About meaningful work


Maria Elena Grimmett was 11 when she noticed that her family’s well water was tinged brown, and she wondered why. Her curiosity sparked a six-year investigation into a new way to solve a common water pollution problem, and on Tuesday, that inquiry — conducted largely at Grimmett’s dining room table — won her a prestigious prize for young researchers and a $100,000 college scholarship. (…) Grimmett’s initial questions about the color of her family’s water led her to learn about pharmaceutical pollution in the Florida Everglades. She was disgusted, and she wanted to help solve the problem. “I couldn’t imagine how people were letting this happen,” she said.” So read an article by Emma Brown of the Washington Post, early last December. [You can read the article here]

Different studies have shown the importance for employees of finding/doing meaningful work. In 2013, a study by Philips even shown that 68% of American workers were willing to take a pay cut if given the opportunity to do more meaningful work. [2] Different surveys have also highlighted both the challenges and benefits for employers to actually engage their employees (and managers) at work.

As an employee then, how do you find work that, without being perfect, somehow allows you to hone your skills atop (of having the satisfaction) of doing something meaningful? Like Maria Elena did, in her way? As an employer, how do you find the person who – given the proper tools and support – is most likely to engage in his/her role and show grit in the work that needs to be done? Again, like Maria Elena did?

The challenge isn’t in writing the right details in a job description; tasks to be completed or skills to be used. It is in defining the reason “why” these qualifications and skills are needed in the first place.


Jamie has worked as a customer service representative (CSR) for five years. Before that, he cut his teeth in sales for two years. He trains twice a week, likes to rent a car and go for a hike with friends, from time to time. Except every two Sundays, or so. That’s when he spends a few hours with his aging grandmother who, because of hip problems, is losing some of her autonomy. The one thing he’s most proud of these days is having found a farmers market – where he can by some organic foods – close to his new apartment. The one thing he’s been juggling with for the past 48 hours, though, is two job offers.

The first is from a well established electric cars dealer. The second is from a renowned rehabilitation center. In both cases, the organizations are looking for a senior CSR. Pay is competitive and about the same. The social benefits package too. The jobs are not in the same neighborhood but in terms or transport, it would take Jamie about the same time to get to work (in both cases). The only difference is the overall message he got from both organizations. How they presented themselves and the senior CSR position to Jamie, during the onsite interviews he went to.

The electric cars dealer said “We provide convenient and sustainable transport solutions. More precisely, electric cars to environment conscious people. As part of our team, you would act both as an information hub to the people calling about what we do, and as a customers’ insights provider to the rest of the dealership’s team. So, on the long term, we can simply improve what we, how we do it, and make our roads a little greener than right now.” On the other hand, the rehabilitation center said “We’re in the healthcare business… We provide rehabilitation products and therapy services to people who need to get better after a surgery or injury. And your job would be to answer over-the-phone questions from our clientele about our services and facilities. The same as calling our past patients to know what they think of the care they received.”

Jamie ended up accepting the car dealer’s offer. He had never worked in the automobile industry or in healthcare. He had an interest for the environment’s protection – in part through hiking and eating organic foods – but one for physical health too – through his grandmother’s growing physical autonomy problems. The “decision maker” was his answer to “Which job inspires me the most?” Help make the roads a little greener, with electric cars? Or, giving information about healthcare products and therapy services? He picked the former.


Jamie’s case isn’t an exception. There are sets of qualifications and skills that can be found in every customer service representatives’ positions. In what differentiate an accounting technician role from a chartered accountant one. A Marketing & Sales Vice president’s job description is quite similar in many industries.

The context and industry in which each role will be played might be different but, overall, the tasks are quite similar. Interestingly too, for competitive reasons, the paycheck (for most job categories) in any given industry tends to be in the same range as well.

How do you stand out from the crowd then, if an organization? Or find a needle in a haystack, if a candidate?

The world of “volunteer work” is an insightful place to look.

People do volunteer work for different reasons; expressing personal values (“my humanitarian side”), developing new skills or exercising unused ones, strengthening social relationships, etc.. All things that, given the opportunity, could also be done in the context of paid work. On the other hand, knowing that “what you do will help improve other people’s lives” raises the level of commitment of volunteer workers a notch higher. Even if it’s work that you wouldn’t spontaneously tag as “life improving or strengthening” in the for-pay workplace; like accounting or carpentry. Opposite to nursing or teaching, for instance. Still, it’s possible to practice carpentry in both, a paid work context (as an employee of a for-profit construction company) and a volunteer work one (with Habitat for Humanity, for instance).

What really makes the world of volunteer work insightful isn’t that “what you do will help people improve other people’s lives” versus “what you do help the company make more profits”, if working for a for-profit company. It’s the fact that people become volunteer for a specific cause (like ‘better child literacy’, ‘gender equality’ or else) because they relate to the cause and/or to the people that are helped by their (volunteer) work. Because the cause is meaningful to these volunteers.

The key word here is “relate”. As these volunteer customer service representatives, accountants or Marketing & Sales VPs relate enough to a cause, and find enough benefit in doing the work that needs to be done that they are willing to do it for free… and actually commit themselves to it. Like Maria Elena did, in the case of her family’s water problem.

Something we rarely see in the for-pay workplace, when year after year, a majority of employees consider themselves to be disengaged at work. Now, if workers are willing to do meaningful work for free, how can they find an employer providing meaningful work with pay? How can an employer attract candidates willing to engage themselves in a role and work that needs to be done? Aim for a cause, for a “why”. Not a task, a skill or the role related to a job position.


Selling specialized sports shoes and clothes to active runners or giving them an access to sports performances enhancing solutions? Teaching English literature to college students or improving students’ critical thinking? Renting cars per hour to business people or providing them with a flexible and eco-friendly transportation option?

In your opinion, which option in each pair is the most compelling? Which has the best chances of stirring the highest response rates from potential candidates – if both are used in separate job posting? Which option in each pair somehow gives you an insight on a reason, a meaning to explain why these specialized shoes would be sold in the first place, for instance?

It’s the option that shows the potential impact of the work itself on the customers’ lives or, in other words, the benefit they would get from buying, learning or renting what you offer them. Which is what many NGOs tend to put forward in their communications efforts and often succeed with – in their volunteer recruitment or fundraising campaigns. These organizations aim for what a certain population group might relate to through them; a cause, a purpose, a utility, a “why”.

If an employer, finding that “value”, that “why” for your organization goes beyond a simple marketing brainstorm or sales pitch. It actually needs to be a genuine exercise. Because people – let them be your employees, customers or potential job candidates – have a nose for what is fake, appears not to be sincere. It’s harder to earn the trust of someone you’ve deceived / lied to once that earning the trust of someone who doesn’t know you.


How do you find the best “fit” – in terms of work (if an employee) or candidate (if an employer)? It’s not by limiting yourself to a job’s or company’s description. Neither to a list of qualifications and experiences on a resume. Because, as in Maria Elena’s case, when people relate enough to a cause, and find enough benefit in doing the work that needs to be done, they are willing to do it for free… and commit themselves to it. Such “fit” can then be found by looking for the organization or the person that cares the most about the problem you’re solving or want to help solve. Because that problem resonates with them. It has a meaning. That same meaning would actually give some back (if not a lot) to the work they are already doing or looking forward to do.

How the rehabilitation center could have increased its chances of inspiring Jamie to accept their offer? One possible way could simply have been telling him “We provide affordable and customized health improvement solutions to people in need of finding back a physical autonomy. Your role would be to help us provide such improvement solutions to our clientele.

Now, when you look at your personal situation, what problem or cause do you care the most? Enough to say “I’d be willing to do volunteer work for it”? Does your employer/organization care about the same problem or cause as you?

Signature PF