Don’t Let a Company’s Social Purpose Guilt You into Eschewing Better Pay

“I’m sorry, you don’t want to give a dollar to hungry kids?!”

In a classic South Park episode about the Wholefoods experience, Randy Marsh becomes increasingly frustrated at being “charity shamed” at the checkout. The checkout operator puts Randy under enormous social pressure until he finally gives in despite his resolve to avoid donating every time he shops.

Something similar to the concept of charity shaming is playing out in the recruitment world as organizations ramp up their messaging around social mission and purpose.

Research by behavioral scientist Insiya Hussain found that when companies broadcast their social mission, the language in job ads might lead candidates to view salary negotiation as selfish or against the company’s values. Astonishingly, those encountering “social impact framing” were less likely to negotiate.

Why is this happening?

“Job postings are peppered with language promoting an organization’s mission, its purpose, and the importance of making an impact,” writes Hussain. “But those positive messages can have a chilling effect on applicants … the social messages in job postings make people think it would be a bad idea to ask for more money. They fear that managers will think of them as selfish, or that company values make salary requests taboo.”

In other words, people perceived these companies prioritize candidates who value the job’s intrinsic rewards—like finding purpose—over extrinsic ones like better pay.

We suspect that there’s more than guilt at play here – there’s a willingness on the part of candidates, too. One of the reasons this situation has come about is that social impact framing sits adjacent to the concept of meaningful work – something Americans are absolutely happy to take a pay cut for.

We know that a desire for meaningful work has become a top priority for workers (particularly Millennials and Gen Zs) and has evolved into a leading driver of post-pandemic attrition. According to the Harvard Business Review, nine out of 10 Americans say they would give up nearly a quarter of their paycheck if they could swap their job for more meaningful work, reaping non-financial benefits including higher engagement and job satisfaction.  

In a Fast Company article titled “I took a huge paycut for a more meaningful job”, a Tesla solar panel division worker talks of slashing her salary in half to work at a company with environmental purpose. “Everyone was taking pay cuts,” she writes. “They could deal with the pay cut because they felt like they were saving the world.”

Nearly every modern company has a purpose

It’s a challenge, in 2023, to find a company in the Fortune 500 without some sort of published purpose or mission statement on its website or in its job ads. Clearly, social impact framing has gone mainstream, and will only grow in importance as companies incorporate an ESG lens in business valuations.

If every employer is doing it, where does this leave candidates? The reality is that having a social purpose doesn’t mean a company is operating on a shoestring. Elon Musk, for example, could no doubt have afforded to pay his solar division workers higher salaries if he so chose. The key, therefore, is to do your research and understand the size and profitability of the company in question before letting any concerns about social purpose affect your decision to negotiate on salary. If you believe they can afford it, don’t hesitate to negotiate for what you’re worth – and then some.

A genuine social enterprise is a company with social objectives as its primary purpose, where profits are principally used to fund social programs. We don’t believe what’s happening here is that major organizations are masquerading as social enterprises to drive down the cost of hiring, but we do think they are leaning into some of the social impact framing language to seize their share of the halo effect – and candidates are falling for it.

Employees thrive with both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards

Research has found that employees thrive when they receive a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. A passion for work is crucial, but passion won’t pay the bills. The writer of the article about Tesla’s solar panel division described her passion for the job evaporating when she experienced a higher-pressure work climate and much longer hours for half the pay of her previous role.

True motivation comes from a well-rounded EVP with a competitive salary sitting alongside a strong sense of purpose.

The cost of not negotiating includes significant lost earnings for individuals, while companies who are leaning into this trend might miss out on reaping the benefits of investing in top talent.

Most candidates may feel they’re underperforming in the procurement/supply chain space if they don’t negotiate salary. And they’d be right to think so. Job seekers can counter this bias by learning how companies respond to salary negotiations. At the same time, companies can encourage pay transparency, establish objective salary benchmarks, and train managers to avoid bias.

So, don’t be guilted out of negotiating on salary by a company’s social purpose messaging. Enter the negotiation knowing what you’re worth, and if the hiring organization cannot afford you, then so be it. There will be another employer on the horizon that will value you highly enough to offer both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.