Should You Consider A Company’s Purpose When Applying For A Job?

Written by
Samuel Pollen
Illustration by

Every month we invite creative professionals to share their thoughts on a topic they care about from the world of work. This month, we're hearing from Samuel Pollen, a creative director at Reed Words on what a brand purpose can and should say about the company you're hoping to work for.

Illustration by Lalalimola

The last two years have left many of us thinking about what we really value – in our lives, and our careers. What do we have, and what are we missing? Why do we do what we do?

Companies seem to be asking themselves the same questions. Job ads now routinely feature a company purpose or mission statement, that aims to sum up what makes that organisation tick. We should know: as an agency, we write plenty of them, for clients like Nuffield Health and the Southbank Centre. This gives us an inside track on how they are created and what they really mean.

Sometimes, an organisation’s purpose is hard to disagree with. Cancer Research aims to “bring forward the day when all cancers are cured”. Fair enough. But often, these statements seem vague, uninspiring, or hard to relate to what the company actually does. Barnes & Noble wants “to operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America”. Is that really a purpose that gets its employees out of bed in the morning?

When you’re applying for a job, it’s worth looking carefully at what a company says about its purpose. At the very least, it shows you’ve done your homework. But you can also use it to test how invested in your future a company really is.

What A Brand Purpose Isn’t

In the past, creating a company purpose was often a shallow exercise. Management would run a day-long workshop that culminated in a statement no one could really disagree with, like ‘we make customer experiences better’. Someone would pop this in a memo and send it round. Job done.

This is, of course, a pointless exercise. Worse than that: it damages the relationship between employer and employee. If your employees are cynical about your purpose – if they roll their eyes when you tell them why their jobs matter, because the story you’re telling doesn’t feel true or relevant to them – you have a big problem.

At its most spurious, a brand purpose can be completely detached from a company’s actions. Consider the oil company that says it’s working to create a sustainable world while pumping more and more oil, or lobbying for looser environmental regulations.

A purpose also rarely appears in an ad campaign. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Pledge’ and Coca-Cola’s ‘Choose Happiness’ may motivate us to buy their products, but they don’t tell us anything about the companies that make them. And while these sorts of statements do occasionally make their way into job ads, no one really thinks they tell us anything about what it’s like to work there.

Instead, a purpose – and the wider internal brand it often sits within – should answer tough questions. Why does my job matter? If I was doing this work elsewhere, how would it be different? How does your culture shape my job day-to-day?

Purpose Versus Perks

Many of our primary concerns when looking for a job are practical. Pay, parental leave, flexible working arrangements, and so on. Naturally, any job application process should answer these. But it should also tell you something about the kind of work you’ll do at that company.

This doesn’t all have to appear in the job ad, but it should appear somewhere. If your question about culture in an interview is met with a list of perks (free beer! ping pong!), would you feel confident that that company is really investing in its employees’ happiness, rather than resorting to sticking plasters?

To put it another way: a company worth working for should be able to tell you clearly not just “why we’re here”, but “what it’s like to be here”, and “why you should be here too”.

What Makes A Good Brand Purpose?

At its best, an internal brand becomes a thread that runs through everything. It should offer employees a clear, compelling reason to show up for work each day, and motivation to stick around long term. It should be a shared vision that brings different teams together, and helps a company decide where to go next. And it should attract the talent that will take the company even further.

Take autonomous vehicle company Zoox, whose strong internal brand comes through loud and clear on their Careers page. When you see a compelling narrative about why a job matters and what kind of impact it’ll have, the tired list of ‘perks’ you don’t really want starts to ring hollow.

Choose A Direction

The last couple of years have given us food for thought about all sorts of things, including the way we work. We’ve had a rare opportunity to reevaluate what really matters.

If you’re ready to make a move, picking a company whose values align with yours is a savvy long-term decision. If in doubt, perhaps start with this question: if you were co-writing a story, what would you want it to say?

Samuel Pollen is a Creative Director in Reed Words’ Manchester office. He uses words to make brands and businesses better, and works with everyone from Standard Life to the National Theatre.

The If You Could Jobs Journal is a space where industry leaders have the opportunity to share their unique vision and insight into the creative working world. We're always on the look out for company leaders, founders and hiring managers interested in writing opinion pieces our Journal. 

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