What exactly is a good job?

It’s easy to see that quality of life often starts with a good job. But defining what constitutes a good job is complex. Can we say exactly what makes a job “good”?

Defining and designing good jobs requires more than checking boxes.

It’s easy to see that quality of life often starts with a good job.

For example, in the coming weeks, another cohort of students will graduate from high schools, community colleges, trade schools, and universities. Many of them will land that coveted first good job. Soon you’ll see them forming or growing families, investing in homes, saving for retirement, and maybe even starting their own side hustle or small business. They’ll be growing as people, tapping into their purpose, and enjoying their well-being.

The impact of a good job extends beyond that employee’s personal life, as well. The economic activity of someone with a good job contributes to the community overall as they buy goods and services, vote in elections, volunteer for causes, and contribute to civic life. The same goes for the success of the company where they work. And how they feel about themselves at the end of the workday contributes to the quality of their family and other relationships.

This good job phenomenon might be easy to see, but defining what constitutes a good job is complex. Can we say exactly what makes a job “good”?

The Good Jobs Institute (GJI) says that good jobs meet the basic and higher needs of the employee.

Basic needs include pay and benefits, schedules, career paths, and security and safety. These basic needs can be quantified. GJI even offers a free Good Jobs Scorecard for you to evaluate your job or company.

Higher needs include achievement, recognition, belonging, meaningfulness, and personal growth. These subjective areas are not included in the scorecard.

Likewise, JUST Capital also offers a scorecard for grading jobs. Their categories include hiring, wages and compensation, training and development, stability and hours, health and safety, benefits, and workforce composition. Each one of these seven categories has multiple verifiable data points that contribute to the overall score.

The Just Capital scorecard also includes an eighth category, Worker Experience. Like the higher needs of the GJI model, it is an effort to capture some of the qualitative elements of a good job and it is “an important part of assessing JUST jobs,” but it, too, doesn’t quite complete the definition.

Scorecards like those from Good Jobs Institute and JUST Capital are critical for measuring job quality, which is crucial for organizations that want to improve the quality of their jobs and that seek to establish a link between investments in workers and the returns on business performance. After all, companies might believe that they are providing good jobs without looking at what evidence supports that belief. And as the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed.

However, it seems clear that not everything about a good job can be easily quantified and compared across companies and industries.

Addressing the higher needs and work experience of an employee is also relative to the specific employee. Your experience and needs will be different from mine.

Employee survey tools such as Great Place to Work, Lattice, Glint, and Culture Amp try to get at these qualitative areas by asking employees about belonging, trust, pride, camaraderie, and other subjective topics. Self-reported survey data is helpful, but it, too, doesn’t quite craft a precise definition.

In defining a good job, as with many things related to human relations, the answer is “it depends.” A good job depends on meeting an individual employee’s personal needs and preferences beyond the quantifiable. It looks different from person to person, company to company, region to region, and industry to industry.

One person’s flexible schedule may be another person’s intolerable chaos. Comfortable job security for one person might drive another to boredom and disengagement.

It can even be different for the same person at different stages of their working life.

In today’s tight labor market, designing good jobs might seem to be all about attracting and retaining the scarce, critical talent needed to run a successful business. More recently, it has provided many workers with increased leverage and “voice,” helping to restore some of the balance in an employer-employee relationship that increasingly tilted towards employers for much of the past forty years. But even with labor being in higher demand, employees need to remember that good jobs are those that work for the employer as well.

It’s still true that a company needs to make a profit from the workforce it employs. A company that pays its workforce more in terms of tangibles and intangibles than it receives through productivity and profitability will soon be out of business.

Going out of business is the opposite of the secure and stable employment called for on good job scorecards. Moreover, research also demonstrates that employees experience a sense of improved job quality when they feel like they are achieving shared goals with their employer. In short, alignment of interests and purpose are necessary for employees and employers to both be successful and they also contribute to what makes a job “good.” This philosophy was the basis for the founding of my organization, Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources (IRC4HR), by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1926.

To design good jobs, scorecards and employee surveys are necessary but insufficient. Employers need to be curious about and empathetic with the needs of their specific workforce and the communities from which they draw that workforce. This requires that managers and leaders build actual relationships with the people who work for them, relationships that enable honest discussions about needs and experience, which drive the iterative process of good job design for individuals, and support performance across teams and organization networks.

Managers, leaders, and workers would be advised to study Rob Cross’ and Rebecca Garau’s work on the network strategies of successful people, as well as Rob’s work with Jean Singer on the relational drivers of well-being (research funded by IRC4HR).

Rob and his colleagues find that networks contribute to the subjective sense of thriving. Successful people make network investments that create and support a sense of purpose in their work. They are conscious about developing their social network outside of work as well, which helps them gain perspective and foster well-being.

Networks also contribute to better on-the-job execution and thus support quantifiable aspects of a good job. Successful people engage their network for help in creating innovative solutions to problems and challenges. Their network also helps them scale their accomplishments, in part through the informal influence they develop across teams and functions. Creating and scaling innovative solutions for the company should translate into quantifiable benefits of pay and advancement as well as the higher subjective needs for achievement, recognition, belonging, meaningfulness, and personal growth.

Collectively, this picture of excelling at work while enjoying more and better relationships in and out of the office looks a lot like a good job.

Employees, employers, and the communities they inhabit have much to gain from good jobs. Scorecards and employee surveys are necessary tools in the good jobs design process. But organizations need to go further and create a culture that supports the honest, trusting relationships and the alignment of interests that form the foundation for the good jobs that benefit everyone.

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.