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How can human resources researchers help employees find, develop, and enjoy their work passions? And should they?


What does it look like when employees are doing something they love? Human resource (HR) practitioners talk about wanting happy workers, but many of these dedicated professionals wonder if unanimous employee happiness is even possible. Many of them believe that if employees love their jobs and organisations, then these employees will stay with their organisations and maybe even have higher job performance than if they did not love their job. However, employees come to organisations with a wide variety of predetermined likes and dislikes; making it virtually impossible for company-wide policies to please everyone. As a result, HR policies and practices are not designed with a primary emphasis on matching employees with their dream jobs (jobs about which employees are passionate). Oftentimes, HR policies are designed to set minimum standards of behaviour and/or satisfy legal requirements, and how passionate could that be? This article reviews some of the organisational behaviour research on work passion (WP) and presents ideas about how HR researchers might explore WP, for better or for worse.


WP is part of a growing body of research around positive organisational behaviour. This area of research studies how positive attitudes and behaviours can improve organisation and individual level work outcomes (Hackman, 2009). It seeks to understand how work-related outcomes (for example, job/work satisfaction) may improve non-work constructs such as life satisfaction (Erdogan, Bauer, Truxillo & Mansfield, 2012). Through this research, WP has been related to a plethora of wonderful outcomes.

A review of the literature shows that multiple definitions of WP are being used. In one definition of WP, people have a vocation or a calling to do a particular type of work. These terms, vocation and calling, have religious origins are described as "work that is done to fulfil a summons from God" (Dalton, 2001). This external and unseen source (for example, God) compels people to work in a particular field or at a specific location or company. The definitions of vocation and calling have evolved over time to include more secular language. They now focus more on contributing to society and going beyond individual good rather than strictly being directions from a god (Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin & Schwartz, 1997).

Other definitions of WP focus on a sense of personal fulfilment or meaningfulness from the work (Cardon, 2008; Duffy & Sedlacek, 2007; Hall & Chandler, 2005; Vallerand et al., 2003; Dobrow & Tosti-Kharas, 2011; Kinjersk & Skrypnek, 2006; Vallerand & Houlfort, 2003). Vallerand et al. (2003) identified two forms of WP: harmonious and obsessive. They observed that WP can result in many positive organisational and personal outcomes, but only if the passionate employee retains control over his or her passion. They defined employees with harmonious passion as those who freely chose an activity as important and participate in this activity so that it does not interfere with other aspects of their lives. Employees with harmonious passion are able to choose when to engage in particular tasks/behaviors and, more importantly, when to stop engaging in these tasks/behaviors.

Obsessive passion occurs when employees are compelled by an internal force to engage in a task/behavior. Employees with obsessive passion cannot control their participation. They feel tasks must be completed and frequently ignore other aspects of their lives to do so. Obsessive passion relates to a more popular term, workaholism, that has been defined as someone who "feels driven or compelled to work, not because of external demands or pleasure in work, but because of inner pressures that make the person distressed or guilty about not working" (Spence and Robbins, 1992, p.161). Burke (1999) expanded on this definition and created six typologies of workaholism. Two of these: workaholics and enthusiastic workaholics seem very similar to Vallerand et al.'s (2003) obsessive and harmonious passions, respectively. A key distinction between the passionate employee and the workaholic is that the workaholic no longer feels enjoyment from his or her job (Philippe, Vallerand & Lavigne, 2009).

Two constructs related to, but distinct from WP, include work engagement (Kahn, 1990) and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Both these constructs are likely to be experienced by employees with WP, but WP will not be necessary for employees to experience them. Work engagement occurs when employees harness themselves to their jobs through their cognitive, emotional, and physical efforts (Kahn, 1990), or have vigor and dedication to a job (Salanova & Schaufeli, 2008), or are attentive and absorbed by the job (Rothbard, 2001). Engaged employees exert great physical, emotional, and cognitive efforts in the completion of their work and may exhibit proactive behaviors at work to overcome difficulties. Kahn (1990) suggests several employee traits and working conditions that may foster work engagement: quality interactions with others, psychological availability, self confidence, and meaningful work. An employee with WP should experience work engagement and its positive outcomes, but WP goes beyond work engagement such that passionate employees will experience feelings of joy in completing the work that may not be typical of work engagement.

Flow is a heightened sense of cognitive and physical activity where involvement in current actions block out all other inputs (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This differs from WP because flow focuses internally on physical and cognitive changes in a person that result directly from the work at hand, not the larger concept of the work. Flow does not incorporate the external sense of greater good or that a person was meant to do something. A person with WP may experience flow, but like work engagement, WP is not a pre-requisite for flow to occur.

Organisational behavior researchers who have studied WP find many positive outcomes related to it. For example, researchers using the Vallerand et al. (2003) definitions have found that harmonious passion is positively related to employees' positive affect, concentration levels, subjective wellbeing, work performance, fun at work, work satisfaction, higher quality interpersonal relationships with co-workers, and experiences of flow at work. Obsessive passion is positively related to work performance, negative affect, working hours outside of normal work days including holidays, conflict with other areas of life, and constantly thinking about work (Vallerand, Paquet, Philippe & Charest, 2010; Vallerand et al., 2003; Vallerand, 2010; Vallerand, 2008; Philippe et al., 2009; Philippe, Vallerand, Houlfort, Lavigne & Donahue, 2010; Mageau and Vallerand, 2007; Forest, Mageau, Sarrazin & Morin, 2011; Carbonneau, Vallerand, Fernet & Guay 2008; Burke and Fiksenbaum, 2009). Additionally, it appears gender may be relevant to this discussion as women workaholics seem to experience higher levels job stress than their male workaholic counterparts (Burke, 1999).

Researchers employing the broader definitions of callings or vocations found employees with a sense of calling or vocation have higher subjective and objective job success (Hall & Chandler, 2005), higher life satisfaction (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997), higher coping skills for work-family tensions (Oates, Hall & Anderson, 2005), lower levels of stress (Burke & Fiksenbaum, 2009), and lower depression (Treadgold, 1999). These findings taken together with research on harmonious and obsessive passions suggest that employees who describe themselves as passionate about their work for the most part benefit greatly (Wrzesniewski, 2003).

Who are these lucky people going to work energised and excited to be there every day? Organisational behavior researchers have looked at that too. They have found some individual level characteristics, religious commitment (Davidson & Caddell, 1994), extraversion (Gubman, 2004), and behavioral involvement (Dobrow, 2007) are related to employees being passionate about their work.

Beyond individual characteristics, HR researchers and practitioners should be interested in the growing body of research that suggests organisational interventions may be able to increase employees' WPs. Cardon's (2008) research shows that transformational leaders may be able to impart their passions about an organisation to other employees. Helping employees discover their signature strengths and asking them to use these regularly at work has been shown to increase harmonious passion and psychological well being in employees (Forest, Mageau, Crevier-Braud, Bergeron, Dubreuil & Lavigne, 2012). Providing employees autonomy in crafting their jobs and decision-making may increase their level of WP (Brickson, 2011; Berg, Grant & Johnson 2010; Liu, Chen & Yao 2011). Opportunities for employees to share thoughts and ideas about work with others who share their interests also can increase WP (Neumann, 2006). Zigarmi, Nimon, Houson, Witt, and Diehl (2011) and Zigarmi and Nimon (2011) suggest that if HR professionals encouraged positive emotions in work environments, employees' propensity for WP would increase. These organisational-level research efforts explore factors, such as organisational culture and leadership, that may alter employees' WPs. This should be encouraging to HR professionals because these studies show that interventions can improve employees' WPs, rather than just relying upon employee traits that are largely unalterable.

Organisational behaviour researchers have found quite a number of benefits for employees with WP. Unfortunately, very little research clearly identifies the HR policies and practices that could foster WP or squelch it. HR researchers could add significantly to the WP research by identifying specific HR policies and practices and their boundary conditions; which could subsequently help organisations develop employees' WPs and maintain them throughout their careers. The remainder of this paper explores avenues HR researchers could follow to aid employees in finding their WPs and to help those employees who have already found it. The paper also speculates about the potential downsides that actively pursuing WP in employees through HR policies and practices may have.


What benefits to employees and organisations could HR researchers contribute by examining WP? I believe that great potential exists for HR practitioners to assist employees in finding work that they love, that challenges them, and that adds meaning to their lives. Assuming the organisational behaviour researchers are correct, wonderful outcomes can come from employing people who are passionate about their work. HR researchers should be asking some pretty important questions about how to instil, foster, and protect these passions through HR policies and practices in all the functional areas of HR.

Recruiting and selecting

Consider the recruiting process. Charged with finding and attracting the best employees to an organisation, recruiting has extraordinary potential to infuse an organisation with talented and passionate employees (Vallerand & Houlfort, 2003). Recruiting research focuses on what types of recruiting messages and what recruiting sources will attract high quality applicants (Barber, 1998). In most cases, quality applicants are those applicants with the technical skills to do the job, but may not necessarily have other individual characteristics that might contribute to job performance such as WP. It seems likely, however, that job applicants who would be passionate about a job might read recruiting messages with a different perspective than job applicants who are looking for jobs just to pay their bills. Perhaps passionate job applicants read recruiting messages primarily for information about the job tasks and duties and the mission of the organisation. The non-passionate job applicants may read the job tasks and duties, but may focus more attention on the compensation and benefits information contained in the message.

When considering where to find job applicants, common sources include online ads (such as company websites, social media sites, professionally targeted job boards and professional associations' online job boards) and less technology driven approaches (such as employee referrals, walk-in applicants, and government unemployment offices). Organisations wanting to recruit passionate employees should like to know if passionate applicants favour some sources more than others. For example, walk-in applicants may have a particular interest in the mission of the organisation which has motivated them to apply even if the organisation has not posted a job vacancy (Breaugh & Starke, 2000). WP may be the difference between actual applicants willing to walk-in to a company and apply for a perhaps non-existent vacancy, and potential applicants who do not apply. Applicants who apply through ads through their professional associations may be more committed to a profession than those recruited from other sources, because their membership in these professional associations indicates a higher level of commitment to a profession than non-members. This raises a question: Is WP solely related to a job or can it also, as others have already suggested (Shamir, 1991), have professional and/or organisational level components? If these multiple levels of WP exist, how do we measure them distinctly and which levels are most influenced by HR policies and practices?

Moving further into the hiring process, how would an organisation select passionate employees? Some organisations hire employees primarily based upon specific personality traits (for example, outgoing and fun loving employees who are ready to help with anything even if it is not in their job description) with the idea that they can train these new hires on job tasks and duties. This method of selection, based primarily on personality traits rather than ability to perform job tasks, is not unheard of, but is atypical of most organisations. In an era where U.S. based employers are very sensitive to employment law mandates for job-related selection criteria, proving the legality of selecting on the basis of WP may be difficult. Some research has shown that actual ability to perform job tasks (that is, a legally defensible job related selection criteria) may not be related to the level of WP in an employee (Dobrow, 2007). Still, other research has found a link between WP and job performance (Ho, Wong & Lee, 2011). So an argument might be made that WP is a job-related trait.

In the broader context of staffing an entire organisation, exclusively recruiting and selecting passionate employees may sound desirable, but as with many things in life it is possible this could be too much of a good thing. HR researchers should investigate if there is an optimal mix of passionate and non-passionate employees. One complaint often lodged about passionate people is that they struggle to contain themselves and may travel a passionate path that does not result in anything or at least anything useful for the organisation (Jamison, 2004). For an organisation to be successful, someone should be monitoring the overall health of the organisation; assuring the work of passionate employees continues to meet the needs of their organisation, customers, and society. So what is the best mix of passionate and non-passionate employees to allow for maximum productivity and creativity from the passionate employees while maintaining the health of the organisation? Are there industry or organisational factors that would change this mix from industry to industry or between organisations in the same industry? The idea of passionate employees is often linked to individual contributor jobs in highly skilled professions (for example, research and development scientists), not to managers or lower skilled workers. Research on flow shows that workers in any capacity can experience flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990); so is WP really restricted to the select group of workers in skilled professions? Are managers and lower skilled workers more likely to experience passion for the organisational mission rather than the job? Many interesting and important staffing questions remain unanswered, but the research opportunities do not stop there.

Compensation and benefits

What methods of compensation are best suited to passionate employees? Some motivation research suggests that when external incentives are offered to employees with high intrinsic motivation for their tasks, their motivation for a task will actually decrease (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999). Still, performance-based pay remains overwhelmingly popular in U.S. organisations because behavioural research has shown convincingly that people will change their behaviours when faced with external incentives. This behavioural approach does not address changes in motivation from these incentives. What remains unclear is the role of WP in these studies. Perhaps passionate employees do not improve their behaviours when given external incentives because their performance is already high, but non-passionate employees do improve when incentivised. It will take empirical research to answer this question, but it seems possible that paying highly passionate people well, but not through performance-based pay systems (Vallerand and Houlfort, 2003), might be a better policy to maintain their intrinsic motivations.

Another compensation program to explore is stock options. Passionate employees may derive more than financial benefits from owning stock in a company that meets their personal goals, particularly if their WP is tied to the organisational mission. When the stock price of a much loved company increases, owners of that stock should derive some psychological benefits from knowing that a company with a good organisational mission or one that employs people in meaningful jobs is doing well.

One final thought on compensation pertains to the overall payroll of companies hiring many passionate employees. Passionate employees appear to have lower turnover and higher performance suggesting that they have higher salaries than average employees due to the combined effects of annual merit pay increases and not starting over in multiple companies. Do these organisations carry higher payrolls than their competitors because their passionate employees will be earning higher salaries than average employees in an industry? Presumably, the higher productivity levels of employees will offset the higher payroll expense, but does this really happen?

Employee benefits packages offer varied programs to reward passionate employees for their work. Would passionate employees be interested in different benefits than non-passionate employees? At a broad level, one can envision that passionate employees would look for more benefits related to training and professional development. Less passionate employees might be more concerned with career development and paid time off programs. Because passionate employees seem likely to be very self-directed in their work habits, policies encouraging flexible work schedules or even telecommuting might be seen as greater advantages for passionate employees than non-passionate employees.

One area of employee benefits that is beginning to see some research is paid time off. It appears that employees increase their levels of work engagement after having even short periods of time off from work (2 to 4 days) (Kuhnel, Sonnentag & Westman, 2009). If the process of fostering work engagement simultaneously fosters WP, then research regarding the use of alternative work schedules (such as compressed work weeks) might be an interesting avenue to explore. Also, HR policies that require employees to take all of their vacation time or lose it at the end of a fiscal year may give employees an excuse to get away from work and feel more refreshed upon their return, which in turn may help them embrace their WP.

The presence of WP may not impact the structure of health insurance or retirement benefits, but the utilisation of these benefits may change dramatically in the presence of WP. For example, research has shown a positive relationship between WP and emotional health (Philippe et al., 2009, Burke & Fiksenbaum, 2009). Because of the strong link between emotional and physical health, it is possible that organisations could lower their healthcare expenses by hiring passionate employees. When considering retirement, what might be the personal and business outcomes of passionate employees delaying their retirements? If passionate employees work longer, then the duration of their retirement years will be shorter; thus requiring lower retirement savings on their parts. Would employees' perceptions of the value of a good retirement program decline because they do not intend to use it much? Could organisations reduce their retirement offerings? Should these organisations develop phased retirement plans or part-time work programs for older workers to stay involved as they age?

Training and development

Training and development programs might have rich opportunities to foster WP. Think how much more effective training programs could be if organisations were training employees on things they actually wanted to know. HR professionals could design two tracks of training/development. The first track would be for employees who have identified their passions. These training programs would be designed to impart skills that would make employees even better at their jobs. These training programs would become progressively more complex so as to generate a depth of knowledge. The second track of development programs would focus on helping non-passionate employees find their passions. This effort might spend significant time in cross-training employees until they find their niche. Cross-training is not a new idea as many organisations employ rotation training programs to help specific groups of workers determine what area of an organisation they like best. An organisation explicitly developing WP may expand this cross-training program to include all employees still searching for their passions rather than restricting it to management trainees. Creating a corporate training program that lets employees chose the training they will attend and explicitly providing opportunities to practice new skills on the job could provide the right environment for instilling WP in employees (Mageau et al., 2009). Little yet is known about the precise process of how passions develop in people (Vallerand, 2008), but research in this area could greatly improve employee development efforts.

Once employees have found their passions, organisations may want to provide additional assistance to help employees manage themselves. The stark differences in outcomes for people experiencing harmonious and obsessive passions suggests that a high value should be placed on helping employees maintain a harmonious passion rather than developing an obsessive passion (Wendt, Tuckey & Prosser, 2011). Training could help with this. Making employees aware of the two types of passion, what distinguishes them from each other, and how to manage time, work efforts, and life expectations to ensure a healthy and harmonious passion would be useful.

Some research on the external forces that foster work engagement shows that supportive relationships with supervisors and co-workers contribute significantly to better work engagement (May, Gilson & Harter, 2004). If work engagement is closely linked to WP, then perhaps good communication skills and managerial skills training programs could foster WP by creating more cohesive and supportive work environments.

HR researchers could study the ROI of training and development efforts in companies with varying levels of passionate and non-passionate employees. If research shows that companies with higher levels of passionate employees financially gain more from their training efforts, this finding would support HR practitioners' efforts to assist employees in finding their passions.

Performance appraisal and management

The area of performance appraisal and performance management might be altered dramatically in organisations with high numbers of passionate employees. Passionate employees would have naturally high levels of motivation for their jobs. For those passionate employees with a high level of skill, performance appraisal may be unnecessary. Given the research on intrinsic motivation being squelched by external rewards, performance appraisal for this group might even be a hindrance. Possibly these organisations would gain greatly from performance management programs that focus on skill development rather than appraisal (Zigarmi et al., 2011). For passionate employees who are new to a field and do not have a high level of skill yet, this development approach may be particularly beneficial. Performance management programs can help new employees pinpoint their weaknesses and provide opportunities to hone their crafts.

Mentoring programs with an objective of fostering WP may deserve exploring. Typically, mentoring programs are designed to help employees develop organisational specific knowledge that cannot be acquired through employee handbooks. Organisational culture and norms are transmitted to newer employees by those employees with more experience in the organisation. These mentors introduce new employees to networks of people and other employees, relay information about unspoken norms, expectations for performance, and interactions with others in the firm. Since mentoring relationships exist for longer periods of time than most training programs, these relationships provide good opportunities for mentors to watch the mentees' performance and have ongoing discussions about their true interests or passions. Moreover, the mentors' greater knowledge of the scope of the organisations should allow them to identify opportunities for the new employees that fit with their passions.


Retention of these passionate and valuable employees would provide a sustainable competitive advantage to any firm. What working conditions or factors would entice a passionate employee to stay with a particular organisation? Do the typical inducements of higher salaries, better hours, and richer benefit packages work for these employees? It seems plausible that organisational culture may have a higher impact on passionate employees than non-passionate employees. Passionate employees have dedicated themselves to a field of interest or an organisational mission they value. Their higher commitment to the work may lower the importance they place on aspects of work like compensation and benefits, even to their detriment (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009). It may heighten their sensitivities to how their organisations address challenges in their field of work. For example, a medical doctor may be willing to earn less salary from a hospital if the doctor knows that the hospital is using these resources to acquire new equipment or additional staff that will improve the services the doctor can offer to his or her patients.

Retention of passionate employees should be a goal of organisations. What about the employees whose WPs are towards other organisations? What benefits might accrue to organisations that actively place their good workers with other organisations because the second organisation works in an area that is a better fit for an employee's WP? What would be the value of the goodwill created in employees to these organisations that recognised their WP and helped them find better organisations to work in? If employees went to supplier or customer firms, could there be added business brought to the first organisation because of strong network ties? Would employees refer friends and family members to the first organisation because of their positive experiences there? HR researchers could assist the HR practitioner community quite a lot by answering such questions.


Popular press has portrayed WP as a boon to businesses and as a benefit for employees working with passion (King, 2005). But some researchers warn about a dark side of employees working with passion (Vallerand et al., 2010). First, what happens when an employee works for an organisation committed to creating and/or fostering employee WP? One potential outcome of this strong organisational message is that employees might adopt a passion that they do not really have in order to continue their employment relationships. Faking WP may come with many professional and personal/psychological costs. Another concern about fostering WP is that once an organisation knows its employees are passionate about their jobs, what will the company do? Some research suggest that organisations might exploit these WPs to get more work from employees without commensurate benefits (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009).

Vallerand et al's (2003, 2008) work shows that the obsessive passion can result in negative outcomes for employees. Is it the responsibility of the supervisors or the HR professionals in organisations to try and protect employees from themselves by watching for signs that employees' WPs have started having negative consequences in employees' lives? Traditionally, in the U.S., the answer to this question would be a resounding "no". However, if the company has explicitly encouraged the development of this WP, then is the company not also responsible for helping the employees manage their WPs in a safe manner?

Is it even fair for an organisation to ask employees for their whole selves at work? WP incorporates not only the technical skills of the employees, but also their emotions and spirit. When has an organisation asked too much of its employees? How would an organisation know if an employee has given so much of herself that she can no longer perform effectively other daily life activities?


The area of WP holds much promise for improving the working lives of many employees and their organisations. HR researchers and professionals should try to learn what parts of WP can be encouraged and protected through HR policies and programs, while being vigilant that WP is not used as a tool against employees. Opportunities abound for HR researchers to explore how the policies and practices used in organisations foster or squash employees' WPs. It is an area ready for study and an area that has great potential for creating positive changes in employees and organisations.


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Jannifer David

University of Minnesota Duluth
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Author:David, Jannifer
Publication:International Employment Relations Review
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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