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Are we hiring from “sense of purpose?” (Probably not.)

Sense of purpose

We’ve all heard words like “mission,” “vision,” “purpose,” and “sense of purpose” bandied about at all-hands meetings. Sometimes they’re defined. Oftentimes they’re not. It can feel like a lot of lip service at the end of the day. Do as I say not as I actually do. 

Now, also oftentimes, I’ll come across some hiring or recruiting “thought leadership” that makes me want to gag because it’s so distanced from reality.

This morning was one of those times.

Here’s a nice headline over at The Muse — “How To Stand Out When You’re Competing Against 3,000 Other Applicants” — so, as clickbait does, I clicked on it.

It’s written by a global head of recruiting at Johnson & Johnson, so it seemed pretty legitimate.

Sadly, it was not.

What’s so bad here?

If you take people at absolute face value and don’t look past BS, we’re all good.

But the author — from Johnson and Johnson — claims they hire around “professional purpose.”

That essentially means knowing what you want out of your career and where it’s headed. That’s obviously great and very noble. Careers are a big chunk of a white-collar existence, so having a sense of purpose around them is a solid quality in anyone.

But now we come to the issues.

The issues with sense of purpose hiring

It directly contradicts the modern era: The modern era is supposed to be rooted in data. It’s the new oil, right? Judging someone on “professional purpose” is entirely subjective. You cannot compare A to B on sense of purpose without knowing a host of personal factors of the two candidates. Those factors likely wouldn’t arise because many hiring processes are still rooted in generic, easy-to-game interview questions.

The headcount/speed issue: A lot of modern hiring processes are designed around speed (which Malcolm Gladwell does not like) and immediate headcount backfill, i.e. “Get me a body now!” It would be hard to accurately screen for sense of purpose in candidates under a “time is money” philosophy.

The dichotomy: I would love — love — to believe that companies care about the professional purpose in the career trajectory of their employees. However, most research (and the actions of executives) shows they don’t. Companies do not operate according to moral norms. (Some of the better ones do, yes.) The philosophy of most companies is “The guys at the top drive the ship, and everyone else is interchangeable.” Once revenue tanks, those guys at the top are now also interchangeable. It’s very fickle. Plus, average North American job tenure right now is about 3.6 years, so I’m not sure how important your professional sense of purpose is to the end game if you’ll be gone in less than 48 months.

Tasks, tasks, tasks: Again, a lot of hiring is done because some tasks seem overwhelming to an existing team, so they need a new person. That’s the reality of it. Saying you hire for “sense of purpose” when you hire for KPI task work is kind of like the shallow vs. deep work argument.

Bosses: Once a new hire comes in via a supposed sense of professional purpose, a boss would need to develop their career goals in line with that. Does a boss really want to do that?

So… sense of purpose hiring?

I personally don’t think so. Feels like a lot of un-quantifiable lip service, much like hearing “vision and purpose” from executives as they go rush to count their Q2 profits. But maybe I’m jaded and a horrible person. It could be true! So what do you think: are companies legitimately trying to hire on sense of purpose? Could it even happen?

Ted Bauer

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