Aligning Job Expectations and Reality

A look at Realistic Job Previews in public safety

Though the concept has been around at least since the studies conducted by J.P. Wanous in the 1980s, Realistic Job Previews (RJP) are quickly becoming a standard recruitment tool across industries. The reason? RJPs bring an applicant’s expectations into alignment with reality, significantly reducing turnover and creating substantial cost-savings for employers.

Often referred to as “realistic recruitment,” RJPs are especially useful in fields with higher than average turnover, such as public safety — a fact more and more agencies are taking to heart. Applicants for public safety positions — emergency dispatchers, police officers, firefighters and corrections officers — drop out of the process all too often, due to an incomplete or unrealistic understanding about what the job entails. Popular culture and the media are often the basis for candidates’ inaccurate perceptions, making the job often seem more exciting or action-packed than its daily reality.

Given how resource intensive training is for public safety positions, the use of inefficient recruitment tactics — and resulting higher than average drop-out and failure rates of candidates — can be quite costly.  RJPs are created and used strategically by recruiters and agencies all over the country to balance candidates’ expectations and help prevent early turnover.

According to James A. Breaugh, there are four distinct, and interrelated, psychological processes that influence the effectiveness of RJPs.

  1. Met expectations. The theory is that RJPs lower job expectations, making them more consistent with reality. This leads to higher job satisfaction and lower rates of voluntary turnover.
  2. Ability to cope. Having been made aware, through the use of an RJP, of potential problems with and demands of the job, new employees are theoretically better able to cope when issues arise. Again, leading to lower turnover rates.
  3. Air of honesty. When an agency represents itself openly and honestly with candidates, they tend to feel more committed to their decision to take the job. In contrast, agencies that are more concerned with “selling themselves” leave candidates with a feeling of betrayal when things are not as they were “sold.”
  4. Self-selection. Agencies that present the job realistically make room for candidates to realize that their needs will not be met by the job, and thereby self-select themselves out of the process.

There are many different formats being used for RJPs, including videos, job simulations, web tools, and written tests. Whichever format they come in, a good RJP should provide candidates with a holistic understanding of the position. This allows them to make an informed decision about their interest in — and suitability for — the job, sometimes before even applying.

The Worcester Police Department (WPD) posted an entire 25-week Police Academy session, in a series of three- to four-minute videos, to the department’s YouTube page. As Chief Gemme said, this allowed the department to “provide the public with a unique insight into police training that words alone can’t convey … [It is] an accurate reflection of the rigorous and intense training that recruits go through to become police officers.”1

The Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department asks potential candidates to read a two-page, detailed brochure that provides a “realistic preview of the types of tasks which are required of all Cherry Hill firefighters.” Tasks described in the brochure include the fire academy, emergency response, fire scenes, rescue operations, emergency medical treatment, and personal considerations, such as the hours they’ll work and the physical demands of the job.

IPMA-HR developed a customizable, written RJP1 for use by Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs). The test is based on a Willingness Rating Scale, through which candidates rate their willingness to perform the tasks or handle the issues listed in this survey. There are four categories of questions: Work Schedule, Working Conditions, Staff Supervision, and Conditions of Employment. Based on their overall ratings, candidates are then asked to either apply, not apply (this position will not meet your needs), or review their answers to certain questions and, if their answers remain the same, to please not apply for this position.

Since 2012, the average employee turnover rate has increased 12.9 percent, and it is expected to rise from 20.6 percent to 23.4 percent over the next five years [Hay Group]. In the public safety field, the numbers are even higher. Agencies in all categories will need to adapt their recruitment strategies in order to attract, and retain, quality candidates. Realistic Job Previews provide one relatively inexpensive solution to the problem.

But, for RJPs to work, research shows that it’s positively essential that they present a balanced portrayal of the positive and negative aspects of the job. The RJP should include specific information about tasks required, present several aspects of the job, and it should be delivered by a credible person, such as a job incumbent. And, perhaps most important: be sure that the information presented is the most crucial information for the candidate to know before accepting your job offer.

*Would your ECC be interested in receiving free use of IPMA-HR’s ECC-RJP?  We are currently developing new entry-level ECC selection tests.  Centers that participate in the study can get deep discounts on a future test order along with the free use of the ECC-RJP.  If you are interested in learning more please complete the interest form below:


Written in collaboration with Jenny Donovan, Freelance Writer.


  1. Realistic Job Previews: Reworking Your Recruitment Messaging and Strategies to Reach Today’s Candidates, The Police Chief, March 2014. 

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