Meaningful work: The importance of reflection

Recruitment is not hard physical work but it is hard emotional work. The memories of my first few months at Accountancy Personnel (now Hays) in London, as I learned the job and attempted to make enough placements in order to keep my job, are seared into my memory, never to be erased.

It would be untrue to say that I found these formative experiences as a recruiter very meaningful as I was primarily focused on survival, but they did lay the foundation for what became a very meaningful career as a recruiter, and leader of recruiters.

Research into what makes work meaningful has been thin on the ground but just under two years ago Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden published research in the MIT Sloan Management Review that provided some important and interesting insights that are worth articulating and expanding upon. I have directly quoted from the research paper and then added my own comments for context.

The features of meaningful work are:

1. Self-Transcendent
Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment. 

One of the most significant moments I had as a recruiter was when I bumped into a candidate at a pub having drinks with his mates just prior to his upcoming wedding. He introduced me as “the man who changed my life”.

The back story is that when I first interviewed him I told him some home truths about his interview performance with me (he turned up disheveled and ‘tired and emotional’). I told him what needed to change and have him a second chance at the job.

He gratefully accepted the second chance, impressed me second time around, impressed the client, got the job and had since been promoted twice and was now in a very interesting, and well [aid, senior role.     

2. Poignant
The experience of meaningful work can be poignant rather than purely euphoric. People often found their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.

Our research suggests that, contrary to what we may have thought, meaningfulness is not always a positive experience. In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy.

One of the things that makes recruitment a fulfilling job is the challenge of managing your emotional state through the inevitable roller-coaster of highs and lows that every recruiter experiences. When I went through the drama of being fired from my employer of ten years, I can see how this episode, although painful and stressful at the time, turned out to an important event in the meaningfulness of my career as a recruiter.

3. Episodic
A sense of meaningfulness arose in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences.

Clearly, sentiments such as these are not sustainable over the course of even one single working day, let alone a longer period, but rather come and go over one’s working life, perhaps rarely arising. Nevertheless, these peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.

A few years ago I wrote about how the action of a former candidate, now friend, became part of my life narrative, which will never leave me. This created even more meaning for me with respect to a job that I had long since ceased. 

4. Reflective
In the instances cited above, it was often only when we asked the interviewees to re-count a time when they found their work meaningful, that they developed a conscious awareness of the significance of these experiences.

Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning. 

My reflective blogs always provide an opportunity for me to consider my past as a recruiter, what I have learned from these reflections and articulate these learnings through a blog to provide value to my readers in some way. 

5. Personal
Other feelings about work, such as engagement or satisfaction, tend to be just that: feelings about work. Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

Moments of especially profound meaningfulness arose when these experiences coalesced with the sense of a job well done, one recognized and appreciated by others.

John Colebatch generously shared his own, deeply personal, story (posted on my blog five years ago), that contains everything a recruiter needs to read to understand how meaningful their job can be.

Just over a year ago I wrote about retiring RCSA Events Manager, Claudia Gray, as my contribution towards helping Claudia understand the impact she has had on our industry. I hope that post made a small contribution towards Claudia continuing to find meaning in the work she undertook over a 15 year period with the RCSA.

What is the lesson in this research?

Simply, take the time to reflect, not just on what you have accomplished, but on the impact your work has had on specific individuals you have come into contact with. In other words, consider and articulate the legacy you are creating.

A smart manager will deliberately create these conversations and keep them alive. 

A meaningful job is a job worth doing. All recruiters have a meaningful job, but it only becomes meaningful with appropriate reflection – are you taking the time to reflect?

related blogs
What’s your legacy?
A Lesson in Humility by John Colebatch
The Good News About Being Fired


  1. Susie Rogers on 20/02/2018 at 8:11 am

    Ross what great blog, meaning and purpose are critical elements needed in any role but certainly recruitment. It is so easy to focus on the negatives when things don’t go quite the way you anticipated…it takes strength and courage to stop and reflect and learn ….a timely reminder for us all in this demanding career

    • Ross Clennett on 05/03/2018 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks Susie, I appreciate your feedback and personal experience.

  2. Simon Cox on 20/02/2018 at 8:27 am

    Nice article Ross. We often forget about ‘the why’ in our busy recruitment lives. It reminds me of this video and related blogs by Alain de Boton

    • Ross Clennett on 05/03/2018 at 4:48 pm

      Excellent video, thanks Simon. I recommend Alain de Botton’s material to anybody not familiar with it. He’s a unique voice whose views I don’t always agree with but I like that he gives me plenty of think about.

  3. James Persson on 22/02/2018 at 9:34 pm

    Great article

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.