Purpose: why your employees matter the most

When I graduated, sustainability jobs were for tree-huggers

I started my career in management consulting. But ten years ago, on day three of a new job, I was asked to secure aid agency funding for a waste management programme. As part of the process, I arranged a visit to Bantar Gebang, Jakarta’s largest open air landfill site. Nothing had quite prepared me for this – mountains of waste for as far as the eye could see, with families living on the site and scavenging for whatever they could salvage. It was what you’d call a ‘lightbulb moment’: fixing the problem was a reason to get up and go to work, other than just to pay the bills. Most importantly, there was no going back. I was never again going to do a job solely driven by profits.

Today I’m no longer the odd one out

Sustainability is no longer a fringe interest. Many of the most attractive businesses and start-ups understand that purpose is an essential component of a successful business and one that can longer be ignored. We know that meaningful brands generate significantly higher KPIs. We’ve heard Unilever many times lead their investor messaging by showing their sustainable brands grow faster than the rest of their business,  69% faster in 2018. And many use it as a key driver for attracting and retaining talent.

At the same time, there is a louder debate about bullshit jobs. Whether high paid or low paid, these are the jobs that feel pointless to the people who perform them every working day.

A recent YouGov poll showed thirty-seven per cent of Brits did not think their jobs made a meaningful contribution to the world. Thirteen per cent were unsure, which makes me think they probably fall in that first bucket too. When your job has purpose, you know about it.

Of course, when you’re in a bullshit job, you have to pretend – that’s the bullshit element – there’s a reason why things are done in a certain opaque way, or that it doesn’t matter if your company says one thing but does the other.

But when employees stop pretending, things get interesting

They may call out the company for being at best ill-prepared – and at worst hypocritical – about achieving its stated ambition and purpose. That’s what 6,000 Amazon employees did in a letter to Jeff Bezos urging him to release a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change. They wanted to know why Amazon acquired a large fleet of diesel vans in the US and is planning to achieve its ‘Shipment Zero’ targets through offsets, rather than transitioning away from fossil fuels.

They may organise a massive protest, like when 20,000 Google employees and contractors in 50 cities downed tools because they felt management was ignoring and mishandling serious misconduct claims. And they may not just lay low if they feel they have been punished for their activism.

The consequences of mis-selling or forgetting to communicate purpose to employees can be much more dramatic than those of a one-off ‘purposewash’ campaign. For sure, ad media are abuzz when well-intentioned but poorly executed purpose campaigns such as Gillette’s and Pepsi’s hit the screen. Viewers will deride them, marketing experts will dissect what has gone wrong. But brands can move on relatively quickly if their employees still feel engaged and are committed to addressing the gap between strategy and execution.

Remember why you’ve started

None of this should prevent companies from thinking and communicating about purpose. There are many reasons why they should do it, including to attract and retain the best talent. But it has to be authentic and comprehensive. Purpose is not only for launching the new marketing campaign; it sets the bar for the company’s culture, operations, products and services.

Your employees will be the first to notice if you’re faking it. They’re also likely to care the most. And if you’ve done a good job of convincing them of the importance of purpose but this purpose isn’t reflected in reality, they will be less motivated, less productive and ultimately likely to look elsewhere. Not to mention that disengaged employees will likely alienate your clients.

What can be done about it?

As a BCorp, we firmly believe businesses can be a force for good. That means we also believe that purpose starts inside the business, which is why we work with our clients on their culture and operations as much as their marketing and communications.

And what if we were to ask you: was your purpose ‘invented’ by some super smart advisors but no employee was consulted along the way? Has your CEO sent an internal memo announcing the purpose but not explained the ‘what’s in it for me’ to your employees? Have you stopped at highlighting the business benefits of having a purpose but did not address the employee’s emotional triggers and barriers to change? Have you assumed they would ‘love it’ but forgot to incentivise them to adopt new behaviours? Or is there, truthfully, not much substance behind your well-crafted purpose statement?

If any of these questions might keep you awake at night, get in touch. Whether it’s to FIND your purpose, DO it, or SAY it in a way that means you and your employees BELIEVE it, we’d love to help.