The Value of Purpose in the Workplace

Following the height of the pandemic, much was made of “The Great Resignation,” shifting priorities, working from home – and all of this made us reconsider where, how and why we work. And now, with many hybrid and remote work models, employees have more options than ever before. How can leaders keep employees engaged and productive, even in environments where they might not always be in the same physical space? The answer may be through purpose.

For many organizations, purpose can manifest itself in different ways, including being willing to take a stand on social issues; corporate social responsibility/volunteerism; and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

What Employees Want

According to Gallup, nearly 50% of the workforce is made up of Gen Zers and millennials, and those employees want to work for organizations that care about their wellbeing, have ethical leadership, and are diverse and inclusive of all people. Younger workers are more likely to feel disengaged than older workers, although they are not the only category of workers that saw a drop in that metric over the past few years. According to the 2023 Net Positive Employee Barometer by Paul Polman, nearly half of employees say they would consider resigning if the company’s values don’t align with their own, even in these difficult economic times. Conversely, companies see 52% less turnover among newer employees who participate in their corporate purpose programs, according to Benevity’s Talent Retention Study.

Bringing Purpose to Life by Taking a Stand on Social Issues

One way organizations can help employees connect with purpose – or as we like to say at Padilla “transform with purpose” – is by taking a stand on social issues when they align authentically to the organization’s mission and values.

According to the Benevity 2023 CSR Leaders Survey, 88% of CSR leaders believe companies should take a stand on social issues, even if it means alienating some people. However, 71% of CSR leaders agree that companies must be more cautious because of the potential for backlash.

To help leaders explore all aspects of “if and when” to speak out on social issues, Padilla developed a Social Issue Scorecard to counsel senior leaders through this process. This tool establishes criteria and a process for vetting and scoring whether or not to take a stand on an issue. This helps take some of the emotion out of the decision-making process and ensure a consistent approach.

Once you have vetted an issue, commit to it. Some companies have reversed course when they received pushback, which often results in angry stakeholders on both sides of an issue.

At a recent event hosted by Twin Cities Business Magazine, Hennepin Healthcare Chief Health Equity Officer Nneka Sederstrom said the organization received some pushback from employees around its mandatory antiracism training. Because the organization viewed the training as a “must have” vs. a “nice to have,” the organization refused to back down, and some people left. But that was a price they were willing to pay to better serve their patients.

Volunteerism: Walk the Talk

Volunteering is another way for organizations and their employees to bring corporate purpose to life. According to research in the Journal of Happiness Studies, time spent in service to others can improve wellbeing. Volunteering with coworkers offers employees a way to connect with one another, and volunteers can help nonprofits fill the gap in their workforce.

Padilla offers employees a Diversity + Inclusion Day of Service, one day off annually to perform community service related to DEI. This is one element of our overall CSR program, Padilla PluggedIn. In August, employees in our Minneapolis office spent a couple hours at Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins Major League Baseball team) participating in Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Action Day, where we packed backpacks full of school supplies. Two of Padilla’s Shared Values are “Build Trust” and “Think as Many.” Spending time together outside the office helps us live those Values. It gives us the opportunity to spend time with colleagues with whom we may not work with on a day-to-day basis and makes our work relationships less transactional and more fulfilling both personally and professionally.

Supporting a More Inclusive Workplace

As many organizations strive to be more representative of the constituencies that they serve, there is a need for training and resources that will improve cultural competence so employees from all walks of life feel like they belong.

That shift may require some difficult conversations along the way. There are numerous resources available to organizations that want to facilitate those courageous conversations in the workplace. The Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (a Padilla client) produced a “Words Matter” video series to foster a shared understanding of the language to help organizations on their DEI journey. Sixteen brief videos (each under two minutes) define several terms including cultural appropriation, undocumented and colonization. Each video includes discussion questions as well as additional resources.

The Role of Purpose in our Current Moment

“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” – Henry David Thoreau

For me, this quote sums up the value of purpose in the workplace. One-third of our lives are spent at work. While pay and benefits may be the primary driver for most of us to work, purpose is probably a close second. Who we work for, what we do and how we are treated in the workplace can have a significant impact on our quality of life. Organizations that help employees unlock their purpose will have a competitive advantage.


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