The Protean Career

What is the Protean Career and Why Does It Matter?

If you are anything like I was six months ago, you probably saw the words Protean Career and had no idea what they meant. After being introduced to the concept through Douglas T. Hall’s wonderful 2004 article “The Protean Career: A Quarter-Century Journey,” and taking a deep dive into the literature surrounding the concept, I have become more and more aware of its importance and how it applies to the lives of workers today.

The protean career has three main elements:

  1. The employee directs his or her own career, rather than the organization guiding the employee’s career direction
  2. The employee’s personal values guide his or her career decision making
  3. The employee places more value on his or her own subjective sense of career success than on the organization’s or society’s definitions of success (the latter often take the shape of income or position within the organization)

While the above elements define a protean career, there is another key factor that plays into whether an employee chooses to follow a protean career path: namely, whether an employee has a protean orientation. According to Briscoe, Hall, and Demuth (2006), a protean orientation is determined by the strength of an employee’s self-direction and values driven behavior in approaching career development.  

Implications of the Protean Career

So why do the protean career and protean orientation matter? To start with a potential negative implication, knowledge of one’s protean orientation could shine light on a fundamental mismatch between an employee and his or her organization. For example, if an employee is high in protean orientation, but the organization’s HR practices do not support self-directed career development or do not allow for the autonomy that the employee desires, there can be negative consequences for both the employee and the organization. From an HR perspective, it could be beneficial to assess your organization’s support for employees with protean orientations. You may want to consider hiring employees that align your organization’s own orientation to avoid a potential mismatch. From an individual perspective, an employee could take steps to guide his or her own career without relying on the organization’s assistance, for example by taking night classes or weekend training programs. Alternatively, a poor fit in respect to protean orientation may be a reason for an employee to leave an organization entirely and seek more fulfilling employment elsewhere.

On a more positive note, reflecting on one’s own protean orientation can increase self-awareness, which can assist in making rewarding career decisions. It can also help shine light on the ways in which one has made decisions in the past, which can guide them in making better decisions in the future.

To provide a personal example, I once turned down a job in recruiting - by traditional criteria the position was a great career opportunity. However, the job would have meant commuting for up to two hours each way just to sit in a cubicle all day. I have always wondered what would have happened if I had taken the job, but I’ve had surprisingly little regret about the choice that I made. In reflecting on my own protean orientation (which is quite high!), I know that this job would have been a bad choice, considering how much I value personal interaction and helping people, as well as the ability to be mobile and flexible in how and where I work. This self-insight that I had after learning about these concepts is a great way of reflecting on my past decisions, and will help with my future career considerations as well.

In sum, protean careers have benefits for both individuals and their organizations. Research consistently links the protean career orientation to job, career, and life satisfaction. In addition, the protean career has links to important psychological states that can lead to increased workplace well-being, such as self-confidence and self-esteem. Protean careers have consistent links to both individual and organizational performance, as well as increased organizational commitment and decreased turnover intentions (Gubler, Arnold, & Coombs, 2013).

Assessing Your Own Protean Orientation

While some people may be perfectly happy with a more traditional career that is guided by the organization rather than the values and direction of the employee, the protean orientation is not all or none. All employees fall on a continuum of high to low protean orientation, and where you sit on this continuum can guide the actions you take and decisions you make about your career. Briscoe et al (2006) developed an assessment to help individuals discover the strength of their protean orientations. The following questions, based upon their assessment, can help you discover the strength of your own needs for self-direction and values-driven behavior in your career development:

  • Need for Self-direction:
    • To what extent do you feel as though you are in charge of the direction your career is heading? Are you okay with that?
  • How important is it to you to be able to choose your own career path?
    • Do you seek out career opportunities on your own even when you are not offered guidance by your organization?
  • Need for Values-driven behavior:
    • Do you follow your own personal values even when your organization asks you to do something that you do not agree with?
    • How much do your values contribute to your career decisions?

These questions can help you to reflect on your own career direction and decision-making processes. If you desire to increase your self-awareness of your degree of protean orientation further, the full assessment by Briscoe and colleagues (2006) can help guide your self-reflection. (See reference section for their article and accompanying assessment). Hopefully your new knowledge about protean careers and protean orientations will help guide you towards a fulfilling career!


Briscoe, J.P., Hall, D.T., & DeMuth, F. (2006). Protean and boundaryless careers: An empirical exploration. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69(1), 30 – 47. doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2005.09.003

Gubler, M., Arnold, J., & Coombs, C. (2014). Reassessing the protean career concept: Empirical findings, conceptual components, and measurement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35, S23-S40.

Hall, D.T. (2004). The protean career: A quarter-century journey. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65, 1 – 13. doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2003.10.006