December 21, 2023

‘Tis the season of goodwill. The nights draw in. A thousand or more twinkling lights illuminate the dark. We know that we can put our feet up for a day or two. Indulge. Reflect on the year and make promises to ourselves about the future. Peace does indeed feel momentarily possible. Perhaps our thoughts turn to resolutions to live a more meaningful life. More meaningful work, ‘work with purpose’ could be just what we need. All good.

Be careful what you wish for.

An article published on the British Psychological Society’s website in November 2023 suggests that employers may be aware that framing jobs in relation to their positive social impact – their goodwill to all (not just men) if you like – may suppress the pay demands of employees and keep costs down. Such a finding would have enraptured Ebenezer Scrooge!

The article drew on research carried out by Professor Insiya Hussain et al. of the University of Texas and involved up to 835 participants in five studies that included students, and people in work across multiple occupations.

Prior research suggested that when organisations communicate the benefits of their work for human welfare, job candidates were willing to accept lower pay because they saw their work as personally meaningful. The work of Hussain et al. identified a less savoury mechanism, by which such social framing by organisations leads to people lowering pay demands for fear of breaching organisational norms.

Willingly substituting personal meaningfulness for pay is one thing; sacrificing feelings of pay entitlement for fear of breaching organisational norms is another. When the nature of an organisation’s work was framed in terms of its social impact, analyses revealed a 32% decrease in the odds of people asking for a higher salary in relation to a hypothetical job offer.

Job seekers may anticipate psychological benefits from doing meaningful work, but this can be undermined by low pay. This double-edged sword of personally meaningful work was a central finding in research published by J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A Thompson in 2009.

Thompson and Bunderson’s qualitative study of work meaning in the zoo-keeping profession highlighted the idea held of that work as a ‘personal calling’.

The zoo-keepers with a greater sense of calling were more likely to feel that their work was meaningful and important and were also more willing to sacrifice money, time and physical comfort for their work. As a result, they tended to be more vulnerable to potential exploitation by management, had higher expectations of management’s moral duty, and had an employment relationship characterised by vigilance and suspicion.

The portrayal of employers’ work as having societal impact and spreading goodwill to all (not just men) may also have the effect of inducing a phenomenon known as ‘a psychological contract’. A contract, which might bind employees within perceived, non-beneficial organisational norms whilst inducing suspicion and surveillance to monitor the organisational promise of goodwill being upheld.

Bunderson and Thompson note that throughout most of the history of the western world, work was regarded as an unfortunate drudgery. The ancient Greeks regarded it as a curse preventing engagement in more sublime and worthwhile activities.

Whatever your view of what work can offer you, it may be worth being alive to the promises made by employers and how these may shape your expectations, behaviours, and experiences in a job.

Careful what you wish for. Best not to have your own goodwill evaporate. Bah, humbug!


Hussain, I., Pitesa, M., Thau, S. and Schaerer, M. (2023) Pay Suppression in Social Impact Contexts: How Framing Work Around the Greater Good Inhibits Job Candidate Compensation Demands. Organization Science. Published Online:4 May 2023 https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2023.1675

Bunderson, J.S. and Thompson, J.A. (2009). The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54(1), pp. 32-57

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