We Keep Talking About ‘Purpose’ at Work But Perhaps We’re Being Dishonest

It’s only Wednesday, and already I’ve had no less than 12 conversations this week discussing the importance of identifying candidates who “connect to purpose,” and how they are the best targets in recruiting. So long passive candidates, now it’s purpose-driven candidates.

If you are like me, which is to say in this business for a long time, you’ve probably developed some mental callouses in regards to the latest buzzwords in our industry. Even though I’m a cynical old fool, I do believe there is a two-part conversation that we really are not having in regards to purpose.

Part one is defining what purpose is. Well, not just defining, but, more importantly, rationalizing that purpose with the market. This is similar to the challenge, and is essentially a close cousin of, employee brand. It is one thing to have a lofty, altruistic purpose that you put out to the “market,” but you have to ask yourself: Is that really your purpose? Or, is your purpose really, truly, to generate bottom-line earnings and satisfy your shareholders?

There is nothing wrong with profit as a purpose, but we have to be honest when we paint our purpose internally and externally, and be certain that there isn’t conflict between stated purpose and actual purpose. It’s important because, well, it’s truth. We all deal with it, we know it’s out there, but we have to understand what the true or dominant purpose is, in order to help us identify the folks who will actually succeed in our systems. For some organizations, like mine, those altruistic purposes may honestly be dominant. At others, it’s really all about the money. Either way, there are folks that thrive in each environment, but few who thrive in both.

The second part is, who does this really matter too? The ability to derive pleasure from serving a higher purpose is really limited to people who have at least reached the “esteem” step on Maslow’s hierarchy. When we live in country with increased pressure on the middle and lower class, there are fewer people making it to that step.

Now, I get it, some companies hire all white-collar professionals, but for companies who hire a large number of lower-wage employees, esteem is far less important to them than issues that impact their safety and security. And even for white-collar employees, when you have a couple kids, a mortgage, summer camp … purpose may take a back seat to reality.

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This is where we have to decide what is more important: that group of candidates who is not focused on esteem, meeting us at our purpose, or our organizations meeting them at theirs? We want engaged employees committed to purpose, but how many employees can ever reach that place if they don’t know whether or not they will be able to make rent this month?

I know sexy recruiting (which, let’s be honest, is a term only recruiters would ever use) is for your high dollar pros, but for most recruiters I speak with, the bulk of their work is hiring the workers who put the rubber to the road for their employers. I don’t have the right answer, but really wanted to engage the ERE community in a discussion around purpose. Is it important or not? Why? How do you use purpose to change your recruiting outcomes? How do you measure any causation between connection to purpose and performance/results?

Lay it on me folks, I really want to read your thoughts and ideas. Hashing out this kind of topic makes us all better prepared to perform as valued consultants to our organizations.

Jim D'Amico is a globally recognized TA Leader, specializing in building best in class TA functions for global organizations. He is an in demand speaker, author, and mentor, with an intense passion for all things talent acquisition. Jim currently leads Global Talent Acquisition for Celanese, a Fortune 500 Chemical Innovation company based in Dallas, TX, and is a proud Board Member of the Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals.


8 Comments on “We Keep Talking About ‘Purpose’ at Work But Perhaps We’re Being Dishonest

  1. Great article, Jim!
    I think focusing on purpose-driven candidates is important, but could get you in trouble too. I think of it more in terms of the company having a cause and finding candidates who want to further that cause. Apple challenges the status quo in everything they do…the start of a good cause. However, making a profit is not a cause…it is an outcome (and so can not be the focus at the expense of the cause). So for this kind of recruiting to work, the company and perhaps the department-levels as well must have a well-defined causes…and really mean it. Applicants need to know how their job will help others.
    In a way, it is like recruiting for volunteers. However, many companies do not treat their employees well and think that because you pay them that they should give their all and best, give their loyalty, and keep coming back to work day after day. They do not show enough appreciation and gratitude towards their employees for just coming to work every day and doing an acceptable job. They often do not communicate well with their employees. So there has to be give an take…a company can’t just say we want people to fit our purpose and will give nothing else for this.
    I think many companies could very easily come up with the purposes they want applicants to align to, but will be unable to make the necessary accommodations and give something back to the potential employees. It may end up being another requirement added to the list…shrinking the pool (thus increasing candidate demand and increasing their expected salaries).

    For example, I spoke about creating job descriptions that show meaningful work in a blog post in November (http://www.neorecruiter.com) and in it I mentioned framing a technical support role (which might be 15/hr…not high paying) as “we believe that technical support is a heroic calling” – and it went on to paint a story about saving the customers in trouble and making their day. This would draw people who want to make a difference in other’s lives even if what they do is technical phone support (not really glamorous and often unappreciated). However, for this to work, the company would have to treat them very well and with the upmost respect and appreciation (as you would treat any hero from war).
    If you say you want people with a purpose/cause, then you need to be able to show through frequent and open feedback how your employees are succeeding in fulfilling the purpose and furthering the cause. This can’t just be an annual review. People with purpose or a cause want to see they are making progress and succeeding…or they because very unhappy and are apt to leave. I don’t see most companies being able to give enough feedback in this area. They never have had to do such a thing before…but this is the price you have to pay to recruit and keep people with purpose.
    It may be the new buzz-phrase that is drawing interest, but it could end up like social media recruiting…with a whole lot of companies saying “we have to do that” and then creating and soon executing very poor programs with inadequate support that just makes the company look silly or outright bad. In social media, it is better not to have a presence…than have a poor presence. In cause/purpose recruiting, I think it could get companies in trouble because it is better not to go this way than to do it poorly.
    Just some things that came to mind reading your post.

  2. “Now, I get it, some companies hire all white-collar professionals, but for companies who hire a large number of lower-wage employees, esteem is far less important to them than issues that impact their safety and security.”

    In the final phrase of the quote above, is “them” referring to the companies, or to the lower-wage employees?


    1. Debra, sorry for the slow response, but thank you for your question! “Them” in this case does in fact refer to the employees.

      1. Thanks for your response, Jim. Why do you feel that esteem is “far less” important to lower-wage employees? I don’t quite understand what you mean.

        Thanks again. Debra

        1. Debra, owing to the fact that many low wage earners in the U.S. live at/near/or slightly below a subsistence level, it means, as per Maslow’s concepts that their primary focus is on their physiological and safety and security needs, and those become the primary drivers for them.
          I personally have been on that end of the hierarchy, and can speak to the validity of that. When all of your effort is consumed with paying for a roof over your head, transportation, food, medicine, etc. the concept of esteem and self actualization as explained my Maslow, becomes far far less important. When those issues confronted me, I was never concerned, nor did I even have the capacity to be concerned with the purpose of my employers, I just needed to survive. Sadly that is often the state of many low wage workers in the United States.
          Now there are great discussions to be had about the shrinking middle class (the gateway to self actualization), wages, medicine, etc, but the fundamental concepts of Maslow’s hierarchy hold true.

          1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and candid reply, Jim.

            While I support Maslow’s work, I’ve never been completely convinced that our needs are necessarily hierarchical as described by Maslow.

            I’ve done a little research in this area and have found some recent research somewhat supporting my thinking on this. Louis Tay and Ed Teiner conducted research involving 66% of the world’s population regarding needs and subjective well-being. They found that although people do tend to achieve basic and safety needs before other needs, “fulfilling the various needs has relatively independent effects on SWB. For example, a person can gain wellbeing by meeting psychosocial needs regardless of whether his or her basic needs are fully met.” (Tay & Diener, 2011, p. 363). The authors explained that “[H]umans can derive ‘happiness’ from simultaneously working on a number of needs regardless of the fulfillment of other needs. This might be why people in impoverished nations, with only modest control over whether their basic needs are fulfilled, can nevertheless find a measure of well-being through social relationships and other psychological needs over which they have more control.” (Tay & Diener, 2011, 364).

            Based on my own experience, I have found that, for example, those who are struggling with getting their basic needs met are not so preoccupied that they have any lesser need for love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Therefore, I have difficulty supporting your thinking that “esteem is ‘far less’ important to lower-wage employees”. From my experience, I just haven’t found this to be true.

            Hope this makes sense and doesn’t stray too far from your great article!

            Take care.

            Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354-365. doi:10.1037/a0023779

  3. Purpose is directly proportional to value real or imagined. Western Electric Hawthorne studies showed that motivation increased when the workers knew they were being studied (engagement) and fell when the studies ended.

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