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10 Feb 2022
by Debi O'Donovan

REBA Inside Track: Why we need to question the global pursuit of purpose

At the start of any year we see a raft of articles and interviews predicting trends for the year ahead. Reading across these, it is clear that the theme for 2022 is ‘purpose’. And a noble ambition it is. In fact, REBA will be delving into organisational purpose and its link to reward and benefits in our next webinar, and across a series of research reports this year.




However, whenever a concept such as this becomes overly popular, we need to be wary. It can quickly morph from its original meaning to whatever we want it to mean.

The money people are working hard to tout the concept of purpose to CEOs worldwide. In his annual letter to CEOs (always worth a read), Larry Fink of Blackrock, himself a CEO at one of the world’s largest investment houses, presses home the point: “Putting your company’s purpose at the foundation of your relationships with your stakeholders is critical to long-term success. Employees need to understand and connect with your purpose; and when they do, they can be your staunchest advocates.”

While I am pleased to see those who invest our money, particularly our pensions savings, talk about purpose, I cannot help reading between the lines to see that this type of focus still comes back to a purpose of primarily making good profits. Albeit over the longer term rather than short term.

To do that, employers need to take greater care of the welfare of their employees, their clients, suppliers and communities. Which makes this latter consequence appear to be more of a by-product of the main purpose rather than the purpose in itself.

But the money people do not get to call all the shots in 2022. As Paul Polson, former CEO of Unilever and board member of the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative UN Global Compact, points out in his Three big shifts for 2022 article on LinkedIn: “2022 will be the year of the employee. … Employees have become a key accelerator for getting business to embrace more environmental and ethical practices. And CEOs who treat their employees with the same respect they treat their investors can build a deep, purpose driven culture across the company.”

Again, a highly commendable stance that will be embraced by many employees. But not all. For millions of employees their purpose is to put food on the table for themselves and to earn a decent living. Not all have a purpose that is focussed on sustainability. In their column last week, The Economist columnist Bartleby called out purpose rather well: sometimes simply doing a good job is purpose enough.

I will continue to follow the pursuit of purpose and how it is re-shaping businesses across the globe, changing the way we work and shifting reward practices. How it is influencing where we put our pension fund investments and set executive pay targets. But I’ll also be watching out for the lip service and purpose-washing, because there will be plenty of that too.

The author is Debi O’Donovan, director and co-founder of REBA.