This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

How can organizations attract employees who love their job, bring their best selves to work, and are deeply committed to their job and organization?

One of the most popular answers has been to be a purpose-driven, responsible organization. Research has shown that crafting and communicating clear purpose statements and implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) plans are good for business. Here’s how it works.

Organizations draw on their track record of being purposeful and responsible to shape ethical corporate identities. When employees perceive a match between their personal norms, purpose, and aspirations, and that of their organization, they tend to identify with the organization. Employees perceive their work as being meaningful. The sense that they work for an organization that contributes to the greater good is boosted, either through their work or through contributing to social and ecological causes championed by their organization. This leads to happy, engaged employees.

However, is everything as hunky dory as it looks? Are purpose and responsibility the panacea for the highly prized outcomes of deeply engaged, and committed employees? Instead, could they be too much of a good thing? Research is starting to shed light on some of these questions.

One of the unintended consequences of excessive purpose-driven employee identification and work meaningfulness could be work addiction. Work addiction is defined as “the tendency to work excessively hard and being obsessed with work, which manifests itself in working compulsively” (Schaufeli et al. 2009, p. 322). Although addiction might be a strong word with negative connotations, it is an apt word because employees’ disproportionate focus on their work in which they find deep meaning could make them neglect or fail to appreciate personal relationships, health, leisure, and relaxation. Brieger et al. (2019) empirically demonstrated that CSR can unintentionally lead to work addiction among employees through organizational identification and work meaningfulness. The effects are even more pronounced for employees with a high social value orientation.

However, different types of CSR could lead to different kinds of work meaningfulness and outcomes. In the context of CSR initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, Aguinis et al. (2020) argued that employee perceptions of embedded CSR, wherein being socially responsible is a way of working, could lead to employees finding meaning in work, which could create positive outcomes. Employee perceptions of peripheral CSR, or CSR that is external to the organization such as through donating or contributing to a charity, could lead to employees finding meaning at work, which could have negative outcomes. Although this distinction adds more nuance to Brieger at al.’s (2019) discussion of how CSR-driven work meaningfulness could lead to work addiction, it nevertheless casts a shadow on upholding purpose and CSR as the panacea to the holy grail of employee engagement.

Does it mean that companies should dial back on being purposeful and responsible? Definitely not. Contributing to the greater good through its raison d’etre, enabling employees to find meaning at work and meaning in work are all good. However, it is important to ask these questions and stay cognizant that excessive focus on using purpose and CSR as instrumental tools to sharpen employee engagement can cut both ways and must be handled with conscious care and responsibility.

Ganga S. Dhanesh is an Associate Professor in Integrated Strategic Communication and Associate Dean in the College of Communication and Media Sciences, Zayed University, UAE. Previously, she was an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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