The meaning of work

I was reading Po Bronson's stories related to his book What Should I do with My Life. (There are ten of the book's fifty on his website and they are well chosen to show the diversity of opinion on what work means for people). What I noticed was that they give some insight into what doing the job means to the person doing it. Here's an extract from Wendy's story.

As Director of Recruiting, she doesn't look for people whose dream is to work for Restoration Hardware. "Most people fall into things," she said. She's looking for the right fit, not credentials. "Degrees are small minded," she insists, reminding me she doesn't have one. She hires from other industries. One of the reasons her work is so meaningful is she's sort of rescuing drifting souls like the one she used to be, and giving them a home. Or at least a work-home.

All the interviews were talking in various ways about the meaning of work for them – a topic that I not certain that job design people think about when they are developing job descriptions to a standard framework which, beyond title and location usually includes headings like 'Overall purpose of the job', Principal Accountabilities, Job Challenges, Job Knowledge and Experience.

Alain de Botton in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work asks the question 'When does a job feel meaningful?' He answers it saying 'Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others' and the research from the Good Work Project describes good work as involving three considerations: l) it is technically excellent; 2) it is personally meaningful or engaging; 3) it is carried out in an ethical way.

Now consider the case of Jackie Ramos, the Bank of American employee, recently fired for taking a stand against the bank's $15 "convenience" charges and $39 over-the-limit fees. She says in her YouTube video explaining her point of view: "There was something inherently evil about my job."

Listening to her video I wondered what her job description said the work was and how far it matched the reality of what she found (in terms of her values and ethics). What lessons will she take into her next role, assuming she finds an organization happy to employ her? What led her to take the job in the first place? On this sample of one (plus some experience in the field) I'm left wondering whether designers of jobs, writers of job descriptions and recruiters pay far too little attention to enquiring about the type of work a potential employee would find meaningful or whether people applying for jobs are motivated by considerations that over-ride looking for meaning in their work. I'm also wondering how Jackie could have learned how to change the system she objected to in a subtle way (see Debra Meyerson's work on The Tempered Radical).