The landscape of work is changing, yet people’s aspiration to build careers with moral value — that is, work that aligns with shared understandings of what’s right and good — remains constant. While doing so is difficult, it’s also worthwhile: Our careers take up an enormous amount of our time and energy, and it’s essential to feel that we’re creating careers aligned with our moral values. The authors’ research suggests that people can hold onto their moral values while building careers by staying attuned to moments of moral reckoning, questioning common purity rules, and being willing to change to whom they turn for validation.
What makes for a satisfying career? As professors, we’ve taught many young adults preparing to embark on their careers, and we’ve also studied professionals at all experience levels in a variety of fields, including journalists, educators, architects, consultants, and health care workers. Time and again, in our interactions with students and interviews with professionals, we’ve observed that people’s desire to pursue careers aligned with their moral values is often central to their decisions about which jobs to pursue and which ones to forgo.
Having a “moral career” means doing work that allows one to enact their moral values — in other words, work that aligns with shared understandings of what’s right and good. Actually charting a moral career, however, can be challenging. Internal organizational changes as well as uncontrollable socioeconomic shocks can interfere with people’s abilities to build moral careers. For instance, in times of economic uncertainty, people must navigate immediate problems like increased cost of living and threats of layoffs, which may in turn require them to make painful trade-offs about the kind of work they do. This was the case for journalists we studied, for whom the precarity of the industry threatened their search for jobs that would allow them to live out their moral value to “tell the truth to society.”
Through our teaching and research, we’ve gleaned some key lessons about how people can pursue careers that allow them to live out their moral values. These center on tuning into moral reckonings, questioning rules about what kind of work is morally “pure,” and seeking communities that share your moral values. Here’s how to put those strategies to work if you’re embarking on your own moral career journey.
1. Tune into revelations about the morality of your work.
Professionals often experience moral reckonings: transformational moments that wake us up to misalignments between what we’re doing and who we want to be. These reckonings can emerge in the wake of pivotal personal or social events. For example, one person recalled that living through Hurricane Katrina while studying to be an architect had been a “wake-up call” that shaped his career trajectory:
I was studying architecture, doing all this theoretical work in a beautiful Richardson Romanesque building that was 120 years old on a [university] campus uptown. At the same time, the city had no infrastructure, and there were piles of trash and bodies still surfacing in homes. I really started to feel a visceral disconnect between what we were studying as perfectly envisioned environments for people and then the realities of what had happened and what was happening with the city of New Orleans.
People can also become attuned to moral contradictions as they perform their duties within their organizations. For instance, one nurse we spoke with pointed out that some of the hospital practices that keep the lights on, such as VIP treatment of hospital donors, also promote disparities in equitable health care treatment. Such realizations can accumulate and prompt people come to see the work they do as incompatible with their desire to build a moral career.
Whether triggered by an acute event or a slowly building realization, these moments of revelation can be ambiguous and therefore a source of discomfort and distraction. Our first instinct in the face of discomfort is often to look away, in part because addressing the reckoning might require challenging the status quo. Yet building a moral career requires that you notice, turn toward, and address the discomfort in order to figure out how to shift your career in a moral direction. And indeed, many of the professionals we studied were able to face this discomfort.
2. Question “purity” rules.
Addressing the discomfort that arises from moral reckonings often requires identifying and questioning “purity rules”: shared views about what kind of work — and what kind of job — is morally right. Every professional community shares such a set of rules. Among journalists, for example, jobs in traditional news organizations are often regarded as “pure” because the organizations align themselves with the moral value of telling the unbiased truth about current events. Indeed, The Washington Post’s slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” attaches clear moral meaning to the work its employees do.
The central assumption behind purity rules is that we should be willing to sacrifice aspects of our personal lives and deprioritize our needs in order to take morally “pure” jobs. For journalists, the personal sacrifice is often salary. One veteran reporter we interviewed explained the trade-off between a moral career and financial stability: “You’re telling the truth. You’re not spinning. You’re trying to be fair in your work. You didn’t choose your career to make money. That’s why I took a pay cut to move to [a news organization].” But not all personal sacrifices are monetary. For instance, the charter school educators we studied forfeited personal time to dedicate themselves to their students’ success. And in one study, international aid workers reported sacrificing stable personal relationships in service of their work.
Over time, it’s difficult to keep making these sacrifices. Our work suggests that, in the long term, many people question their fields’ generally accepted purity rules and moral status quo and find other creative ways to fulfill their moral values. For example, several journalists we studied decided they were exploited by traditional news media outlets and found nontraditional jobs where they felt they could do work that aligned with their moral values and required fewer personal costs. Some joined universities and research organizations, while others started their own news outlets. In departing from the moral status quo, however, people often find that they have to change the community they look to for moral guidance and validation.
3. Seek communities that share your moral values.
As the examples above show, our moral values and their accompanying trade-offs can be out of alignment with our own career goals. But people are often slow to make a change because they fear that their colleagues and employers will disapprove of their desire to step away from the status quo career. Our research suggests that often, to truly build careers aligned with our moral values, we need to be willing to reconsider whom we seek guidance and validation from. In particular, we need to seek out people who support both our careers and our moral values.
We found that professionals who stay in their jobs but challenge the moral status quo are often in need of validation and assurance from outside of work. For example, a NICU nurse who did not change jobs following her moral reckoning mentioned that she often turns to her husband or best friend for reassurance and centering when she grapples with moral dilemmas around issues of patient care, rather than her colleagues at the hospital.
In addition, professionals who depart from traditional career trajectories to pursue moral values often find themselves looking outside their workplaces for moral support. Journalists who struck out on their own as freelancers, for instance, described how building a career aligned with their moral values often required looking to the public and their readers for validation that their work was moral, not within their industry.
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The landscape of work is changing, yet people’s aspiration to build careers with moral value remains constant. While doing so is difficult, it’s also worthwhile: Our careers take up an enormous amount of our time and energy, and it’s essential to feel that we’re creating careers aligned with our moral values. Our work suggests that people can hold onto their moral values while building careers by staying attuned to moments of moral reckoning, questioning common purity rules, and being willing to change to whom they turn for validation.