Applying a values framework in career decisions

red flagRed Flag by Ben Sutherland

Understanding your personal and professional values can be a really useful tool for making career decisions and figuring out the suitability of a job, team, boss or workplace. You can use values as a framework for thinking about questions such as, “What kind of company culture will I thrive in?” or “Why am I unhappy in my current position?” or “Should I accept this job offer?” and pretty much any other big, important career questions you might be asking yourself.

Recently, I have been working with my amazing career coach Tracey Lovejoy to think about my job search from the perspective of personal and professional values, instead of just using a list of specific criteria that I consider ideal, nice-to-have or just flat out avoidable. This has allowed me to more clearly articulate and understand my needs and preferences in a broader way so that I stay open to the possibilities of how they might be met and feel more confident in my decisions.

Identifying your values

If you’re trying to identify your own values, there’s a couple places where you can start. You can begin with specific examples of what you like and don’t like in a job, boss, team or company, and reflect on the good and bad experiences and interactions you’ve had during your career, then extrapolate your values from there (note: if you’re a UX or qualitative researcher, this will be right up your alley!) In my own career thinking in the past, I’ve worked from a solid list of needs, preferences and expectations that have evolved over time as I’ve gone on my career. I used this, plus some recent experiences, to come up with my list of overarching values. For example, I like having lots of different projects to work on, the freedom to make decisions without always having approval, support from my manager, the ability to draw from and grow my skills, and consistency and ethics in decision making. To me, this indicates that I value variety, autonomy, empowerment, guidance, growth/reflection, and integrity.

For others, it might be easier to come up with a list of values that resonate deep down, and then a list of related examples (whether experienced or hypothetical.) So, if you value security, then job stability (e.g., a stable, successful company and industry) might be a requirement in your job search. If you value your health and well being, then you may not want to continue working 70 hours a week. If you value excellence, find out if you will have the resources you need to do your job well.

Then what?

After you figure out your values, it’s important to decide which ones are non-negotiable, and which ones you’re willing to bend – or let go of altogether for the right reasons. This was one of the hardest parts for me to do outright, so I decided to evaluate the circumstances of a decisions I needed to make on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the situation you’re evaluating or the decision you’re trying to make, things may change a bit. There are definitely some values on my list that are must-haves; in fact, I think everyone should have at least a few that they are not willing to give up, no matter what. Values are part of our moral compass, after all. Then there are others that are less of a priority but should still be represented to some extent. For example, maybe you’re willing to take less money for a job if in exchange you get to do the most meaningful work of your life. One thing that is important to remember in all of this is that it’s hard to find an employer or job (or boss or group of colleagues) that will meet all of them fully, so you have to be willing to make compromises.

Putting the values framework into practice with career decisions

If you’re trying to evaluate your current job situation, use this framework to identify examples of the things that are working well and the things you want to change. If whatever you’re evaluating doesn’t meet at least half of your values (and therefore needs, preferences and expectations), then it might be time to address the situation/consider making a change. If you are looking for a job, you can reference your values in a couple of ways: 1) ask questions directly about the things you care about the most (e.g., during interviews and conversations with people who used to work at the company), and 2) look for context clues during the same interactions for the things you care about but can’t or don’t feel comfortable asking about directly. Once in an interview I was taking a few notes as the manager talked about the position. Out of nowhere, he demanded that I put down the pen and and stop taking notes. That was enough for me to know that he was probably a control freak; I didn’t need to ask him about it outright. In another interview, all six of the employees typed every one of my answers into their computers, which illustrated an inflexible culture that negatively affected human interaction and empathy. Anyway, you get the idea. Another way to make use of your values in a job search is when you are looking at online reviews of the company and the company’s website, though this secondary information should always be considered within context (i.e., with a grain of salt).

Making big life decisions is difficult, but it can be made less difficult if you employ a good set of tools and resources along the way. Ultimately what has been most useful for me is relying on a combination of my intuitive feelings around a job, company or decision as well as a logical analysis of the pros, cons and overall implications for me and my career. This approach has increased my confidence and optimism, even during the toughest and most complex decisions, like my recent choice to leave my job and subsequently to not accept the first job offer that came to me just a few days later.

A couple final thoughts: clarity around decisions like these does not often come quickly or without a lot of effort and patience, but trust me, it will happen! And, being able to separate the thing/person you are evaluating from the decision itself is crucial – i.e., what values are being dishonored in this relationship? What values will be met if I work at this company? What values can I maintain if I make X decision versus Y decision? I definitely see these as different but inherently related, and equally important throughout the evaluation and decision making process.


One thought on “Applying a values framework in career decisions

  1. I really like this post A LOT. Too often I find that we try to fit ourselves into someone else’s box without every really seeing what our box is all about.

    I was sitting one day a bunch of years ago trying to figure out why I had grown out of the job I had at the time. I took a simple Meyers-Briggs type test, and saw that my results (INFP) were exactly as they had been for years. But then I looked at the favored careers for the INFP type and saw that everything I was doing at the job I had grown out of was exactly the type of position I was not suited for. Everything I was suited for were things I wanted to do, or did as hobbies. I changed the equation.

    I now ask students to list their 10 “ideal” jobs they could have today. We then figure out how to morph most of those ideals into a single position. Then the task is to obtain the education and skill set that makes one competitive for that position. The process of getting their can/should be a lifetime experience, can shift, bend, change through time, but is certainly an exciting and rewarding process.

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