The Missing Job Benefit

Purpose-driven organizations know that higher pay and improved working conditions are no longer enough to attract and keep top talent, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman. 

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group:, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

In February, the number of Americans quitting their jobs reached 4.4 million. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that same month, US businesses had 11.3 million job openings to fill, slightly more than what economists had predicted.

“Things have been low before,” says Juliana Barela, vice president and general manager for Korn Ferry’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing and Solutions business in North America, “but this is just a fundamental shift in the market.”

This shift has many experts urging companies to take a serious look at their hiring strategies and reevaluate how they attract and retain talent. At the same time, a labor shortage puts American workers in a unique position to bargain—particularly in industries such as retail, manufacturing and education, where quits continue to increase.

On both sides of the coin—employer and employee—the focus has been on higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions. In many ways this has been labor’s wish list for decades, made more imminent by the realities of the pandemic. Over the past two and a half years people without good benefits and a savings account have suffered disproportionately. Few workers would want to be caught in another global catastrophe without access to health benefits, psychological services and a financial cushion.

Still, this wish list is glaringly incomplete. And this has to do with why so many people left their jobs in the first place. Not only have workers hit their end with burnout, but big events have a way of inspiring big questions and even bigger realizations. The pandemic—coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement, global warming, and the current war in Ukraine—has prompted a sort of existential crisis in which many workers are questioning why they do what they do and how it matters in relation to the current context.

In a world turned upside down by ambiguity and human suffering, the questions go beyond putting dinner on the table.

When faced with our own mortality, how do we want to spend our time?

In the presence of so much suffering, what matters?

While the benefits of purpose were already showing themselves before the pandemic, the role of meaning has become increasingly critical. At their core, people are wired to be motivated by what’s meaningful to them. This is why a 2020 study found that purpose-driven companies showed 40% higher levels of retention and reported 30% higher levels of innovation than their competitors—because knowing the why behind the work motivates people to think creatively and inspires them to stick around.

As the labor shortage charges on, individuals and organizations would benefit from asking:

●       How do I understand my strengths?

●       How might I use these to serve the greater good?

●       Who or how am I motivated to help?

In truly purpose-driven companies, even people in the least obvious “helping” roles feel clear on their mission and fulfilled by what they do. This level of satisfaction goes beyond things like pay, benefits and remote work and actually promotes well-being and engagement.

If workers limit their requests to an increase in pay, they may well be let down. After all, wage gains are already being negated by inflation.

This is where a real shift in the market may be. It’s not just about supply and demand, but about the very way we think about work. Good pay, solid benefits, and good working conditions are more and more seen as table stakes. Beyond that, employees and employers would do well to identify what they care about and what their role is in the larger context of events.

This shifts the meaning from work as money to work as meaning – from feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the state of the world to finding the ways one might contribute. 

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.