How HR, HR tech fit into an organization’s purpose

Stacia Garr

Don’t be afraid to bring purpose to your (virtual) workplace. It won’t hurt your work in human resources or your bottom line. In fact, aligning with purpose will likely boost your workplace happiness and profit margins.

That was one major takeaway from analyst Stacia Garr’s keynote this morning at the HR Technology Conference and Exposition®.

In “Finding Your North Star: The Importance of Purpose (and Technology) During Disruption,” Garr defined organizational purpose as “a clear, concise statement that inspires people to deliver value to multiple stakeholders.” It’s also something that comes to life when it’s connected back to ourselves, our individual purpose and how our work helps us achieve that purpose.

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And the idea of delivering value to multiple stakeholders, not only shareholders, might seem like a new concept, Garr said, but it isn’t.

“Historically, a focus on purpose has made some people uncomfortable, especially those of us who were taught in business school that shareholders are king,” she said. “The reason is that this model of thinking implies this tight tension between purpose and profit. It really puts them at two different ends of the spectrum and says that they cannot be complementary.”

But she calls that a misnomer.

As one investor drove the point, “if you’re not making an impact on a broader set of stakeholders, your business is not successful. Your business is not making the maximum impact and therefore [not making] the maximum financial return that it can generate.”

Who are those other stakeholders? Customers, employees, suppliers and communities, to start.

Garr’s research shows that an organizational purpose that is carefully defined, passionately held and wrestled with daily can bring all types of business success. Driven by technology, the gig economy and work’s relatively new role as an important and trusted institution in our lives, this idea is gaining broad acceptance, Garr said.

This year, both the pandemic and social unrest have brought the concept into even deeper relief, and in fact, 73% of people believe companies can increase profits and improve communities, according to a recent Edelman Intelligence Report.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“The murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others has heightened the awareness of Black people’s experience in America, including corporate America,” Garr said. “And, as a result, we have seen organizations talking about social justice in ways they haven’t before and, for many of them, doing things that are remarkably and demonstrably different than they have in the past.”

Garr believes the shift toward purpose-driven work is here to stay. So what then is HR’s role and the role of HR technology?

Purpose, historically, hasn’t been “within HR’s purview,” for the most part, but she contends that this is an opportunity for HR to step up. “We’ve heard that the 2008 crisis was the CFO’s crisis,” she said. “This is HR’s crisis.”

Because purpose is a “self-reinforcing system,” HR has opportunities in four areas:

  1. Attracting and deciding who is best qualified to achieve the organization’s purpose.
  2. Creating the conditions that enable a purpose-focused employee experience.
  3. Developing talent by helping people discover something deeper within themselves that connects them to the organization’s purpose.
  4. Retaining talent by tracking the impact of talent practices that align to purpose.

And plenty of tech tools–from Eightfold AI to Benevity, Wespire and Guild–exist to help HR achieve success in all of the areas, Garr said.

Related: How to keep the spotlight on purpose as the pandemic drags on

Medical technology company Medtronic, in an example of enabling a purpose-focused employee experience, uses its purpose as a type of company constitution, even going so far as to print it on “important paper.” And although a framed copy of its mission might hang on the office walls, “It doesn’t just stay on the walls,” Garr said. “They took those documents and use them as decision-making guides.”

But that doesn’t refer only to company leaders’ decisions. All employees are encouraged to call attention to the mission statement, which essentially says the company will “contribute to human welfare,” to check whether an organizational decision aligns with what Medtronic is trying to do.

And USAA, in an example of developing talent to connect with the organization’s purpose, has created a unique onboarding program that each of its 20,000 employees will experience before starting work with the military-focused company.

The new workers spend four days in a cultural orientation during which they learn about the veterans and families they serve, but also share just a little bit of those customers’ experiences. They eat MREs, put on the fully loaded backpacks that military service members carry, read letters from those in the field and more.

That focus on purpose shows up, in particular, in USAA’s call centers, which are vibrant and focused, Garr said.

HR practitioners and HR tech providers, alike, can help promote purpose in different ways, but it ultimately means starting with an understanding of an organization’s or department’s purpose and working to integrate that into practices and technologies while also remaining authentic.

“Whoever you are, whatever you do, understand your own purpose,” Garr said, “and the purpose of each member of your team and do your best to connect that to the work.”


Click here to view the full keynote presentation.

The HR Tech Conference features free, virtual content through Oct. 30. There is still time to register. For more information, click HERE.

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Elizabeth Clarke
Elizabeth Clarke is executive editor of Human Resource Executive. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida and then spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in South Florida before joining HRE. Elizabeth lives with her family in Palm Beach County. She can be reached at [email protected].