Career motivations and social outcomes

In public service work, does it make a difference whether a person is motivated by personal, career goals or by altruistic, social goals?

Well, I don’t know. But it’s a really interesting question.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear Nava Ashraf, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School, speak about her recent paper “Do Gooders and Doctors: Evidence on Selection and Performance of Health Workers in Zambia.”

In Zambia, there’s a great shortage of health care workers. The government is actively recruiting for these positions and has a particular interest in providing good training and career development opportunities in order to build an infrastructure of health workers at all professional levels.

These positions also have a meaningful social motivation and are critical to improving the health of communities.

This dual goal on the part of the government provided a framework for testing applicant motivations and outcomes.

Working in 48 Zambian districts, Ashraf and her team advertised for health care workers using two different approaches. In half the districts, job announcements focused on the career benefits of the position. In the other half, announcements focused on the community benefits.

Perhaps more interesting, the hiring committees were also part of the experiment – in the “career” districts, hiring committees only saw the “career” oriented announcement, in the “social” districts they only saw the “social” advertisement.

So, what happened?

Well, the two pools of candidates were fairly similar. The “career” pool was slightly more skilled (as measured by test scores), but the pools were the same size, contained equal numbers of women, and showed similar results on a range of psychosocial tests.

Following interviews and hiring, the pools changed. Higher skilled people fared better in the social group – equalizing those finalists with the skill range of their career counterparts. Women were more likely to be hired by the social group – skewing what had been equal pools.

Ashraf theorizes this is an expression of social bias – that hiring committees saw women as better suited to social vocations but not to careers.

So the two groups go off, train together for a year, and then begin working in the community.

The main job of these health workers is to do home health visits. But, Ashraf found, workers from the social group completed significantly fewer visits than their career counterparts. Instead, it seems, they spent more time on paper work.

Now, number of visits is an imperfect measure of success. There’s no data about the quality of care or patient satisfaction. But Ashraf is quick to point out that the primary job is to see clients and record health data – so the mere count of clients is still a valuable assessment tool.

The career-oriented workers, she argues, are better at their jobs.

Interestingly, Ashraf doesn’t draw this out to a general conclusion about the worth of career-oriented verse social-oriented people.

Instead, she puts this idea on it’s head – what if, she asks, advertising the unexpected aspect of a job is what brings in the best candidates?

Healthcare, you could argue, is intrinsically socially motivated and often perceived as such. Therefore, advertising it in a career-oriented way brought in better candidates.

If you took a position that had the opposite reputation – one where people automatically thought of the career benefits – and instead advertised the social benefits, perhaps then you would get better employees for these jobs as well.

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