Strength from within: Internal mobility and the retention of high performers

Alan Benson, Ben A. Rissing

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


We develop and test a theoretically informed and generalizable empirical framework for evaluating the performance gap between internally and externally hired workers. First, human capital theory predicts that internal hires will be immediately more productive than external hires. Second, contextual learning predicts that internal hires will be more productive with time. Finally, theories of commitment, which are rarely applied to this literature, predict that internal advancement enhances retention among high performers (“positive retention”). Applying a general empirical framework for quantifying the relative contributions of these mechanisms to a retailer with 109,063 commissioned salespeople and their 12,931 managers, we find that the gap in our setting is primarily driven by positive retention: High performers and internal hires are less likely to quit, and crucially, high-performing internal hires are especially unlikely to quit. When high-performing internal hires do quit, they tend to cite reasons unrelated to work rather than advancement opportunities. By typically examining performance and retention in isolation, researchers and organizations may be underestimating the importance of internal advancement as a means of retaining of high performers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1475-1496
Number of pages22
JournalOrganization Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support from the Cornell Institute for Social Sciences is gratefully acknowledged.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright: © 2020 INFORMS


  • Careers
  • Commitment
  • Firm-specific skills
  • Hiring
  • Internal labor markets
  • Learning
  • Productivity
  • Promotion
  • Turnover


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