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Why Your Values Belong at Work

Read more at hbr.org

Many of us feel compelled to fight against the many systemic injustices brought to light by the events of 2020, but it can feel hard to make a real impact when you spend so much of your time at work. “Job purposing” is a way to adjust how you work so that you make a meaningful contribution to a societal cause during the work week. Ample research shows that job purposing has many career and wellness benefits, and employees at companies large and small are finding creative ways to promote social justice and aid their communities while at work.

About 20 years ago, I was a ski patroller. One afternoon I found myself halfway up a mountain attending to Dave, a man in his forties with an injured knee. As I positioned Dave in the sled that I would ski down to the clinic, he hurled obscenities. It wasn’t because of his pain: My offense was being a woman.

I whispered to the male patroller who was assisting me. “Tom, since Dave is uncomfortable having a woman ski the sled down, should you do it instead?” Tom responded in a voice loud enough for Dave to hear. “On the contrary. Dave’s objections are baseless. Your competent sled running might help him develop proper respect for women.”

The events of 2020 deepened our awareness that people are routinely victims of prejudice, violence, lack of healthcare access, and other forms of injustice because of their gender, race, country of origin, religion, sexual orientation, age, mental illness, physical limitations, and countless other factors. Many of us feel the pull to promote social justice and other societal causes, but we still have to dedicate most of our waking hours to our day jobs. But what if we seek ways to bring activism into our daily interactions at work? This tactic, which I call “job purposing,” involves adjusting how we work so that we engage in social purpose, or a meaningful contribution to a societal cause, during the work week. With his response to Dave’s sexist comments, Tom deliberately brought activism into a work interaction. He job purposed.

The Many Benefits of Job Purposing

Most of us would consider Tom’s pursuit of social purpose noble. We might be surprised to hear, though, that acts of workplace social purpose don’t typically undermine success at work — they actually promote career success. Research finds that, compared to colleagues who don’t job purpose, those who do likely have higher job satisfaction and performance, and they may even be happier and healthier.

It boosts job satisfaction. My research documented 13% higher job satisfaction, on average, in employees whose work experience incorporated social purpose than in those whose work didn’t. Other studies reached similar conclusions. For example, the Happiness Research Institute and Krifa in Denmark found that lack of workplace purpose is the biggest culprit in job dissatisfaction among Danes. Another European study found that incorporating social purpose into work boosted job satisfaction within two months. In fact, so many studies link social purpose to job satisfaction that researchers who systematically reviewed all the evidence say the relationship is indisputable.

It boosts performance. One experiment studied workers scanning online images for specific patterns. A randomly selected subgroup was told that they were labeling tumor cells to assist medical researchers. The others were not given any context about the work. Workers who knew they were supporting the health of others processed more images — while maintaining the same level of quality — than those who had no reason to believe their work promoted social purpose. Another study found that workers who knew they were pursuing social purpose were 24% faster and had 43% less downtime than those who didn’t, and there was no loss of quality.

The positive effect that job purposing has on work appears to add up to a more successful career. Studies find that job purposing is associated with a 10% higher likelihood of receiving a raise and a 40% higher likelihood of being promoted.

It makes us calmer. Brain imaging reveals that acts of social purpose reduce the stress response at the cellular level. Another study found that pursuing social purpose lowers the negative health impact of stressful situations like final exams and financial woes.

It makes us healthier. Researchers randomly divided 73 older individuals suffering from high blood pressure into two groups. One group was given $120 and instructed to spend $40 on themselves every week for three weeks. Members of the other group were also given $120 but were asked to spend $40 on others every week. At the completion of the experiment, the self-oriented spenders had no change in blood pressure, yet the social-purpose spenders experienced a blood pressure drop as large as medication or exercise would have generated. In another study, researchers randomly divided a group of adolescents into two groups; one volunteered for charitable causes and the other did not. Four months later, those who volunteered had lower cholesterol than those who hadn’t.

It makes us happier. Pursuing social purpose activates the same pleasure-producing area of the brain that sex and dessert do. Studies confirm the existence of this “helper’s high” across genders, age, and other demographics.

How Employees Are Job Purposing

Workers at every level of an organization can make coworker and customer interactions more human, meetings more meaningful, operations more inclusive, and marketing more charitable. Employees at Bank of America, Disney, FedEx, PwC, Toyota, Western Digital, and other brands I’ve advised have done just that.

Many companies have adopted policies aimed at reducing bias and combating racism. For example, Starbucks and Walmart don’t ask for criminal history in their job applications to ensure their preliminary selection process doesn’t discriminate against former felons, and plenty of HR departments and supervisors have rolled out unconscious bias training to help identify patterns of discriminatory thinking and behavior. While these policies are important, smaller, individual actions can go a long way toward promoting social justice, too. Consider these real-world examples of individual job purposing:

  • A supervisor at a Fortune 500 hospitality company consistently asks those who are quiet in meetings — who, evidence shows, are disproportionately women and people of color — to share their thoughts.
  • A white realtor has preemptive conversations about unconscious bias with property owners before they review applications or offers. She explains that most people unknowingly view minority candidates less favorably than others, shares that it takes concerted effort to overcome this unconscious bias, urges them to make that effort, and provides links to resources to help them do so.
  • A catering business orders at least 20% of its food from small businesses run by people from minority groups.
  • A line worker at a manufacturing plant adopts a no-racism policy in conversations. If a coworker belittles any race, he says, “That’s not cool. I won’t take part in racism.” If this doesn’t stop the offenders, he leaves the conversation.

We can also leverage our day jobs to support other societal causes — including responding to Covid-19, strengthening local nonprofits, and helping victims of domestic violence — like these workers did:

  • After learning that the self-storage facility where she worked would be closing for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic last March, an attendant spent her last workdays calling every elderly customer to offer free delivery of anything they needed from their storage units. On her commute home, she delivered exercise equipment, blankets, books, and other items to help customers ride out the lockdown.
  • An instructor at an accounting firm replaced a written case study assignment in her new-hire class with free consulting for a local nonprofit. Now she strengthens nonprofit organizations through every training.
  • After several clients dropped hints that they were victims of domestic violence, a hairdresser trained to become a victim advocate and now knows she’s offering the type of response that’s most likely to help.
  • A commercial landlord loaned her vacant properties to a nonprofit that used them as staging areas for month-long neighborhood cleanups.

About a year after I transported Dave down the mountain, I found him waiting for me at ski-patrol headquarters, where he apologized to me for his sexist remarks. It appears that Tom had nudged Dave toward being less prejudiced. That’s the best part of job purposing — we can end our work week gratified to know that we not only helped our organization, but that we also made a positive societal impact.

Read more at hbr.org

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