%) or considered actively looking for a job in
the next year (i.e., 75.00% indicate at least 6 on a scale from 0 [very unlikely] to 10
[extremely likely]).
Procedure and measures. The same procedure and measures as in Study 1 were
used, except for application intentions and social adjustment concern. Whereas in Study 1
application and word-of-mouth intentions were measured using a different type of answering
scale, application intentions were now measured with a more similar scale to that of word-
of-mouth intentions: Participants indicated how much effort they would invest in applying for
a job at each organization on a scale from 1 (No effort at all) to 7 (A lot of effort).
Social adjustment concern was measured with a five-item scale from Highhouse et
al. (2007) and rated on a 5-point scale (1= Strongly disagree; 5= Strongly agree). An example
item is “I wonder if strangers would be impressed by where I work” (α = .90).
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 20
Results
Table 1 presents the means, standard deviations, and correlations among the study
variables. To test Hypotheses 1 and 2 and to examine Research Questions 1 and 2 we
followed the same analytical procedure as in Study 1. Both application and word-of-mouth
intentions had variance at each level of analysis (see Table 2) and the main effects model
showed acceptable fit (see Table 3).
The parameter estimates in Table 3 show that the results were similar to those of
Study 1. First, application intentions were positively related to actual (b = 0.36, 95% CI
[0.31, 0.41]) and ideal self-congruity (b = 0.41, 95% CI [0.36, 0.46], Hypotheses 1a/b).
Second, potential applicants’ word-of-mouth intentions increased when their actual (b = 0.23,
95% CI [0.19, 0.28]) and ideal self-congruity (b = 0.40, 95% CI [0.36, 0.44]) increased
(Hypotheses 2a/b). Third, the relation of application intentions with actual self-congruity was
not significantly different from its relation with ideal self-congruity (bactual self-congruity - bideal self-
congruity = -0.05, 95% CI [-0.14, 0.05], Research Question 1). Finally, ideal self-congruity
showed a stronger positive relation with word-of-mouth intentions than actual self-congruity
(bactual self-congruity - bideal self-congruity = -0.17, 95% CI [-0.24, -0.09], Research Question 2).
Additionally, we tested whether social adjustment concern moderated the relations of
actual and ideal self-congruity with application and word-of-mouth intentions (i.e.,
moderated model, Hypotheses 3 and 4). We ran a cross-classified model with application and
word-of-mouth intentions as dependent variables and actual self-congruity, ideal self-
congruity, and social adjustment concern as independent variables (with the latter
independent variable modeled at the between individuals level). Both dependent variables
had random intercepts at the between organizations and between individuals levels. The
regression slopes (e.g., of application intentions on actual self-congruity) were modeled as
random slopes with variance at the between individuals level. Social adjustment concern
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 21
acted as an antecedent of these random slopes and was modeled as a latent factor at the
between individuals level with five indicators and variance fixed to one. This model thus
implied a cross-level interaction, with social adjustment concern at the between individuals
level affecting the regression at the within level.
The results (see Table 4 and Figure 1) show a significant effect of social adjustment
concern on all four random slopes. In support of Hypothesis 3, potential applicants with
higher social adjustment concern showed a weaker positive relation of actual self-congruity
with application and word-of-mouth intentions. Furthermore, potential applicants higher in
social adjustment concern showed a stronger positive relation of ideal self-congruity with
application and word-of-mouth intentions, consistent with Hypothesis 4.
Discussion
Recruitment research on person-organization fit has shown that congruity between
applicants and organizations positively affects applicants’ perceptions and decisions (e.g.,
Slaughter & Greguras, 2009). However, these studies focused on the congruity between an
organization and one’s actual self, and did not investigate other possible self-images. Our
study relies on image congruity theory and contributes to the recruitment literature by
investigating potential applicants’ perceptions of both actual and ideal self-congruity. Besides
intentions to apply, we examined intentions to spread word-of-mouth as an additional
important recruitment outcome. Finally, we explored the moderating role of social adjustment
concern. Our main findings were similar in the Belgian and U.S. sample, contributing to their
robustness and generalizability.
First, our results show that ideal self-congruity in addition to actual self-congruity had
a positive relation with potential applicants’ intentions to apply, corroborating predictions of
the image congruity theory (Sirgy, 1982, 1985). Moreover, ideal and actual self-congruity
showed an equally strong relationship with application intentions. These findings suggest that
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 22
individuals do not only want to work for organizations where they can be themselves, but
also for organizations where they may become their ideal self. Along these lines, prior
research has indicated that organizations’ perceived personality characteristics matter to
potential applicants since they want to express and enhance their self-images (Lievens &
Highhouse, 2003). Thus, future person-organization fit research should also consider
potential applicants’ ideal self to completely understand the relationship between fit and
applicant attraction.
Second and in line with the image congruity theory (Sirgy, 1982, 1985), actual and
ideal self-congruity were positively related to potential applicants’ intentions to spread
positive word-of-mouth. Moreover, results showed that the relationship with ideal self-
congruity was stronger. This is consistent with research in the marketing domain that showed
that consumers were more inclined to recommend products compatible with their ideal self
than with their actual self (Usakli & Baloglu, 2011). Until now little research attention has
been devoted to the determinants of spreading positive word-of-mouth in a recruitment
context (Van Hoye & Lievens, 2009). Some findings suggest that intrinsic ways to stimulate
word-of-mouth may be more effective than extrinsic means such as providing a monetary
referral bonus (Van Hoye et al., 2016). Along these lines, our study suggests that appealing to
organizations’ congruity with employees’ and applicants’ ideal selves might be a promising
new approach to increase positive word-of-mouth, which should be explored more
extensively in future research.
Third, in our second study, the individual difference variable social adjustment
concern was included and moderated how actual and ideal self-congruity relate to application
and word-of-mouth intentions. As expected, actual self-congruity related weaker and ideal
self-congruity stronger to both outcomes as potential applicants were more concerned about
impressing others. This finding underlines Highhouse et al.’s (2007) assumption that
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 23
potential applicants’ inferences regarding organizations’ personality traits relate differently to
outcomes depending on their level of social adjustment concern.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
We acknowledge that our study has several limitations. First, so far, most studies that
applied image congruity theory focused on the actual and ideal congruity (Kim & Hyun,
2013). Along these lines, we considered beside potential applicants’ actual also ideal self-
congruity. Yet, image congruity theory proposes that other dimensions, namely the social self
(i.e., how people think that others perceive them) and the ideal social self (i.e., how people
would like others to see them; Beerli et al., 2007) play a role as well. Future research should
explore how these other types of self-image relate to applicant attraction. It might also be
interesting to look at other types of self-concepts applied outside image congruity theory.
Future research might want to link image congruity theory to the self-regulation theory by
including the ought self (i.e., how people think they should be; Higgins, 1987). Furthermore,
research indicates that cultural differences can influence the role and the strength of certain
self-images (Kim & Hyun, 2013). For example, actual and ideal self-congruity generally
show stronger effects in USA samples, but a study using a South-Korean sample found that
social types of self-congruity more strongly predicted purchase intentions (Kim & Hyun,
2013). Future research should thus examine the role of different self-image congruity types in
recruitment in other cultures too.
Secondly, our data were cross-sectional, hence we cannot draw causal conclusions
regarding the relationships between actual and ideal self-congruity on the one hand and
application and word-of-mouth intentions on the other hand. It might be that people who felt
more positive about the organization as an employer also rated their congruity with the
organization as more positive. Experimental scenario studies manipulating actual and ideal
self-congruity and measuring application and word-of-mouth intentions may answer the
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 24
question of causality. In addition, future research should examine how different types of self-
congruity relate to actual application and recommendation behaviors in addition to the
intentions measured in the current study.
Third, the organizations included in our studies were all organizations that are well-
known in many countries across the globe (Interbrand, 2012, 2016). Our findings may
therefore not generalize to small or less familiar organizations. Note, although Nolan and
Harold (2010) used fictitious organizations, they found that both actual and ideal self-
congruity related to organizational attractiveness. This might be considered as a sign that
some of our results may also apply to less familiar organizations. Future research should
verify this.
Fourth, to justify our hypotheses we referred to the underlying mechanisms of self-
esteem and self-consistency implied by the image congruity theory (Kim, 2015). However,
we did not measure these constructs to test whether these motives actually drive the observed
relationships. Consumer behavior research found that both concepts mediated the relations of
actual and ideal self-congruity with consumer attitudes (Sirgy et al., 1992). Future research
should directly measure these underlying mechanisms in a recruitment context as well.
Practical Implications
Our findings suggest that organizations should not only focus on the fit between
potential applicants’ actual self and organizations’ perceived personality, but also on the
compatibility with potential applicants’ ideal self because both types of self-congruity are
positively related to potential applicants’ intentions. In addition, organizations may want to
emphasize different types of self-congruity in their recruitment communication depending on
what they want to achieve. When their goal is to convince potential applicants to apply, they
may highlight both actual and ideal self-congruity. However, it may be more efficient to
predominantly underscore ideal self-congruity when organizations want to motivate potential
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 25
applicants to spread positive word-of-mouth, given the war for talent they are engaged in.
Future research should investigate how organizations can effectively emphasize ideal self-
congruity in their recruitment and branding efforts. One possibility could be by focusing on
how training and development opportunities allow employees to become who they would like
to be.
Conclusion
Our findings suggest that potential applicants’ perceptions of both actual and ideal
self-congruity relate positively to their application intentions. Intentions to spread positive
word-of-mouth relate most strongly to ideal self-congruity. As potential applicants’ level of
social adjustment concern increases, ideal self-congruity seems to be more important than
actual self-congruity. Consequently, future studies should also consider potential applicants’
ideal self when investigating the effects of person-organization fit.
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 26
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Footnotes
1 Using a distributional measure causes the variable to be distributed similarly to a
variable that has been standardized at the between-subjects level. That is, it reduces the
between-subjects variance to zero (apart from rounding errors), as also reported in the
variance decomposition in Table 2. Since the regression model of interest is estimated
entirely at the within-level (level 1), the use of a distributional measure is not an issue in
interpreting our findings.
2 Since the data have a cross-classified structure and there is no commonly
accepted/default way of standardizing results, unstandardized results are reported. To
enhance the comparability of the parameter estimates, we applied this transformation to the
data.
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 34
Table 1
Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations among Variables in Study 1 (above the diagonal) and Study 2 (below the diagonal)
Study 1
Study 2
Correlations
SD
M
SD
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
1. Age (years)
5.59
30.17
9.48
.14
-.16
.04
.04
.06
.02
-.12
2. Female (0 = M, 1 = F)
.50
.46
.50
-.21
-.17
.02
.09
.03
.11
.03
3. Brand familiarity
.93
3.81
1.03
-.04
.01
.30
.26
.23
.23
.11
4. Application intentions
12.47
5.01
1.80
.00
.00
.22
.64
.55
.62
.19
5. WOM intentions
1.18
3.51
1.15
-.07
-.03
.37
.46
.57
.65
.21
6. Actual self-congruity
24.60
54.31
27.40
-.02
-.11
.26
.41
.49
.64
.26
7. Ideal self-congruity
25.12
60.70
27.32
-.13
-.02
.28
.43
.60
.54
.31
8. SAC
3.21
.97
Note. Correlations with p <.01 are printed in boldface. Sample sizes are N study 1 = 592 observations (for N = 74 respondents) and N study 2 = 1664 observations (for N = 208
respondents). Brand familiarity was rated on a five-point scale (0 = I don’t know this company, 5 = I know this company very well). Application intentions were measured
with a constant sum measure (0= No effort at all would go to this company; 100= All my efforts would go to this company) in Study 1 and with a 7-point Likert scale (1= No
effort at all; 7= Very much effort) in Study 2. Word-of-mouth intentions (WOM intentions) were rated on a five-star scale (0= No positive things at all; 5= A lot of positive
things)Actual and ideal self-congruity were measured on a 100 point slider scale (0 = Personality not at all similar to who I am / would like to be; 100= Personality
completely similar to who I am / would like to be). Social adjustment concern (SAC) was rated on a scale from 1 (Strongly disagree) to 5 (Strongly agree).
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 35
Table 2
Variance Decomposition of Application and Word-of-Mouth Intentions in Study 1 and Study 2
Study 1
Study 2
95% C.I.
95% C.I.
Pct.
Est.
Lower
bound
Upper
bound
Pct.
Est.
Lower
bound
Upper
bound
Application intentions
Within Level
81%
1.45
1.29
1.63
42%
4.57
4.25
4.92
Between organizations
18%
0.33
0.08
2.34
25%
2.73
0.81
9.21
Between individuals
0%
0.01
0.00
0.03
32%
3.50
2.82
4.41
Total
100%
1.78
1.48
3.80
100%
10.80
8.65
7.20
Word-of-mouth
intentions
Within Level
57%
3.94
3.49
4.45
53%
3.23
3.00
3.48
Between organizations
28%
1.92
0.55
3.30
18%
1.09
0.33
7.34
Between individuals
15%
1.04
0.63
1.68
29%
1.73
1.35
2.21
Total
100%
6.90
5.34
8.39
100%
6.04
5.11
2.25
Note. The between individuals variance of application intentions in Study 1 is zero as we used a distributional measure for that variable. Such a measure causes the variable to
be distributed similarly to a variable that has been standardized at the between individuals level.
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 36
Table 3
Parameter Estimates of the Main Effects Model in Study 1 and 2
Study 1
Study 2
95% C.I.
95% C.I.
Label
Dependent variable
Independent variable
Est.
Lower
bound
Upper
bound
Est.
Lower
bound
Upper
bound
Parameter
estimates
B1
Application intentions
Actual self-congruity
0.13
0.09
0.18
0.36
0.31
0.41
B2
Ideal self-congruity
0.14
0.09
0.18
0.41
0.36
0.46
B3
Word-of-mouth intentions
Actual self-congruity
0.18
0.10
0.26
0.23
0.19
0.28
B4
Ideal self-congruity
0.40
0.33
0.47
0.40
0.36
0.44
Parameter
differences
B1 - B2
0.00
-0.08
0.07
-0.05
-0.14
0.05
B3 - B4
-0.22
-0.35
-0.09
-0.17
-0.24
-0.09
R²
Application intentions
0.23
0.17
0.30
0.56
0.53
0.60
Word-of-mouth intentions
0.37
0.30
0.44
0.56
0.52
0.59
Note. The parameter estimates are unstandardized regression coefficients
Model fit (12 free parameters): Study 1, Bayesian Posterior Predictive p-value = .352 (diff. observed vs. replicated chi² 95% C.I. = [-14.941, 24.431]; DIC = 4104.566 (pD =
72.005); Study 2, Bayesian Posterior Predictive p-value = .432 (diff. observed vs. replicated chi² 95% C.I. = [-15.938, 19.725]; DIC = 12156.813 (pD = 359.304).
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 37
Table 4
Parameter Estimates of the Moderation by Social Adjustment Concern in Study 2
Label
Dependent variable
Independent variable
R²
Intercept
Slope
95% C. I.
Est.
Lower
bound
Upper
bound
B1
Application intentions
Actual self-congruity
24%
0.38
-0.15
-0.23
-0.08
B2
Ideal self-congruity
10%
0.38
0.09
0.01
0.16
B3
Word-of-mouth intentions
Actual self-congruity
27%
0.25
-0.07
-0.13
-0.02
B4
Ideal self-congruity
7%
0.41
0.06
0.003
0.12
Note. The moderating effect of social adjustment concern on the relationship between the independent and dependent variable is reflected by the estimate and the 95%
confidence interval.
To Be Yourself or to Be Your Ideal Self? 38
(A) DV = Application intentions and IV = Actual self-
congruity
(B) DV = Application intentions and IV = Ideal self-
congruity
(C) DV = Word-of-mouth intentions and IV = Actual
self-congruity
(D) DV = Word-of-mouth intentions and IV = Ideal
self-congruity
Figure 1. Estimated regression weights with 95% confidence intervals as a function of social adjustment concern
(SAC), Dependent variable (DV) and Independent Variable (IV)
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