What Do Employees You’re Trying to Hire Want?

As recent college graduates enter the workforce this summer and fall, organizations are rightfully focused on attracting top talent, and to do that, they’re paying attention to what job seekers say they want.

So what do people want, and more specifically, what do those you are trying to attract want?

There are a lot of misconceptions about people at work; some of these misconceptions center around what matters to people in a work environment, while others center on differences that people have about work that are driven by generation, gender, geography or ethnicity.  And if you go looking for differences between people, whether it’s for a flashy news headline or to sell something, differences can be found.

However, what people have in common is much more substantial and important and we would be better off focusing on our commonalities than our differences. Most, if not all, of the differences that are cited in the popular press are the product of confounding variables (such as environmental situation, economic conditions or life stage) that are rarely taken into account when reporting on people at work.

Some myths of what people want at work include:

  • Younger people have different drivers of what they want out of a job than older people
  • Older workers are more loyal to an organization
  • Older people don’t want to learn new things – especially technologically oriented things
  • Everyone is unhappy about their pay
  • People with a lot of work to do will be less positive about work than someone with little to do
  • Low wage, 3rd world workers are simply grateful to have a job and don’t mind the working conditions and hours to which they are subject

The list can go on and on, but in general these kinds of statements are usually given by people who have no good data to back them up.

Fundamentally, people join organizations to achieve goals that they can’t do alone.

And people are members of many, many kinds of organizations. Everything from where you work, to where you study, to volunteer organizations you belong to, to the city or state you live in, your country, your immediate and extended family, any organized religious group to which you belong, they can all be thought of as organizations. If you add up all the different kinds of organizations to which we all belong, and the rules by which they operate, you have a society.

The society in which we live is an amalgamation of all the organizations which are operating in that space. This notion is nothing new and Socrates uses this kind of argument in explaining to Crito why he must accept the death penalty that has been meted out. He explains that society had created conditions that allowed Crito to be born, to live a good live, to achieve. And when Crito violated the rules of that society, as a society member, he must accept its punishment rather than flee.

Over the last 40 or more years it is pretty clear that on the fundamentals, what people want from the organizations in which they work there has been very little or no change at all.

Show me someone, anyone, anywhere in the world who doesn’t want to be treated with respect and dignity at work. Or someone who doesn’t want to feel like they receive fair compensation for effort expended. Or someone who doesn’t feel that the time they spend in the organization will hopefully lead to a more positive future either for themselves or their children. The differences that are often cited between generations or other demographically defined groups of people (e.g. men vs. women, older vs. younger workers, minority vs. non-minority), such as expected time to promotion, safety, or desire for job security, have almost nothing to do with who the workers are as people and everything to do with the economic and social conditions in which they are embedded and have experienced over a lifetime.

It is also true that every characteristic, such as desire for job security, or expected time to promotion, or risk tolerance will express itself as a distribution due to individual differences, but those individual differences are not driven by the traditional demographic characteristics to which they are often attributed.  In general, within any of the traditional demographic groups you can find a distribution, a spread of the expression of a characteristic (e.g. risk tolerance) that will be greater than the differences between demographic groups.

Due to this, over the long-term, the end state of globalization and the social contracts in which it is embedded will not be driven by governments or by the multinational corporations. The end state of globalization will be driven by what people want and what people want is pretty much the same thing everywhere. Now, there are individuals, governments and corporations who take advantage of discrepancies that exist in social contracts to pursue their own agendas, but over time these social contracts will evolve and the ability to take advantage of the discrepancies in social contracts will diminish.

For instance, a corporation or other organization, in its perfect world, would want to be able to do whatever it wants without concern of oversight, regulations, prosecution or penalties.

And the individuals who run these organizations would want any crime committed on behalf of the organization in pursuit of those goals to accrue no personal liability. While there is a desire for praise and recognition for what the individual achieves, their contribution to the organization, there is also a desire for anonymity within the organization, being able to hide behind the organization’s “walls”. What organizations also want though is not to have other organizations, perhaps more powerful than they are, to take advantage of them. So organizations, to achieve a balance between treatment given and treatment received, are willing, sometimes begrudgingly, to abide by the social contracts/the social fabric as currently defined by society.

As humans, of course, we are all subject to the flaws inherent in being human. There is always a person or group in power or an organization that is willing to live by an existing social contract that is in its favor until, as society changes, that social contract must change. For instance, the murder of George Floyd brought increased attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is pushing to modify the social contract to be more fair and transparent. Many corporations have responded and have a greater emphasis on DEI&B initiatives then they have had. There almost always is at least some resistance to changes in the social contract by those who have benefited from the existing social contract, for it may have benefited them financially, socially, or simply reinforced their beliefs.

On a larger scale, different forms of government, (e.g. democracies, dictatorships or authoritarian rule), also have different social contracts in place (e.g. who gets to vote if they vote at all, access to basic health, shelter or food, who gets to marry) and while there are differences in these social contracts, what people globally want, what they find important is fundamentally the same.

This combination, I believe is at least partially responsible for the inexorably slow but consistent march by humanity to more tolerance and freedoms as well as societies with less violence for people over time. At the moment it may feel like we are regressing, we may take three steps forward and two steps back, but over the long term we are moving in a consistently more liberal and tolerant direction. Why is the march of history in that direction? Because people are fundamentally the same and want the same things out of life that everyone else does.

Some multinational corporations have chased differing social contracts that exist by location to maximize their profits.

They have overwhelmingly looked for low standard of living, low-cost environments, and regulatory-free environments to manufacture or provide services from. But there is an inherent conflict in that the social contracts/the social fabric in the locations that allow for profit maximization over time will change. It may take a long-time, likely too long, but basic salaries will rise, working conditions will be forced to improve, regulatory oversight to ensure quality standards and lack of worker abuse will be put into place etc. And the ability to chase a social contract that is way out of whack with other social contracts will diminish. But it is will not happen spontaneously. We must make it happen.

Humans want to place their faith into something and due to that we have a tendency to ascribe even random events to intelligent entities, or we see patterns to events where none may exist.

Built into all of us there is a desire to allow some entity, which is more knowing or more powerful than us to provide guidance or direction. Some put their faith into their religion, some into science, some into their political leaders, and some into their leaders at work. Me? I’ll put my long-term faith into humanity as a whole as our humanity allows us to reach beyond where we are, even if sometimes in the short-term we will fall short. As people together, we will determine our own future.

So, what are the underlying fundamentals that a worker looks for in a job?

  • First is a sense of equity or fairness, that the workplace environment provides for an equitable arrangement, that for the effort I put in I am given a fair return.
  • The second fundamental is being treated with respect and dignity. This does not change over time and is a constant.
  • The third factor is organizational effectiveness, which also includes effectiveness of leadership. One of the most potent factors that cause people to quit an organization is if they experience frustrations day-to-day in getting their work done.
  • A fourth fundamental factor is that each employee wants to have a sense of personal future, a career path, a sense of things to come.

If an organization is strong in these four fundamental factors and can communicate it to candidates they will have a better chance of hiring those that they need.


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