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Purpose Under Pressure: New research finds employees demand more meaning from their work today

In a world fraught with uncertainty and upheaval, Purpose — an organization's reason for existing beyond profits — can be the constant.

The past few years have taught businesses many hard lessons. Among them, leaders must expect the unexpected and no issue is off-limits for organizational response. Consumers have become increasingly skeptical of green and Purpose claims, while employees have choice – and aren’t afraid to use it. So much has changed during this time, but one thing has remained constant: the Power of Purpose.​

We saw Purpose help brands navigate the waters of a global pandemic to do right by employees and communities. It provided guidance and guardrails for companies responding to stakeholder demands around social justice commitments and delivered organizational direction and ambition for companies to approach their ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals and strategies. It has even given organizations direction when reacting to heated ​political conversations and responses during times of war and global conflict. Now, Purpose proves to be a panacea for another major business challenge: The Great Resignation.

The events of recent years have given us a lot to think about. For employees, this has led to a rearrangement of priorities, a pursuit of a higher meaning in their work placing significant new demands on their employers. With that, employees have left their companies in droves to seek opportunities better aligned with their values or seek a new path very different than their previous one. This has created a retention sieve at companies – and a thorn in the side of recruiters across industries. Those who remain in their current roles realize their new worth and are not afraid to push their employers for more. ​

Where does Purpose fit in? Purpose Under Pressure examines business professionals across industries and levels to gauge their understanding of and engagement with Purpose in their organizations. This study examines the benefits of a strong Purpose during turbulent times, its value for recruitment and retention – as well as some early red flags for Purpose practitioners – and tools to embed Purpose within organizations for maximum benefit. ​

While Purpose continues to weather the storm, the stakes could not be higher. Purpose is under increased scrutiny from consumers, employees, activist investors and others – and companies must do more to ensure it is authentic, omnipresent and actionable.

1. Employees’ Priorities Have Shifted

Sixty-six percent of employees cite their employers’ positive impact as more important than before the pandemic – identical to the increase in importance of salary and compensation. More than a third (35%) of employees say a company’s positive impact is among the top two most important attributes when deciding to stay or leave a job, signifying the power of Purpose to influence people’s employment choices. The report suggests employees seek opportunities that better align with their values and the impact they seek to make through their work.

These findings prove that the prominence and influence of Purpose is stronger than ever – especially among employees. We were encouraged to see that 84% of respondents said they would only work at a Purpose-driven company. In a ‘free-agent’ employment world, an authentic and activated purpose is a powerful magnet for talent.

2. Purpose is Underutilized–and Often Divided

Even with the strong support for Purpose by corporate leaders today, the research also uncovers indicators showing Purpose is underutilized within key functions – namely marketing and strategy within organizations. This is especially problematic at a time when employees are seeking meaning in their work more than ever. When organizations have an inconsistent commitment to their Purpose, its impact is substantially lessened.

Purpose is highly valued among senior executives but does not resonate as strongly at other levels: 92% of C-suite leaders believe greater emphasis on Purpose would lead to greater corporate success, while only 76% of managers agree. It’s also siloed from key stakeholders. Strategy and marketing functions present barriers to company-wide purpose adoption. HR is largely bought in, with 70% of employees agreeing their employer’s Purpose gives their work meaning. But only 36% of marketers and 32% of strategists agree.

3. Executives are Leaning In, But They Should Be All In

The research also uncovered the deep commitment of senior executives to the power of Purpose with 86% agreeing their company is more focused on Purpose now than before the pandemic. Ninety-five percent agree the corporate Purpose is a clear source of pride for their employees.

And while Purpose has helped some companies weather the storm of the pandemic and the Great Resignation, they need to do more. Nearly 90% of employees said companies should double down on Purpose and only 53% said their company’s Purpose was mature. Staff want to see companies embed Purpose more deeply (77%), behave in ways more aligned with their Purpose (75%) and better define organizational Purpose (68%).

To explore the full report, visit

Building on the Purpose Paradox

Purpose Under Pressure builds on findings from the Purpose Paradox, a 2020 study conducted by Carol Cone ON PURPOSE and The Harris Poll to explore the influence and impacts of Purpose in business-to-business (B2B) companies. The B2B Purpose Paradox uncovered a critical gap: while 86% of companies had a stated Purpose, only 24% of those had fully activated it in their organizations.

Purpose Under Pressure broadens our exploration of the divide between stated and activated Purpose, adding business-to-consumer (B2C) companies as well as welcoming global PR firm Allison+Partners and sister agency Headstand to the research team. Our hypothesis about the growing prominence of Purpose–influenced by the pandemic and its impact on employees–was borne out by this new research. We felt that as more organizations shift to being human-centered, they will need strong data and insights to leverage Purpose across the enterprise at various levels and functions.

Ultimately, the companies that “win” with Purpose will be those that leverage their “why” to inspire, engage, and protect their most powerful asset: their employees.


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