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How to know if your employer is serious about helping you find purpose in your work

Paychecks are important, of course, but many people also want their work to “matter”. Whether this means helping people in your local area, or contributing to a global cause like reducing waste and fighting the climate crisis, 70% of respondents to a 2020 survey said their personal sense of purpose is largely defined by their work.

Organisations often use the promise of “purpose” at work to attract and retain employees. They may offer you the opportunity to personally contribute to doing some lasting good beyond just completing tasks and earning a wage. This could include positive social or ecological outcomes inside and outside the organisation, such as reducing carbon emissions or creating decent jobs in economically deprived communities.

This sort of purpose-driven work can be embedded in specific roles such as sustainability manager or equality, diversity and inclusion officer. Or it could be a broader promise to use your skills and develop expertise toward public good. For example, they could offer competitions to help employees develop business solutions to social issues.

So, highlighting purpose is a good strategy for recruiting and retaining talent. But once you’re in such a job, you may find your day-to-day work doesn’t really deliver on this promise. Maybe your employer hasn’t kept its pledge, or it’s offering a form of “purpose-washing”. This is when a company makes promises based on more than profit maximisation but doesn’t follow through with consistent actions.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, for example, the rate of new chief diversity officers hired nearly tripled in three months versus the previous 16 months. But three years later, corporate America is now reducing diversity initiatives and associated roles again.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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So, if your (future) employer promises purpose, how do you know if this will be a genuine and lasting opportunity for you to do some good through your work? Research highlights five green flags that can show an organisation is not only committed, but can actually deliver on its “purpose promises”.

1. It commits resources

People pursuing purpose at work often face significant challenges accessing resources. Dedicating time, money, training and staff will help purpose-driven work effectively achieve objective social or ecological goals, but it also helps you feel like you are “making a difference”. For example, your company could provide learning budgets and dedicated innovation time by default. It should also communicate these resources in job adverts and employment contracts.

Appropriately resourcing the work and providing wellbeing support also protects you from exploitation. When purpose is not authentic or strategically aligned with an organisation’s priorities, it can leave employees vulnerable to exploitation and burn-out. This is what happens when organisations use the motivational power of purpose to extract value from employees by justifying extreme working hours and limited resources, for example.

2. ‘Purpose’ is clear and relevant to all

Purpose-driven work often starts with a small group of people pushing for change. If other employees do not understand this work, it creates a gap between the purpose vision and the tasks these small groups can perform.

Putting purpose into practice requires making it clear and relevant to all organisational roles. Often, this means creating incentives for collaboration beyond specific mandates and departments. For example, if you’re a designer that creates sustainable product packaging, you’ll feel your work has less impact if the product is still shipped to customers in massive boxes cushioned with polystyrene.

Research also shows it can be easier to achieve purpose-driven aims when the groups pushing for change within an organisation intentionally include workers across gender and race, as well as people from different occupations and levels of the organisation.

3. You are shown the impact of your work

Pursuing purpose is challenging because impact takes time and is often invisible. Even if your work embeds purpose at its core – if you work for a social enterprise or an animal shelter – you may not always see the full picture of how what you do makes a difference. This can make you question your impact.

To address this challenge, organisations need to provide employees with opportunities to see the impact of their work. This can include sharing reports or case studies with the rest of the organisation, or facilitating feedback conversations with the people who benefit from your work.

Line of people in high-vis vests, clapping.
Companies should talk about – and celebrate – the impact of purpose-driven work. BigPixel Photo/Shutterstock

4. Purpose goes beyond the business case

Purpose-driven work is often justified through a business case for how the work can benefit the organisation, either in terms of recruiting and keeping talent or the bottom line. But if this is the predominant justification for purpose in organisations, you may feel disconnected from your values, which could limit your action over time.

Purpose does not require organisations to shy away from the business case, but to redefine what counts as doing business. For example, furniture maker Vitsoe’s approach to selling actively encourages consumers to buy less by creating adaptable and durable products.

5. It adapts processes, structures and careers

The only way to achieve a social or ecological purpose in authentic and meaningful ways is for organisations to adapt how they operate and what they value. Giving autonomy to purpose-driven workers is not enough: performance indicators and reward systems must also reflect efforts to change, as well as offering opportunities for you and your colleagues to voice and develop a shared vision. Your employer should also create a career path that makes you feel capable of working on purpose-driven projects, and to feel valued for doing so.

Purpose can be a powerful source of meaning at work, not only for social entrepreneurs and sustainability officers but for anyone who cares about finding solutions to social and ecological challenges. Falling victim to purpose-washing could damage your career and wellbeing, so look out for the green flags that demonstrate a company’s commitment, authenticity and support.

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