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

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Apr 27, 2016
This article is part of a series called Wake-up Call.

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.

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.

This article is part of a series called Wake-up Call.
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