In defense of heavy-handed goodness

In defense of heavy-handed goodness

Carl, a newly-appointed regional director at a fintech company, learns that his region hires shockingly few women. In response, he works with the human resources department (HR) to establish a target for the percentage of new hires who are women. Over the next few months, however, the gender balance in hiring does not improve. Carl asks recruiters what they need to achieve the target. They request — and promptly receive — a larger budget and specialized diversity training and consultants. Several months later, there’s only minuscule progress toward the target. Carl talks again with his recruiters and provides more support. Still, the percentage of new hires who are women remains atrociously low. Finally, Carl tells his recruitment team, “I’m instituting a moratorium on male hires. We’re hiring only women for the foreseeable future. Figure it out.”

Carl is trying to promote workplace gender equity. He is job purposing, defined as making a meaningful work-based contribution to others or a societal cause (Do Good at Work, chapter 4). Therefore, he will likely reap the benefits of job purposing, including greater professional success and personal wellbeing (Do Good at Work, chapters 3 and 10). Yet isn’t Carl’s mandate heavy handed? Isn’t it riddled with risk, prone to creating new problems and potentially illegal? Yes. But these characteristics — concerning as they might sound — don’t make his mandate not job purposing.

Indeed, some of history’s highest-impact job purposing has come across as problematic or been illegal. In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers upended the status quo and upset many by signing Jackie Robinson as the first African American major league baseball player. Southern players threatened to quit and citizens issued death threats. This jarring act, however, advanced racial justice. In the 1930’s, Target Corporation (then called Dayton Hudson) chose to violate federal laws prohibiting corporate donations to charitable causes. Their illegal job purposing helped to usher in legalized corporate charitable giving and modern corporate social responsibility. More recent examples of heavy-handed job purposing include Navistar, a marketing firm, firing a worker for participating in the January 6th insurrection and Cotopaxi, an outdoor apparel company, refusing to sell to alcohol or tobacco companies.

The point of job purposing is not to make us more popular or our workdays easier. The value of job purposing is that it brightens the world — or at least a sliver of it. This, in turn, helps us become more fulfilled, successful, healthier and happier. Job purposing is about a well-lived work life, not an easy one.

That’s not to say job purposing has to be difficult. It’s usually not. It’s typically uncomplicated benevolence. A restaurant puts a message on its placemats in support of a local animal shelter or a manufacturer minimizes the amount of plastic in its packaging, for example. These acts are unlikely to rattle people or upend organizations. In some cases, however, confining our job purposing to civilized niceties imprisons us within existing injustices. Had Carl limited himself to well-received policies, he would have perpetuated a known injustice. Sometimes, the only path to positive impact involves upsetting people and risking difficulties.

How does this story end? Did Carl’s heavy-handed job purposing succeed? (He’s a real person, although I changed some details to protect privacy.) It’s too early to tell. His mandate reduced the number of new hires. This led to more and longer job vacancies and fewer recruiters receiving bonuses for reaching their targets, all of which generated some employee displeasure. Carl is trying to remedy these issues. But the company is now buzzing with conversations on gender equity, its legal and HR departments have backed his approach and  recruiters have suddenly found ways to attract qualified women. The percentage of women in his workforce has skyrocketed.

Carl’s mandate may or may not end up a success. Boldness always flirts with unintended consequences and all-out failure. Regardless of the outcome, I hope his willingness to do heavy-handed job purposing remains intact. On some societal issues, in some places, at some moments in history, giving people a jolt is an act of social justice. Are you in a situation where a jolt is warranted?

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