Make them prove it

How to know if a company is mission-driven before joining or staying

These 9 questions can help you decide if you're aligned with a company's mission
How to know if a company is mission-driven before joining or staying
Photo: Mihai Speteanu (Shutterstock)
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After 10-plus hours of absolutely brawling with an Excel sheet for a project that might increase profits for a company with confirmed questionable motives, I asked myself: what the hell am I doing?

Think about the last time you felt your work mattered. Not mattered to the marketing team or your quarterly goals, but mattered for something you care deeply about. For most of us, remembering when that moment was can take longer than we’d like. Our desire to work for a mission-driven organization is confirmed by an ever-growing body of research and only increased during the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, this has been mirrored by a rise in lofty corporate mission statements that often lack follow-up. The result is a mission-centric workforce at a loss for differentiating between companies serious about making a difference and those just looking for good press.

When considering your next career move, here are 3 ways to differentiate between attempts at good press and a sincere commitment to more than profit.

Identify their stakeholders: Who are they trying to please?

More specifically, who are they obligated to please? Companies can be held legally accountable if they don’t act in the best interest of shareholders—a big hurdle for organizations claiming to give other parties weight in decision-making processes. The good news is legislation has been catching up to the gap in the intentions of these mission-driven organizations. Many states have slowly been adding constituency statutes (pdf) explicitly giving companies the freedom to consider non-shareholder groups.

When job searching, start by identifying what you care most about. Then reference the website or Wikipedia page of the organization you’re considering to check where it’s based. Next, look up that state’s constituency statutes or reference table 1 (pdf) on from Harvard Law School. Make sure the state the organization is based in allows them to make good on their commitments to benefit groups that matter most to you. However, legal freedoms to prioritize employees and the environment don’t always equal commitment to those stakeholders.

To be confident the organization prioritizes what you care about most, consider asking the following during your interview:

Is it a mission-driven company or a CEO on a mission?

Having a CEO as enthusiastic as you are about positive impact is key but only part of the impact equation. The most important decisions corporations make—like approving a major acquisition, revising bylaws, or shifting corporate strategy—require or are at least commonly accompanied by a majority vote of the board of directors.

Check out press releases related to the mission-driven claims of the company you’re considering—who is being quoted? Just the CEO or other leadership as well? Has the board or other executives been vocal about the commitment?

To be confident the mission-driven claims are supported by the whole organization and not just one leader, consider asking the following during your interview:

  • It was encouraging to see your organization’s commitment to increasing employee diversity. Who’s pushing those goals forward?
  • If an employee wanted to request funding for a sustainability project, where would they go?
  • How would you describe what your division lead cares most about?

How are they rewarded?

We manage what we’re measured on. If organizational incentive measurements only reflect shareholder value, then organizations will only manage shareholder value. One proxy of this is the mix of factors that determine CEO pay. The majority of an executive’s pay comes from performance-based compensation. In these cases, performance is functionally synonymous with shareholder return. For example, of the nearly 7 billion in bonuses paid to S&P 500 CEOs last year, only approximately $600 million—not billion—was based on environmental and social performance. 

This isn’t to say leadership will never make decisions that go against financial performance or that mission-driven decisions are always at odds with financial performance. But it does shed light on the real incentives clash leaders with mostly performance-based packages will have when the interests of the environment, communities, and employees come into conflict with financial performance.

But take heart. Some companies have begun to reflect their values in their incentive structures. Last year, Prudential translated its commitment to diversity into its bonus system by introducing a modifier. It adjusted final payouts up or down by 10% based on the increase of diverse representation at various levels in the organization, specifically for black and LatinX employees. Likewise, Marathon Petroleum’s claimed commitment to sustainability and employee safety showed up in its incentive structure by making 20% of the company’s short-term incentive payouts and $480,000 of the CEO’s bonus directly tied to CO2 and safety metrics.

When vetting how committed the company you’re considering is to its stated mission, look into how incentives are structured. How much is financial performance based? How do they define performance? Then, when the real tension between stakeholder and shareholder interests pops up, how are they incentivized to act? Consider probing:

  • The organization’s sustainability goals are very encouraging. What happens if they’re not met?
  • How do your corporate values show up in employee incentive structures?
  • Can you tell me about the last time your team had to balance purpose with financial performance?

No company is perfect. But it is possible to sift through which ones are authentically committed to their values and which are just hoping for a good sound bite. Take the time to articulate what values matter most to you, then walk through these questions to gut-check how well the company you’re considering is poised to act on them.

Karyn Georgilis-Becker is a design strategist at Fusion, a United Healthcare innovation accelerator.